The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is the undisputed leader among America’s “food police.” CSPI was founded in 1971 by current executive director Michael Jacobson, and two of his co-workers at Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law. Since then, CSPI’s joyless eating club has issued hundreds of high-profile—and highly questionable—reports condemning soft drinks, fat substitutes, irradiated meat, biotech food crops, French fries, and just about anything that tastes good.
CSPI fancies itself a “watchdog” group but behaves more like an attack dog, savaging restaurants, disparaging adults’ food choices, and discouraging even moderate alcohol consumption. It famously dubbed fettuccine alfredo a “heart attack on a plate.” Its nutrition nags encourage the public to “just say no” to fried mozzarella as though it were an illegal drug.
With a long history of writing letters to restaurants threatening legal action over purported mislabeling of “low fat” menu items, it surprised no one when CSPI graduated to lawsuit threats over the absence of nutritional labeling. In July of 2003, Jacobson teamed with legal shark John Banzhaf to formally warn six U.S. ice cream retailers that lawsuits may result from their refusal to immediately “list the calorie (and, ideally, saturated fat) content of each item” on menu boards.
CSPI’s self-anointed “experts” also encourage “a whole lot of lawsuits” against fast-food restaurants (the group says it is “looking at tobacco as a model”), mostly because they see legal action as leverage to enact all the restrictions on food they have long supported. These include, but are by no means limited to:
- extra taxes on foods with fat, sugar, and sodium (the so-called “Twinkie tax”);
- government-mandated “warning” labels on high-fat, high-calorie menu items;
- mandatory nutrition information on restaurant menus, menu-boards, meat packages, hamburger wrappers, food commercials, ice cream stores, movie theatres, bakeries, hot dog stands, etc., etc.
- requirements that broadcasters give free “equal time” to government-supported advertisements of “healthy” foods;
- restrictions on baby food packaging requiring that tapioca be labeled as “chemically modified food starch”;
- labels warning parents that soft drinks may be replacing low-fat milk, fruit juice, and other drinks in their children’s diets;
- labels warning of contamination from fresh, unpasteurized juices;
- a government-sponsored “Must-Not-See-TV Week” campaign; and
- stricter regulations on genetically enhanced foods, which are already the most regulated food products in the U.S.
To accomplish these goals, CSPI sends a flurry of petitions and letters to the FDA, the Department of Agriculture, the FTC, the Department of Health and Human Services, and any other government agency that has a role to play in regulating food. Each of these actions is accompanied by a breathless press release that seeks to scare ordinary consumers about the food they eat.
So Many Targets, So Little Time
CSPI complains about so many foods and beverages that it’s hard to think of anything that has escaped their wrath. Even so, the group has a special animus towards a few common foods. CSPI co-founder Michael Jacobson considers caffeine such a blight on civilization that he complains about people socializing over coffee. Unsurprisingly, he suggests that Americans patronize a “carrot juice house” instead. CSPI’s in-house food policies are so strict that Jacobson once reportedly intended to get rid of the office coffee machine—until one-third of his 60 employees threatened to quit.
CSPI also has a bias against meat and dairy. Jacobson, himself a vegetarian, wrote in an issue of CSPI’s Nutrition Action Healthletter that proper nutrition “means eating a more plant-based diet … It means getting your fats from plants (vegetable oils and nuts) and fish, not animals (meats, milk cheese, and ice cream).” In keeping with his personal vegetarianism, Jacobson quietly sits on the advisory board of the “Great American Meatout,” an annual event operated by the animal rights zealots at the Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM).
Alcohol, even when consumed in moderation, is perhaps CSPI’s most hated product. The group’s Healthletter has asserted that “the last thing the world needs is more drinkers, even moderate ones.” CSPI wants hefty increases in beer taxes, increased restrictions on adult-beverage marketing, and even poster-sized warning labels placed in restaurants. George Hacker, who leads CSPI’s anti-alcohol effort, has accused winemakers of “hawking America’s costliest and most devastating drug.”
CSPI also opposes wineries’ plans to promote the well-documented health benefits of moderate wine consumption. As the Washington Times observed, “Jacobson argues that people can’t be trusted to make wise and healthful decisions on their own. He says that’s why CSPI is fighting the industry’s bid to include information about the health benefits of wine on the label of bottles.”
The thousands of readily available and relatively inexpensive food offerings we enjoy today are for CSPI something to lament. “People tend to eat most healthily during hard times,” Jacobson has argued. “Heart disease plummeted in Holland and Denmark during the most severe food shortages of World War II. Records of English manors in the 1600s reveal that the peasantry feasted on perhaps a pound of bread, a spud, and a couple of carrots per day.” And that, to Jacobson is “basically a wonderfully healthy diet.” Yum.
At least you can get your fill of spuds and carrots, right? Wrong. Not only does Jacobson argue that you should avoid most foods you currently enjoy, but he insists that you should limit your consumption to just-above-starvation levels. “With animals,” notes Jacobson, “hundreds of studies show that if you give them 80 to 60 percent of their normal calories, they live much longer.”
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has an entire program dedicated to what it calls “Integrity in Science” (in reality, a platform for bashing science it doesn’t like). But CSPI itself regularly perverts science for the sake of a scary press release. The group practices a kind of cooked-to-order “science” that twists evidence to support its radical agenda.
“Like some evangelical Jack Spratt, [CSPI co-founder] Michael F. Jacobson seems to have made it his mission in life to warn society of the dangers of eating—and becoming—fat,” writes the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “The success of this apparently well-intentioned crusade may be giving rise to other, less obvious dangers to our collective health—those of desensitization, oversimplification and omission.” And sometimes, we might add, exaggeration and misrepresentation that abandon reality altogether.
In 1998 CSPI issued a report titled “Liquid Candy,” which claimed that some teenagers get up to 25 percent of their calories from soda. Just one week later, following massive media attention, CSPI admitted that it had overstated its figures by a whopping 100 percent. In fact, American boys drink less than half the amount of soft drinks initially claimed by CSPI’s flawed report.
While CSPI quietly made the correction (after the media fracas died down), it still heavily promotes its “liquid candy” report, using it as the basis of its efforts to ban soda from schools and slap extra taxes on all things fizzy and sweet.
Assault on Salt
According to CSPI, salt is a “silent killer” that takes the lives of 150,000 Americans a year. That number comes from a four-page commentary written by a member of CSPI’s own advisory board—hardly an unbiased source. And this commentary provides no explanation for how the death total was calculated.
Many rigorous scientific investigations have found little or no link between salt and mortality. A meta-study published in the prestigious British Medical Journal summarized the findings of a number of studies on the subject and found: “It is unclear what effects a low sodium diet has on cardiovascular events and mortality.” Another study published in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension concluded:
[F]ew data link sodium intake to health outcomes, and that which is available is inconsistent. Without knowledge of the sum of the multiple effects of reduced sodium diet, no single universal prescription for sodium intake can be scientifically justified.
In September 2004, CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson published an op-ed in The San Francisco Chronicle renewing his call to outlaw trans fats from the American diet. He wrote: “It’s time to dump partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, the quintessential symbol of modern food technology, into the garbage disposal of history.”
While he insists that trans fats are responsible for as many as 30,000 deaths a year (a highly questionable figure), Jacobson fails to mention that he is largely responsible for their heavier concentration in the American diet. In fact, CSPI was originally one of trans fats’ most vocal proponents.
According to trans fat opponent Dr. Mary Enig, a Ph.D. nutritionist who has edited both the Journal of the American College of Nutrition and Clinical Nutrition, the blame for trans fat falls largely on Jacobson and CSPI. She wrote in the fall of 2003:
It is impossible to measure the hazards and grief that [CSPI Director of Nutrition Bonnie] Leibman and Jacobson—the leaders of the major nutrition “activist” consumer organization—have inflicted on many millions of an unknowing public.
The story dates to the mid-1980s, when CSPI launched an all-out assault on fast food restaurants that used beef fat and palm oil to cook their French fries. Jacobson led protests in front of restaurants and organized a massive postcard campaign aimed at their corporate headquarters. By the early ‘90s, most chains had replaced CSPI’s hated beef fat and tropical oils with the only viable alternative: partially hydrogenated oil, which contained trans fats. Jacobson claimed victory.
Along the path to this “success,” CSPI busied itself exonerating hydrogenated oils from a number of studies linking them to increased levels of blood cholesterol. In 1988 CSPI wrote in its Nutrition Action Healthletter: “All told, the charges against trans fat just don’t stand up. And by extension, hydrogenated oils seem relatively innocent.” And in a second article a year later, CSPI’s Leibman wrote, “The Bottom Line … Trans, shmans.”
A CSPI lab technician once described a “Michael Jacobson sandwich” as “ a piece of lettuce between pieces of bread.” But Jacobson is now on a vendetta against bread, thanks to a little known chemical called acrylamide, which is present in many foods, but is found at its highest concentrations in starches cooked at high temperatures.
In June of 2003, CSPI held a press conference to announce that it had formally petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, asking that agency to force food manufacturers to limit the amount of acrylamide in their products.
This petition is the mother of all black eyes.
Global public health bodies have reached no consensus on acrylamide’s potential human health effects. That didn’t stop Michael Jacobson from declaring “acrylamide probably causes on the order of a thousand new cases of cancer per year in the United States, perhaps as many as several thousand.” CSPI’s petition to the FDA is even more specific (and cavalier), claiming that “dietary acrylamide causes an estimated 8,900 cancers per year” among Americans.
But the fine print of CSPI’s petition makes several remarkable admissions. First, CSPI used data from 1994-96 to estimate the average Americans’ intake of acrylamide, even though less doom-and-gloom-oriented data from 1998 were available.
Second, CSPI admits it “adjusted” the government nutrition data so it could claim that Americans eat 37 micrograms of Acrylamide each day—27 percent more than the 1994-96 data indicate, and 42 percent more than the 1998 numbers show.
Third, CSPI underestimated the average American’s weight by more than 7 percent, artificially increasing the effect of acrylamide on the “average” American body. This is particularly amusing, considering that CSPI has gone out of its way in recent years to claim that America is in the throes of an “obesity epidemic.”
Fourth, CSPI concedes that “using more recent EPA methods for projecting cancer-risk findings may result in estimates several-fold less.” How CSPI justifies using an outdated and retired EPA risk-assessment model is never explained.
And fifth, CSPI claimed “an epidemiological study” has “provided the first evidence that acrylamide might cause (pancreatic) cancer in humans” [parentheses in the original]. But CSPI admits in a footnote that the authors of its cited 1999 study “did not find an association between acrylamide and cancer.”
In 2002, despite its heavy reliance on junk science (or perhaps because of it), CSPI was more than willing to provide ammunition to a group of California lawyers who sued food companies over acrylamide in their products. The lawyers’ petition, which was initially filed weeks before CSPI issued its list of foods containing “disturbingly high levels” of acrylamide, included a list of targeted foods identical to CSPI’s. CSPI has yet to explain how a bunch of California trial lawyers knew exactly which products it was testing, nearly a month before the rest of us.
“Someone [might] wake up in the middle of the night with severe pain and try to run to the bathroom and break her neck.” That’s how the fat substitute Olestra might kill someone, according to Michael Jacobson. CSPI’s war on fat is matched only by its war on this fat substitute. Its animus towards Olestra is so great that it is perfectly willing to bend reality to attack it.
CSPI crowed loudly in 1999 when Rosie O’Donnell declined to endorse Frito-Lay’s products containing the fat substitute Olestra. When it turned out that Rosie merely had a scheduling conflict, and that food safety issues had nothing to do with the decision, Michael Jacobson refused to remove his version of the “truth” from CSPI’s website. “Let’s say it’s not true,” he told the Dallas Observer. “In one way, the Web is history and one could argue that organizations should leave a public record of everything they’ve done and said.”
The respected Tufts University Nutrition Navigator wrote in 1998: “We take issue with [CSPI’s] sensational and alarmist tone. ‘The Facts About Olestra,’ with its blacklist of brand names, ‘anal leakage’ humor, and numerous CSPI press releases seemed to be more of a vendetta than an objective presentation of the facts. And if you are to avoid as many processed foods and additives as they advise, what else is left to eat?”
Considering CSPI’s years-long jihad against fatty foods, it may seem incongruous that the group attacks a perfectly safe fat substitute. If you want Americans to slim down, isn’t a fat substitute a good thing? Not if you accept grant money from foundations specifically to attack Olestra. CSPI did just that in 1998 and 1999—to the tune of at least $65,000.
In 1999, CSPI released a report that blamed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other childhood behavioral problems on food additives, particularly food coloring. It also suggested that Ritalin may cause cancer and should no longer be proscribed. Instead, CSPI said, hyperactive children should simply change their diets.
Thankfully, this bit of junk science was immediately refuted by real experts. A spokesman for the National Institute of Mental Health, which studies hyperactivity among children, called CSPI’s proposal “a very troublesome and harmful suggestion” and “very irresponsible.”
Unfortunately, CSPI doesn’t seem to care if it suffers from a science “deficit.” After all, even if additives don’t cause hyperactivity, CSPI still disapproves of their use. The group argues that “because colorings are used almost solely in foods of low nutritional value (candy, soda pop, gelatin desserts, etc.), you should simply avoid all artificially colored foods.” This is typical CSPI strategy: Cook up a bogus report about some previously unknown food danger, and when cornered about the scientific validity, insist—even if the report is hopelessly flawed—that you shouldn’t eat the food anyway.
Integrity in Science
CSPI’s “Integrity in Science” project is ostensibly concerned with the potential conflict of interest that researchers might have when their funding comes from industry. But many of CSPI’s own campaigns—including those heavily reliant on junk science—are equally susceptible to conflict of interest charges. In addition to its $65,000 incentive to bash the fat substitute Olestra, CSPI accepted over $100,000 from the Park Foundation to work on its food additives project. And in 2001, the reliably anti-alcohol Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave CSPI’s campaign against social drinkers $749,999.
“If children have healthy foods available, they’ll eat healthy foods. If they have unhealthy foods available, they’ll eat those … Animals will do the same thing when put in a cage.”
So says Kelly Brownell, a long-time member of the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s scientific advisory board, who has co-authored numerous articles with CSPI co-founder Michael Jacobson. CSPI believes that the American people act like animals who have to be poked and prodded—or scared, taxed, and restricted—into eating a healthy diet. It’s no surprise that CSPI’s public-policy arm selected the motto “Because it takes more than willpower.”
Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, argues that CSPI’s “obsession” with a low-fat diet reflects “a paternalistic idea that the public is not smart enough to distinguish between types of fat.” Food critic Robert Shoffner puts it more directly when he describes CSPI’s approach this way: “People are children and have to be protected by Big Brother or Big Nanny from the awful free-market predators … That’s what drives these people—a desire for control of other people’s lives.”
In addition to the desire to control people’s lives, CSPI is motivated by at least three distinct goals: making you afraid of your food, taking the pleasure out of eating, and (of course) making money.
CSPI wants to scare you about your food
Whenever an activist-inspired food scare is afoot, CSPI takes to the airwaves, exaggerating the risks and calling for a complete overhaul of America’s food safety systems. When Great Britain was slaughtering its cattle at the height of the mad cow disease scare, CSPI trumpeted the grossly misleading claim that the animals are “better protected from ‘Mad Cow Disease’ than people.”
CSPI’s everyday language about normal foods like sandwiches and milk is also intended to scare you about your food. Here’s Jacob Sullum in Reason magazine describing CSPI’s “bottom line” on many foods:
The low-down on pizza with extra cheese: “Never order an extra-cheese pizza.” Likewise fried mozzarella sticks (“Just say no”), buffalo wings (“Order something else”), crispy orange beef (ditto), beef and cheese nachos (“Order just about anything else”), a gyro (“There’s no way to make this a healthful choice”), a mushroom cheeseburger (“Forget about this one!”), a fried whole onion (“a bomb”), a milk shake (“Skip it”), the Cheesecake Factory’s carrot cake (“the worst dessert on the menu”), and cheese fries with ranch dressing (“worse than anything we’ve ever analyzed”).
Appearing on Good Morning America to promote a report condemning ice cream, Jacobson told viewers never to indulge. “Just know that you’re going to kill yourself,” he said.
Is there anything CSPI would allow us to eat? At least fruits and vegetables, right? “Naturally, you should eat lots of them, because they’re good for you,” Sullum writes in the voice of CSPI. “Just keep in mind that they may be killing you.” CSPI can’t help itself from warning about the risk of cancer from all those pesticides on fruits and vegetables—even though they quietly acknowledge that those risks are probably nonexistent.
Regardless of the facts, CSPI’s message is: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
CSPI wants to take the pleasure out of eating
If CSPI can’t scare you away from eating your favorite foods, at least it can strip all the pleasure out of the experience. “Michael Jacobson has a mission in life,” writes Matt Marshall of the Chicago Sun Times: “To take the joy out of America’s favorite munchies, from burgers to pasta to popcorn.” A recent editorial in the Columbus Dispatch reiterates the point, calling CSPI “the nation’s mirthless nanny about food and drink.”
CSPI’s nightmare, of course, is Halloween. The group advises that instead of giving children treats, “you could always hand out low-fat granola bars—and toothbrushes.”
“Every time you reach for candy,” CSPI laments, “you’ve missed an opportunity to eat fruits, vegetables, or other foods that might reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and obesity.” The message: Make sure that when you’re chewing on that doughnut, you think to yourself: “I’m a bad person for eating this. I’m slowly killing myself.”
Each issue of CSPI’s Nutrition Action Healthletter, which the group claims has 800,000 subscribers, includes a section called “food porn,” designed to scare people away from eating targeted items. The number of products that CSPI cautions against is staggering, and includes milk, fruit juice, and lettuce. No food, in other words, is guilt free. And some are so bad that CSPI advises readers to call the company to complain.
CSPI is driven by a “suspicion of pleasure without pain, of enjoyment unencumbered by fear,” argues Sullum. “That suspicion,” he concludes, “is the thread that runs through CSPI’s uneasiness about artificial sweeteners and caffeine, its dire warnings about fat and salt, its campaign against the fat substitute olestra, its hysteria about acrylamide in French fries, its discomfort with food irradiation, its condemnation of the imitation-meat product Quorn, and its opposition to alcohol consumption as a way of preventing heart disease.” (For the lowdown on many of these fears, see CSPI’s “Blackeye.”)
CSPI wants to make money
CSPI gets over 70 percent of its income from subscriptions to its monthly Nutrition Action Healthletter. Accordingly, much of what it promotes as “science” is often geared more toward selling subscriptions than providing wise counsel. And CSPI has learned that you don’t sell subscriptions with a calm, reasoned approach to nutrition.
In fact, the much calmer and much more reasonable Tufts University Nutrition Navigator has written that much of Healthletter’s advice “falls outside the realm of generally accepted nutrition guidelines and recommendations.” CSPI’s newsletter “makes sweeping damnations of brand-name foods,” notes Pittsburgh Post-Gazette food writer Nancy Anderson. It is “opinionated, readable, and not to be taken seriously.”