The lies of the nutritional pyramid: from pedagogical tool to corporate battleground

Eating is difficult. For millions of years, human beings ate in community. Learning by trial and error how to take better advantage of the resources that the earth gave us (either by their own free will or after working it long and hard). In those community cultures, of lost towns, hidden abbeys and centuries-old traditions, there was everything we knew about eating to be strong and healthy.

Normally, there were many things wrong. Skinner studied enough superstitious behavior in pigeons to know that mere chance leads our heads, family and society of empty rituals and attempts to manage our own anxiety. But suddenly, that is over.

Learn to eat again

However, the 19th century was a shot in the middle of a concert. Industrialization processes raged and hundreds of thousands of people left their homes to make a future for themselves. They took many things with them, but many other things stayed at home.

Between the unhealthy urban planning of the industrial colonies, the endless hours of work and the shreds of traditional social networks, men and women had to learn to cook again. It was not easy.

In 1894, the United States Department of Agriculture, seeing the disaster at hand, published the country's first official diet. Virtually nothing was known about nutrition at the time, but malnutrition and dietary health problems were becoming endemic.

The Department chose to do something with what little they had. Very soon after, the interest in the food that was consumed began to grow and the first decades of the 20th century saw the birth of the first modern food control agencies worldwide.

The geometry of the feeding

In 1940, the restrictions of war caused some countries to start creating "food circles". They were simple schemes that allowed explaining to the population which food groups were essential to have a healthy and balanced diet. The most successful was the “basic four” model that proposed a diet based primarily on (1) fruits and vegetables, (2) dairy products, (3) meat and protein, and (4) cereals.

In the 1970s, in the midst of an upward crisis in food prices, the Swedish government launched a very similar program focused on explaining what "basic" foods were and what "complementary" foods were. Basically, they were systems very similar to those already used by half a planet

Anna Britt Agnsäter of the Kooperativa Förbundet (Swedish Cooperative Union) realized that both the basic 4 system and the new government system had a big problem: they did not say how much to consume of each product (or group of they).

Thus was born the alimentaria food pyramid ’. A fast, effective and easy way to convey the basics of food. And, almost immediately, his success was brutal. It was something capable of intervening in people's diets.

So much so that it became the battleground of a huge fight between researchers, governments and producers. For the food industry, the pyramid was not only a matter of public health, but it was an aid (or harm) to the government. I am not surprising anyone if I say that it ended up filling her with problems.

A battlefield

The best example is the first pyramid that was officially developed by the US government in 1992. Unlike the Swedish pyramid, it had a specific section for dairy. The intention of this section was to convey that, in one way or another, dairy was necessary for a good diet.

Something that, after childhood, is questionable. Many cultures are, even today, mostly lactose intolerant and their consumption of dairy is almost non-existent. This does not mean that their diets are unhealthy. Like that there are many examples: sugars, carbohydrates, fats ... The pyramid is full of lies and half truths.

There are two main reasons to understand how the food pyramid has been developed: the first is pressure from food industry lobbies who understand that this is a central issue on their public affairs agenda. And they know, better than anyone, that billions are decided in those pyramids.

The second is, as Nina Teicholz said, the abuse of epidemiological studies (many financed by the industry) in the preparation of these works. I am a total fan of epidemiological studies, but even I am aware of what they are (or are not) capable of doing. Just because we find a relationship between living longer and eating cheese does not mean that eating cheese lengthens life. That is something basic that we often forget.

In recent years, the pyramid has been debated, getting approved including supplements and alcohol, and has been discontinued (or reformed) on numerous occasions. However, there is a great lesson to be learned from it: in food, nothing is neutral. Far from it, the blissful pyramid.

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