Dairy Industry Milks New "MyPlate"

This week, the USDA unveiled a new icon for healthy eating, MyPlate, a successor to the Food Pyramid and MyPyramid.

There's a lot to like about the new visual. The share-of-plate metaphor is easier to grok at a glance than the multi-layered pyramid. You can tell by looking that about half your plate should be fruits and vegetables and only about a quarter should be protein.

Another positive feature is that the amino-acid intensive category is called "Protein"--not "Meat." Historically, one of the main criticisms of the UDSA guides has been their insinuation that meat and dairy products are an essential part of every healthy diet. That's not surprising considering the lobbying might of American agribusiness. At the end of the day, the U.S. Cattlemen's Association is a lot more powerful than whoever represents our nation's tofu producers in Washington. So, it's nice to see the USDA taking an ecumenical stance when it comes to recommending "protein," as opposed to "meat."

However, when I saw the MyPlate icon, my first thought was: "The dairy industry won big, here." Notice that in the top right corner, there's a separate satellite orb labelled "Dairy," in what looks like a glass next to the plate. The visual upshot is not only that dairy is a necessary part of every healthy diet, which is simply not true, but also that Americans should drink milk with every meal. Strictly speaking, the dairy orb could represent cheese, yogurt, or milk products, but it sure looks like a glass of milk with dinner.

Notice that, unlike meat in the "Protein" category, milk products get exclusive billing under the "Dairy" label, even though there are other non-milk sources of calcium that can fill the same role in the diet. At least Canada's Food Guide calls this category "Milk and Alternatives," which still sets milk up as the norm, but at least allows that there are other choices.

Dairy can be a healthy part of the diet for many people, but a significant percentage of the adult population can't digest milk at all. The U.S. is somewhat unusual by global standards both in terms of the absolute amount of fluid milk chugged by adults and the almost moralistic fervor around milk as a staple of health. I'm not slagging on dairy products. I'm just pointing out that daily dairy consumption is an option, maybe not even the ideal option--it shouldn't be touted as the norm for the entire country.

Sure enough, when I checked the dairy trade press, I found that the dairy industry is taking a victory lap, just as I predicted:

The shape may have shifted from pyramid to plate, but the message remains the same: dairy is an important part of the daily diet, for adults and children alike.

For that reason, the U.S. dairy industry today praised the USDA’s new MyPlate education tool, which provides a clear and visual message that a healthy diet is comprised of a variety of nutrient-rich foods, including low-fat and fat-free milk, cheese and yogurt.

America’s dairy farmers and processors commend the USDA for including a light blue circle depicting a serving of “Dairy” -- milk, cheese or yogurt -- next to the dinner plate to illustrate how to build a healthy eating plan, including a serving of dairy at every meal. [Emphasis added.] Dairy Herd Network/Consortium of dairy industry groups

So far, MyPlate is being touted as a triumph of science over industry pressure, and in some ways it is. For example, the USDA comes right out and tells Americans to eat less and avoid oversized portions, which isn't exactly what the food industry wants to hear. The eat less message isn't new to MyPlate, but it's a positive recent development and it's good to see them staying the course.

However, odds are, MyPlate is itself the product of heavy lobbying, just like its predecessors. So, caveat eater.

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