Monday, November 8, 2010

Not Really a Surprise, But Still...

A super shout-out to Michael Moss's excellent investigative reporting on how conflicted the government is when one of its agencies is charged with both promoting business and promoting health. Moss's article, published on the front page of yesterday's New York Times, focused on the United States Department of Agriculture's schizophrenic mission of encouraging consumption of US agricultural products while also being in charge of nutrition guidelines.

 In his article, Moss explains how the USDA created an organization called Dairy Management, which is a marketing entity charged with increasing the consumption of dairy products in the United States. Dairy Management has achieved its goals magnificently - it is the group responsible for the brilliant marketing campaigns that have boosted Domino's pizza sales, convinced Americans that drinking milk is part of a good weight-loss strategy, and  ingrained "Got Milk?" into our national consciousness. All while one of the main contributors to obesity is saturated fat - yes, the fat found in dairy products.

Therein lies the conflict. You can't encourage Americans to eat more fat and address the obesity epidemic at the same time.

The story is not new. The USDA has long been conflicted about its role in business versus health. Remember the four basic food groups that the USDA touted until 1992? Meat, dairy, grains, fruits and vegetables - the foods most grown by American farmers (disclosure: I grew up on an American grain farm).  The food pyramid came next. This fascinating article, written by a nutritionist who worked on the original food pyramid, shows just how overt the USDA has been in promoting certain foods regardless of their effect on health.

It's unfortunate that we can't look to our government to provide unbiased nutrition information. That's why others, such as the good docs at Harvard's School of Public Health, have created their own food pyramid. Harvard's pyramid and the USDA's pyramid are similar in that both have their foundations in science. But Harvard stops there, without adding the heaping helping of influence from special interest groups that can sour even the best intentions.


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