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Perelman – The pyramid scheme: visual metaphors and the USDA’s pyramid food guides

Perelman, Alison. The pyramid scheme: visual metaphors and the USDA’s pyramid food guides. DesignIssues 27, 3 (Summer 2011): 60-71.

Keywords: food pyramid, food habits, nutrition, diet, visual aids

Ever since the release of the 1991 USDA Eating Right Food Pyramid, great conflict has risen regarding the way in which the nutrition rubric presents its information.  The hierarchical implications of this pyramid approach defined the public discourse and the Eating Right Pyramid was reframed as a site of conflicting visual metaphors.

Before delving into the discourse that surrounds how the Eating Right Pyramid was a failure, Perelman attempts to overview the history behind American food guides.  Established in 1862, the USDA released its first dietary recommendations at the end of the 19th century.  While colorful depictions of the food groups were first released in the 1940s, the nutrition rubrics continued to change drastically almost every decade.  The pyramid depiction of the food groups was agreed upon in the early 1990s.

After its release, the Eating Right Pyramid was questioned after its initial release by many people including high level physicians, dieticians, and lobbyists.  They proposed that the five major food groups be reorganized into four groups. Dairy lobbyists believed that the pyramid scheme stigmatized the dairy producers because it was next to ‘fats and oils.’ Other manufacturer lobbyists did not like their specific distance to the ‘fats and oils’ category as well.

Conflicting interpretations of the Eating Right Pyramid sculpted the discourse surrounding its release.  Lakoff and Johnson theorize that metaphors are a critical framework for navigating the human experience. Perelman states that this function includes providing an organizing structure for the process of spatial orientation.

In 2005, a new pyramid was established: “MyPyramid.”  The online resource that can be personalized according to age, sex, and activity level, was also subject to derision.  Although critics thought this pyramid was even more confusing than before, the Pyramid became accepted.

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