Chelsea Green Publishing

Chelsea Green Blog

They Don’t Make Pyramids Like They Used To

Whenever I see or hear the term “food pyramid,” I imagine a bunch of sandblasted archaeologists opening up an ancient sarcophagus, and discovering a stash of Doritos that’s been buried and forgotten for three thousand years. Thanks to sodium benzoate and BHT, they haven’t changed a bit. They’re perfectly edible. Somebody in khaki shorts sends out for a case of Diet Coke on ice, and a good time is had by all. I bring this up because of a recent report on the Web site of Progressive Grocer: The Comprehensive Source for Food Retailers (nothing yet from The Associated Press or The Washington Post, unless I missed it) that the California Olive Industry has been surveying consumers about how well they understand the new “Food Pyramid” that was unveiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in April. (I could wax philosophical about the disposability mindset of a culture that throws away entire pyramids, but never mind.) The old pyramid, often described as a piece of “one-size-fits-all” nutritional architecture, has been replaced by a slightly more complicated one that takes into account such factors as age, overall physical health, etc. A detailed description of the new pyramid (technically, the new “Food Guidance System”) can be found at — a site described by the U.S.D.A. as an “online dietary and physical activity assessment tool.” (I Googled www.yourpyramidandyoucanhaveit and got “The page cannot be displayed.” This portends many sleepless nights.) The new pyramid includes vertical stripes in six different colors — as opposed to the old pyramid, which went for a more horizontal look. (Any good fashion designer can tell you that horizontal stripes add at least ten pounds, which you’d think a food pyramid would want to avoid. Evidently the new pyramid has been getting some more savvy sartorial input.) According to USAgnet, (the source cited by the olive growers, this turns out to be a “Daily Source for Minnesota Ag & Farm News Markets, Weather, Auctions and Real Estate,” whose home page includes a snappy ad for the Schweiss Hydraulic Bi-Fold Overhead Door System), 75 percent of respondents knew about the new guidelines, but only 27 percent said their knowledge of it was “good.” Among nutritionists, 72 percent called their knowledge of it “good”; 28 percent called their knowledge “average.” Home cooks fared poorly; only 20 percent admitted they knew much about it. “Food service professionals” had a combined “good/average” rating of 88 percent — which means, among other things, that more than one person in 10 in that profession is self-admittedly clueless. About 66 percent of those surveyed have made no dietary changes in response to the new guidelines, but 68 said they plan to give it a shot. Chefs, at 76 percent, expressed inclination to revise their diets, led the pack. To its credit, the new pyramid incorporates updated information based on the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which place renewed emphasis on the importance of whole grains, healthful fats, fruits and vegetables. It also urges us also to cut down on added sugar, saturated fat and trans fatty acids. But it leaves out a lot. I typed “organic” into MyPyramid’s internal search engine, and got nine hits — each of which took me to a lengthy report with the literary density of depleted uranium. If you want to learn anything about organic foods in readable form, is not the place to go. I typed “locally grown” — and, to my surprise, got 109 hits “sorted by relevance” (highly subjective, that). The reading matter to which I was directed was similarly opaque, and had little or nothing to say about the merits of locally grown produce. I typed “bioengineering.” Nothing. I typed “genetically engineered”: two hits, one of which, a U.S.D.A. report, noted briefly that the term made some people nervous. I clicked on it, and was taken on wings of Adobe Reader to page 66 of “Journal Abstracts” — which were described as “reprinted verbatim as they appear in the cited source.” My self-discipline failed me; I did not read on. Typing “agribusiness” took me to a 30-page “Discussion Paper on National Security,” which referred to “agribusiness” three times, solely in the context of the overall subject matter. I typed Monsanto. Nothing. Hmmm. Disheartened as usual, I hereby humbly call to the attention of the mainstream media the following books, readily available from you-know-whom: Garden Seed Inventory; Holy Cows and Hog Heaven; Hidden Dangers in Kids’ Foods and Seeds of Deception DVD and Book Set; Fed Up! Genetic Engineering, Industrial Agriculture and Sustainable Alternatives; The Artful Eater; The Bread Builders; and The Whole Foods Companion. There’s much more, of course, at the Chelsea Green Web site. Check it out. You’ll thank me later.

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