Health & Medicine

This group took on the food giants — and won repeatedly

For decades, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has worked to influence public policy on nutrition.
For decades, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has worked to influence public policy on nutrition. NYT

In this era of alternative facts and rising industrial sway in Washington, the well-being of Americans depends more than ever on financially and politically independent organizations that inform consumers and advocate for policy changes that help to keep all of us healthy.

One of the most influential groups is the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, led for more than four decades by Michael Jacobson.

Inspired by Ralph Nader and armed with a degree in microbiology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jacobson and two co-founders burst onto the nutrition scene in 1971. Backed by the best scientific evidence of the day, CSPI relentlessly attacked the ingredients, marketing practices and dietary habits that research showed can undermine the health of Americans.

With a natural bent as a communicator, Jacobson alerted the public to foods to avoid and offered suggestions for more wholesome alternatives. Today, the organization’s Nutrition Action Healthletter continues to counter unwholesome products (it calls them “food porn”) with healthier options (“the right rtuff”).

In tackling the soft drink industry, Jacobson memorably labeled sugar-sweetened sodas “liquid candy,” and CSPI fought to get “added sugars” listed as a separate item on the nutrition facts label. Now consumers can distinguish between sugars naturally present in fruits, vegetables and dairy products and those sweeteners added in factories.

The center has campaigned vigorously to rid foods of potentially hazardous food dyes; to get soda and junk food out of schools, and to include more vegetables and fruits in school lunches; to reduce trans fats in processed and restaurant-prepared foods to near zero; and to cut the amount of cardiovascular-damaging sodium in these foods.

Thanks largely to CSPI, food labels now list the seven most common food allergens, including peanuts and soy, which can be fatal to sensitive people. Now there are notices on alcoholic beverages warning of potential harm to an unborn child. The term organic now has a legal definition, and safety measures have been strengthened to prevent food-borne illness.

Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and now a CSPI board member and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, said Jacobson “moved the country to demand healthier food. No single individual has done more. He converted an industry that initially was downright hostile to adopt nutritional values that have become mainstream.”

CSPI was accused of helping to create the trans fat problem when, decades ago, it pushed the food industry to substitute hydrogenated vegetable oils for highly saturated animal fats. “In the ’70s and ’80s, there was no good evidence that trans fats were a problem,” Jacobson said.

After reliable studies showed that these fats were more damaging to cardiovascular health than beef and dairy fat, CSPI petitioned the FDA in 1994 to label trans fats and championed their removal from commercially produced foods.

Marion Nestle, emeritus professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, called CSPI “a unique organization with no conflicts of interest that is able to look at the whole big picture.”

Its newsletter, she said, is “an extraordinary publication that over the years has covered every single issue in nutrition that anyone would care about. It boggles my mind that everyone doesn’t get it.”