Eighty percent of Americans recognize the Food Guide Pyramid, the design created by global public relations firm Porter Novelli in the early 1990s to provide an easy-to-understand visual representation of the principles underlying a healthy diet. Yet 66 percent of Americans are overweight, and the number of Americans categorized as obese increased about 60 percent between 1991 and 2000.

The decade-old pyramid recommended consuming six to 11 servings of carbohydrates a day, or the equivalent of six to 11 slices of bread. It suggested that people eat between two and four servings of fruit, between three and five servings of vegetables, two to three servings of meat and other protein sources; and up to three daily servings of dairy products.

The typical American diet, however, does not come close to following that advice. Only 7 percent of people eat the recommended number of fruits and vegetables, for example. And the average American eats nearly three times the amount of sugar suggested by the pyramid, while 16 percent of women consume enough dairy products.

So now there is a new food pyramid, introduced earlier last month—again by Porter Novelli—designed to reflect new dietary information and to build on the rather limited success of its predecessor.

Two innovations stand out. The first is that this pyramid includes—alongside advice on how much of various foods Americans should be eating—guidance concerning exercise, represented graphically by a staircase to the side of the pyramid. The second is that this pyramid, dubbed MyPyramid, is customizable, providing tailored advice depending on age, gender, and weight.

Nevertheless, initial reactions to the new pyramid have been mixed. Results from a nationwide survey show that within one week of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s unveiling of MyPyramid on April 19, 40 percent of Americans—87 million adults—reported seeing the new food pyramid. And most consumers who had seen the new pyramid believe the design is equal to or better than the previous pyramid, originally released in 1992.

However, awareness of MyPyramid varies significantly across different demographics: minorities, consumers under the age of 30, and those earning less than $75,000 a year are less likely than others to have seen the design for MyPyramid.

“To gain this much exposure within one week’s time is a remarkable accomplishment,” says Lawrence Shiman, vice-president at Opinion Dynamics, which conducted the survey. “However, the USDA must make a special effort to reach minorities and younger adults if there is to be any hope of changing diet and physical activity behaviors within these groups.”

Meanwhile, consumer activists and nutrition experts have reacted with “a mixture of puzzlement and confusion,” in the words of Kathryn Mulvey, executive director of Corporate Accountability International (formerly Infact). “The dizzying layers of rainbow-colored lines helped distract from the fact that the food industry’s fingerprints are all over the new dietary guidelines—in ways that hurt rather than help consumers.”

Mulvey says USDA’s original vision for the pyramid included visual indicators to show people how often they should eat certain foods. Pastries and donuts, for example, would be marked “occasional.” But any attempt to indicate that Americans should be encouraged to eat less of certain foods was expunged “thanks to giant food corporations and their lobbyists.” 

Says Mulvey, “Perhaps the most glaring evidence of the industry’s influence is the government’s refusal to recommend which foods not to eat, while putting a strong emphasis on individual responsibility.”

There was also concern about Porter Novelli’s involvement in the project. Michele Simon, a public health attorney who teaches health policy at UC Hastings College of the Law and directs the Center for Informed Food Choices, a nonprofit in Oakland, Cal., points out that Porter Novelli’s past clients have included “the likes of McDonald’s and the Snack Food Association” and says she worries about conflict of interest. (Porter Novelli declined to comment, referring questions to the USDA.)

Simon also queried the decision to launch the new pyramid at a press conference featuring fitness guru Denise Austin. “Overflowing with energy, Austin implored reporters to join her in a stretching routine,” Simon says. “That the federal government’s idea of unveiling a $2.5 million dietary educational tool was reduced to a Jane Fonda video was embarrassing to say the least. But more insidiously, Uncle Sam’s emphasis on physical activity plays right into the hands of the food industry.”

Also troubling to independent nutrition experts is the fact that the government has not budgeted for a public relations campaign to get the word out about its new nutritional guidelines. Companies like McDonald’s, General Mills, and Kraft Foods, have volunteered their PR machines to raise awareness, and the Grocery Manufacturers of America offered to distribute posters and guides to reach 4 million kids.

“We would feel uneasy giving big tobacco the reins to a government-sponsored tobacco control campaign,” says Mulvey. “We should feel equally uneasy about the food industry’s heavy-handed involvement in the government’s official dietary guidelines.” Simon is even more pessimistic: “Now that the pyramid has been completely hijacked by the food industry and promises to be as useless an educational tool as it ever was, it’s time to hang up the effort altogether.”

From nutrition education experts within the public relations industry, however, there is qualified praise for the MyPyramid concept.

“The visual addition of exercise is important, even though exercise has always been stated as important in weight maintenance and loss,” says Beth Witherspoon, a counselor with Wisconsin-based agribusiness PR specialist Morgan&Myers and a registered dietitian. “Also, the multiple pyramids indicate that dietary advice is not meant to be one-size-fits-all.”

“There are substantial improvements to the overall communication,” says Steve Bryant, president of Publicis Dialog in Seattle and founder of the agency’s Nutrition Marketing Research Institute, an in-house nutrition marketing think tank. “Most significant is the emphasis on whole grains, eating a wide variety of vegetables, and exercise as a factor in calorie balance. Portion sizes are treated more realistically and practically. Customization and ‘how to’ tips are also big pluses. Like all giants, the government moves very slowly and, for a giant, these are bounding leaps.”

Bill Layden, who heads the nutrition practice at Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, agrees. “The new Food Guidance System is a dramatic improvement over the food guide released in 1992. USDA’s new approach appropriately begins to move away from a single graphic to an educational system. The new system emphasizes the core tenets of healthy living today: energy balance (balance what you eat with what you do), nutrient density (get more nutrition out each calorie you eat), and personalization (customize to fit your choices and lifestyle).”

Adds Doug Dome, who heads Hill & Knowlton’s Dome HK operation in Chicago, “It’s an interactive tool, and the addition of the exercise component also improves the overall guidance for a healthy lifestyle. It’s not perfect, but it’s an improvement on the pyramid that has been in place since the early 90s, during which time we experienced an obesity epidemic.

“The new pyramid is an improvement, if individuals are educated on how to use it. But that’s a big if, since USDA will not be funding an educational campaign or public service ads. If consumers are educated, it will be due to the efforts of private industry, nutritionists and physicians and other groups.”

Customization is “a big step forward,” says Bryant. “I like the scalability of the model. You have the basic guidance, the personalized advice, and the behavior-modification tracking tool. That’s a big win for two reasons:  Tailoring advice to the individual improves the quality of the advice, and the interactivity makes it more likely that the consumer will ‘own’ and follow their model.”

Most experts would like to see more customization, however. Regina Ragone, a registered dietitian who works in the nutrition practice at Ogilvy Public Relations, believes MyPyramid will evolve over time. “Right now, the graphic doesn’t go into enough detail,” she says. “But I think the system will evolve and different groups will begin to come out with their own pyramids.”

“MyPyramid is a great first step toward helping individuals determine what is best for them,” says Layden. “Experience and refinement will determine the ultimate utility of the system.” He would like to see research to determine how consumers use the system, and whether individual households can use MyPyramid to develop a grocery list, shop and prepare the food, and enjoy their meals without breaking their family budget. “MyPyramid may meet the cyber challenge, but it also needs to meet the real world challenge.”

As for the criticism of industry’s involvement in the design of the pyramid, most PR experts believe the consultation process was more open than in the past, and entirely appropriate.

“Industry is an essential partner in getting the word out, so its input was important,” says Bryant. “Since we’re talking politics, I don’t think anyone can have too much input so long as all perspectives are represented. What’s important is that science—both nutrition and behavioral science—should rule the roost. And the Dietary Guidelines for Americans remains very science based.”

At the same time, Bryant concedes, “I think there may be the public perception that industry wielded too much influence, which is unfortunate, since public confidence in nutrition guidance from any source depends on confidence in the purity of its wisdom.”

“No one group had more influence than another in the Federal government’s review of both the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Food Guidance System,” says Layden. The Department of Health and Human Services and USDA “used an open and transparent process in the review of the Dietary Guidelines and for the first time, the departments used an ‘evidence-based’ approach to review and apply the science in recommending dietary guidelines and food patterns. 

“What all parties—including industry—need to understand is that this standard is a tough one to meet and requires careful strategic planning and an investment in scientific research. Groups that understand how the process works and are guided by strong strategic counsel will have a leg-up in the process, but ultimately the science will speak for itself.”

At the same time, Layden says, USDA and HHS need to improve the process going forward. “I have been a strong supporter of separating the science-policy determinations of the dietary guidelines from the consumer communications. In short, let the scientists do the science and the communicators do the communicating based on the science.”

In this instance, he says, the policy aspect of the process was strongly guided by an external, high caliber scientific advisory panel that conducted open public meetings, solicited public testimony, sought counsel from leading experts in the field and published a draft document for peer and public review. “The communications side was conducted without the benefit of an open and transparent process.”

The consumer research conducted by HHS and USDA is still not publicly available for review, for example. “Moving forward, I’d recommend that the departments employ a parallel process: external advisory panels for both science and communications, open public meetings, requests for public comments and an evidenced-based approach.”

Food public relations experts also reject the criticism that the new pyramid does not proscribe certain foods—or even suggest eating less sugars and fats.

“It’s a tool to guide Americans on what to eat and in what quantities, not what to avoid,” says Dome. “Motivated individuals can refer to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines that provide ample information on what to avoid.”

Adds Witherspoon, “Health and weight management success or failure is not dependant only on eating from a list of certain foods. Balance between food intake and exercise, overall calories consumed and eating a variety of foods from different food groups are all key.”

The emphasis on personal responsibility, which is one of the key criticisms of food activists, is seen as a strength of the new pyramid by communicators.

“Everyone in this field and every element of industry has their own agenda,” says Patti Londre, president of The Londre Company, a food public relations specialist firm based in Los Angeles.  “There is no one person or institution that knows the single answer to how humans should eat. The pyramid is a tool for people to educate themselves as to how they can and should eat to maintain a healthy lifestyle. There are hundreds of other tools that consumers can also access including books, lectures, courses, websites, package labels, magazines, and so on.” 

There is, however, a recognition that MyPyramid demands proactive participation by consumer, and that some may not be able to access it easily over the Internet.

“The Internet features of the pyramid may intimidate some people,” says Dome. “But it recognizes that we’re in a different information age than when the pyramid was last revised. Millions of Americans are comfortable with Internet sites that help them plan for retirement, book a vacation, pay bills and research family trees. The interactivity of the MyPyramid.com website will not be the determining factor on whether they follow its recommendations for diet and exercise; it will be self-motivation.”

But will MyPyramid have any success fighting the obesity epidemic?

Bryant is cautiously optimistic. “It’s not really the job of the food pyramid to fight obesity, but to the extent it improves eating habits, it will help trim America’s bloating waistline,” he says. “Most notably, it cautions us to mind both calories in and out. The making of the new pyramid has achieved unprecedented attention and that’s a good thing. If MyPyramid does nothing more than improve our appetite for nutrition information and action, it will improve a lot of lives.”

But others are less enthused.

“History says that it will have a minimal impact,” says Dome. “A key will be whether the food industry uses it as an opportunity to make long-term investments in consumer education. There’s an opportunity for ‘healthy food’ organizations like Produce for Better Health Foundation, the Whole Grains Council and others, as well as their individual member companies, to educate consumers through ads, in-store promotions, PR campaigns, packaging graphics, website links, sponsorships and partnerships.”

Patti Londre is downright cynical.

“Most people aren’t interested in learning how to eat better,” she says. “They want others to do the work for them. ‘If you can make this package of French fries taste just as good but more nutritious with less fat and salt, at the same price, and I’ll buy it.’  People don’t want to change their eating habits, they eat the way they eat for a reason: comfort, taste, price, convenience.”

The bottom line is that people need to be realistic in their expectations of what the new pyramid can achieve.

“Improving Americans’ health and lowering obesity will require more than a colorful graphic and snappy website,” says Layden. “It will require individuals and all sectors of society supporting each other to improve what they eat and balance what they eat with what they do physically. 

“I do think that this is an historic point of recalibration for all segments of society in terms of commitment to supporting sustainable healthy communities. In five years, evaluators will look back and say who used the new system, who promoted it, who delivered it to consumers, how did they use it and did it work?  Industry is already stepping up to the challenge to reformulate and introduce new products to help consumers more easily achieve ‘their’ pyramid. Other groups, including schools, health professionals, and media also need to meet the challenge.”