Pyramids, Plates, and Carbon Rods

In my all-time favorite episode of the Simpsons, the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant (where Homer works) is holding the ceremony for the "Worker of the Week" award and Homer, the only employee who has never won the award, is confident he will win. But alas, his boss Mr. Burns gives the award to an 'inanimate carbon rod'. Later, Homer (who becomes an astronaut) is returning from a space mission with fellow-passenger Buzz Aldrin when disaster strikes in the way of an open hatch door that threatens to suck everyone out of the craft. Homer uses an inanimate rod to inadvertently seal the door shut, thereby averting tragedy.

With the problem solved, the shuttle successfully returns to Earth, making a convenient crash-landing through the roof of a press reporters' convention. Although Buzz Aldrin declares Homer a hero, the press only have eyes for the inanimate carbon rod he used. The rod is featured on magazine covers with the headline "In Rod We Trust" and is given its own ticker-tape parade.

This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture told the media that it will unveil a new icon to better symbolize and convey healthy eating habits for Americans, doing away with the age-old and ever-changing food pyramid. The new icon will be a plate. According to one CNN analyst: "We presume that it will be divided into sections that will show you how much of different types of foods you should be eating.”

I’m struck but in no way surprised by the volume of reporting that is dedicated to the icon switch itself, and not the underlying reasons for which the icon switch is needed. Just like the fantastic commentary made in the Simpsons episode, our media – and as a result the millions of people that consume media – put icons on a pedestal, often at the expense of telling the real story.

One of the better pieces on this topic appears today on the Scientific American website, in the form of an interview with a nutritionist. It does address the bigger picture questions, namely “Why does the food pyramid need to go?” and “Are these new recommendations based on good science about diet and how people are likely to use the chart?” However, my favorite question and response are as follows:

Do you think this new model will really influence people's diets and help them eat better? It remains to be seen. It depends on how they're used, how big of a public relations campaign it has, and if it generates controversy. If it doesn't generate controversy, nobody will know anything about it...

It’s true … if this icon switch is going to have any impact whatsoever (which unfortunately, I’m doubtful of), the USDA and other public interest groups need to make a MASSIVE public awareness splash about obesity. The icon switch was a wonderful start to doing this, but I really wanted to see bolder messaging around the fact that Americans today are losing the fight against obesity. That wasn’t there.

I’m hoping that the publicity campaign that follows in the wake of this announcement does the issue greater justice.

“In plate we trust!”