When the USDA introduced MyPlate last week, retiring the food pyramid as a guide to healthy eating, PR professionals and food manufacturers not only applauded the simpler design, but also recognized a fresh opportunity for companies to promote their products.
“Immediately, [manufacturers] can put the plate on their food packages,” said Mary K. Young, a registered dietician and EVP of food and nutrition communications at Edelman in Chicago. “They can start to develop tools on how their foods look on the plate and use beautiful food photography.”
In the first stage of a multi-year rollout to improve the health of Americans and tackle obesity, MyPlate promotes the message of a high-fiber, low-fat, low-sodium diet based on moderate portions. First Lady Michelle Obama is behind the move, but she herself acknowledges that it will take time to show results.
The public face of MyPlate is a brightly colored graphic of a place setting, which divides the iconic dinner plate into four sections — a quarter each for fruits and vegetables, a quarter for grains (with an emphasis on whole grains), and a quarter for protein (especially low-fat varieties). A glass of milk is represented to the top-right of the plate.
“MyPlate is a revolutionary shift,” said Patrick Delaney, communications manager for the United Fresh Produce Association (UFPA), a trade group promoting produce companies and their partners. “Americans can visualize what they eat [on MyPlate]. The pyramid was confusing.”
MyPlate will be a boon to some food makers and restaurants while leaving others in the dust. Naturally, most snack foods and sugary drinks won't benefit and “it doesn't do meat any favors,” said Rich Goldblatt, SVP at M Booth & Associates.
“It's an opportunity for restaurants and the National Restaurant Association to bring the plate into their establishments,” Goldblatt added. “I would applaud the restaurant that actually does that. For some fast food [restaurants] and chains, it would mean a focus on portion control.”
James Hodges, president of the AMI Foundation at the American Meat Institute, said his organization is pleased with MyPlate: “The icon affirms the role that meat and poultry play in a healthy diet, while emphasizing under-consumed food groups.”
Although aimed at the general public, the new program is likely to have the strongest impact on children.
“MyPlate is a very visual image and will influence elementary and middle school kids. Kids are more influence-able than adults,” Amy Epstein, managing director at ABI Marketing Public Relations, explained. “Instead of eating snacks, they might eat fruit. That's what we want.”
UFPA's Delaney said MyPlate also ties in one of its initiatives, backed by the First Lady, to introduce salad bars that serve fruits and vegetables in 6,000 schools across the country. Other partners in the Let's Move Salad to Schools campaign, which began in November, include the Food, Family and Farming Foundation and Whole Foods Markets.
Naturally, not everyone is pleased with MyPlate. Last week, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which promotes a vegetarian diet, said in a press release that MyPlate is at odds with Farm Bill subsidies. According to PCRM spokeswoman Katherine Strong, “The bill supports crops used for feed grain for livestock, for the byproducts of high-fructose corn syrup, and for refined oils that add empty calories to our diets.”
Strong added that the government's plate mimics PCRM's Power Plate, introduced last year, which also features fruits, vegetables, and grains but substitutes legumes and green vegetables as sources of protein and calcium, respectively.
If the longevity of the food pyramid is any guide — it lasted about 20 years — MyPlate will be around for a while. And with that will come ample time and myriad opportunities for PR professionals and companies to promote their products.