Pharaoh’s good-eating guide

Someday, the USDA Food Pyramid will be a core case study in disaster for design students. The New York Times reports that the administration is reversing the incomprehensible 2005 decision to divide the famous pyramid into coloured wedges instead of labelled ascending slices. This was an idea which, and stop me if this seems obvious, contradicted the whole pretext for a pyramid-shaped infographic. You depict something as a pyramid when you want to imply a quantitatively large and fundamental base—in the ideal diet, whole grains and vegetables—and a smaller, less important top, which in the original plan for the pyramid was basically occupied by meat and eggs. The Meat ’n’ Eggs Lobby (i.e., the agriculture industry that the USDA exists to serve) didn’t like the hierarchical implications, and so the pyramid became, in the words of a nutritionist quoted by the Times, a diagram “which basically conveys no useful information”.

I’m eager to see the new circular “plate” that will replace the pyramid this week. The government doesn’t want to call it a “pie chart”, although homemade pies in round tins seem pretty low on the list of public-health threats in the year 2011. The archetypal chubby kid in old black-and-white comedies who made a habit of stealing pies off window sills was at least playing outside and getting a fair amount of fruit; he’d be considered a paragon of health now.

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