Carving Out the Meaning of the USDA's "My Plate"

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Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: The food pyramid is out. Today, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture officially replaced its symbol of healthy eating. Say hello to My Plate. The new symbol is as the name suggests, shaped like a dinner plate. It's divided into quadrants. USDA officials think it's a better way to convey nutritional guidelines to people than the old food pyramid. Nicola Twilley writes a blog called Edible Geography. It's about food, design and culture. She's now in San Diego. What's your own reaction to this new My Plate symbol?

Nicola Twilley: I'm pretty impressed actually. They've eliminated fats, sugars, and oils, and by using a plate you can start talking about portion size and also eating practices -- eating full meals rather than snacks.

Mullins: And what's on the plate?

Twilley: Proteins, vegetables, fruits, and grains. The dairy is a circle, which implies that it's a glass of milk actually maybe, or a yogurt cup, not a slice of cheese.

Mullins: Now, I know you've done research into the symbols that other countries use to represent nutritional guidelines. Compare this plate, My Plate, to some of the others you see elsewhere.

Twilley: Well, Germany has a very interesting pyramid, but they've made it a 3-dimensional pyramid, with the base of the pyramid talking about proportions and then either side talking about plants, animals, fats, beverages. There's some other countries that do pyramids too. Japan does one. They invert it. China has a pagoda for its food guidelines. And then a lot of other countries do do a circle or plate format; the UK, Netherlands, Norway.

Mullins: And you have a slideshow, a pretty interesting one, of some of these other countries' guidelines and their graphics. We're gonna link to in fact, at theworld.org. Curious to us that one of the countries in the slideshow was Greece, where you note that olive oil gets an entire level of its own on the food pyramid, and that the chart seems to show red wine as being equally important as exercise. Is that a cultural thing? Is that a sign that the red wine lobby in Greece is alive and well?

Twilley: I think it's a cultural thing. The nutritional guidelines and the design presentation are both very culturally different in different places. Spain also has a separate section for olive oil and rates it as important as fruits and vegetables in the diet. The French do prescribe two glasses of wine daily for women, three for men, which you would expect. The Swiss have a rather charming approach to the foods that are usually at the tip of the pyramid, the fats and sugars, they say consumer carefully, but with pleasure -- which I quite like.

Mullins: This is soda, and cake, and chips, you gotta love the Swiss. You'd think that fondue would be in there someplace, but maybe that's in the dairy section.

Twilley: Yeah, they are actually pro-cheese on their pyramid. They have an interesting approach. Some countries include beverages. The Swiss put water at the very base of their pyramid, so that should be the thing that you consume the most of.

Mullins: So what guides what the symbols look like and most importantly, what they contain? Because we should say that the emphasis on the new American My Plate symbol is simplicity, but really the politics that go into what's on the plate or on the pyramid are anything but simple.

Twilley: Yeah, the business of recommending certain foods to people and recommending other foods that they don't eat is fraught. In the U.S. traditionally the government is freely able to say eat more of something, eat more vegetables. What is harder is saying eat less, red meat, for example, or salt; that gets you know, the Salt Institute or the red meat lobby very upset. So in the UK there's an ongoing debate about the place of potatoes. Are they a vegetable, are they a grain? And powerful producer and farming lobbies are behind those, which usually have more money to spend than the physicians' committees that are advocating reduction.

Mullins: Nicola Twilley writes the Edible Geography blog. We're gonna make a link on our website at theworld.org. Thanks, Nicola.

Twilley: Thanks, Lisa.