Monday, June 13, 2011

My Plate

USDA's Food Plate: Looks Great, Less Filling

When the USDA last week unveiled a new plate logo to replace its iconic food pyramid, some specialists in data presentation said the new image was too slimmed down.

The food pyramid, introduced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1992, spelled out how many servings of various food groups should be included in Americans' daily consumption, with the biggest components at the base of the pyramid. MyPlate, the USDA's new logo, strips away much of the information and data, instead depicting a plate divided into sections labeled vegetables, fruits, grains and protein. The vegetables and grains sections of the plate both are slightly larger than a quarter-plate, and fruit and protein sections are a bit smaller. A circle off to the side signifies dairy intake. None is labeled with percentages and amounts.


People who present data for a living say that the USDA's new plate icon is stuck uncomfortably in between an abstract icon and a graphic that conveys quantitative information.

The plate is intended to help reverse high obesity rates by spurring consumers to eat the right amount of food in healthy proportions. Whether people will get the message is unclear.

"On its own this graphic is pretty light fare," says Jeremy Shellhorn, assistant professor of graphic design at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. "As an information graphic, it simply doesn't give us much information."

The gripe of Prof. Shellhorn and others who present data for a living is that the new, multicolor plate icon is stuck uncomfortably in between an abstract icon and a graphic that conveys quantitative information. For instance, the different sizes of plate segments suggest relative proportions of food groups that should fill up consumers' plates, but USDA officials say these aren't meant to indicate actual proportions. And indeed they don't: According to USDA recommendations, a man age 31 to 50 is supposed to consume six ounces of protein daily, such as a six-ounce fish fillet—which would be dwarfed on a plate by the recommended seven units of grain, such as seven slices of bread or three and a half cups of cooked rice.

The USDA counters that the old pyramid conveyed too much information. "The intent was to get every piece of nutritional advice on the icon," Robert C. Post, deputy director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion," says of the pyramid. "That, I think, is too complicated. We can't get proportionality, balance, variety, portions and physical activity in one icon. One icon cannot do it. It is just an impossible task."

Instead, Dr. Post hopes that the new icon will catch Americans' attention and lead them to the website designed around the icon, where they can learn the suggested daily amounts from each food group. The icon itself "suggests proportions, because it has the uneven segments, but it isn't the end of the story on proportions," Dr. Post says.

While the USDA hopes that consumers will get all the details from its website, some nutritionists doubt many consumers will take that step after seeing the logo. "The people who will look at the website are the ones who need it least," says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

Proportions, it turns out, are tricky to standardize on an icon when USDA nutritional recommendations vary according to age and gender. For example, a man between age 19 and 30 needs 60% more grains than a girl between 9 and 13 does, the USDA says. But both groups should have three cups of dairy daily.

Michael Wirth, assistant professor of new media design at Queens University of Charlotte, N.C., acknowledges the tough task faced by the USDA, which was seeking a design that could connect with consumers of all ages and multiple languages. But he would have preferred that the image included more data. "I wasn't sure if the actual slices…meant anything," Prof. Wirth says.Also complicating matters: Some foods are difficult to categorize. Consider ice cream. It is listed at among the foods that contribute the most empty calories for Americans. But one and a half cups of ice cream also are listed elsewhere on the site as counting for one of the three daily cups of dairy most people need. "This is not a good idea," says NYU's Prof. Nestle, noting the large number of calories in ice cream. And on the accompanying website, quantities of recommended food generally are listed in ounces or cups, not in calories, which some nutritionists say would make more sense.

Some designers, though, say the simplicity is a virtue in this case. "The important concepts are easy to grasp and to remember," says Marcia Lausen, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Art and Design. "Specific data is an additional help for those seeking exact information, and it can be easily accessed online. Most of us, when eating, cooking, or food shopping, are not thinking statistically."

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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