Michael Jacobson
Key Player

President and Co-founder, Center for Science in the Public Interest; National Council member, Farm Animal Reform Movement; Former employee, (Ralph Nader’s) Center for Study of Responsive Law

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), is the undisputed leader of America’s nutritional scolds. From fettuccine alfredo to soda to french fries, Jacobson is more than willing to use junk science and sensationalism to scare Americans about the food they eat. He notes that “CSPI is proud about finding something wrong with practically everything.”

Jacobson founded CSPI in 1971 with two co-workers from Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law, so it’s no surprise that he is a strong supporter of fast-food lawsuits. He hopes that “regulation through litigation” will result in limits on children’s access to food advertising, extra taxes on foods he considers unhealthy, and government-mandated nutritional information on restaurant menus all across America.

Jacobson is a vegetarian and sits on the national board of the animal-rights-oriented “Great American Meatout.” And he won’t even touch a cookie. Indeed, Jacobson will not tolerate any of his employees eating “bad” foods at work. CSPI’s in-house eating policy is so puritanical that Jacobson once planned to permanently remove the office coffee machine — until one-third of his 60 staffers threatened to quit.

“Science” In The Public Interest?

Jacobson’s plate puritanism isn’t confined to CSPI’s headquarters. He uses laws and lawsuits like moms use cupboard locks. And some of his recent campaigns to restrict food choices reveal a willingness to twist — or flat out ignore — science when it doesn’t support his agenda.

On a Canadian radio program in early 2003, Jacobson asserted (without offering any evidence) that acrylamide — a chemical found in potato chips and French fries – – is causing “tens of thousands” of cancers among Canadians. Five months later, CSPI petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to force food producers to reduce the amount of acrylamide present in their products.

What does science have to say about acrylamide? A January 2003 study published in the British Journal of Cancer demonstrated absolutely no link between acrylamide in food and human cancers. A June 2006 paper from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (a nonprofit composed of scientific societies) concluded that “there is scant evidence that the consumption of foods containing acrylamide is harmful to humans.”

It’s a similar story for Jacobson’s longstanding war on salt. In a 2005 press release, he claimed that “excess sodium” levels in food have been “good for funeral directors and coffin makers, but it is a disaster for shoppers and restaurant patrons.” And in a March 2007 release announcing a reconstituted CSPI report on Chinese food, he said that “when it comes to sodium, there’s no real safe harbor on the Chinese restaurant menu.”

But many rigorous scientific investigations have found little or no link between salt intake and mortality. One large meta-study published in the prestigious British Medical Journal 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 that “few data link sodium intake to health outcomes, and that which is available is inconsistent.”

CSPI announced in early 2007 that it would sue Coca-Cola and Nestlé for claiming that Enviga, their new tea-flavored soda, burns calories. In the press release announcing the suit, CSPI called the science behind the claim “unsubstantiated,” and Jacobson declared that “if the Food and Drug Administration were at all credible, major corporations like Coca-Cola and Nestlé wouldn’t try to take consumers to the cleaners like this…”

But a half-dozen scientific studies show green tea increases calorie expenditure. And a February 2007 report in the medical journal Obesity confirmed a 4 percent metabolism jump in subjects drinking Enviga.

Headline Hungry

Although he strives to present himself as the sober arbiter of America’s food choices, Jacobson demonstrates a willingness to do anything for publicity. That includes sending a bag of decayed teeth to the Federal Trade Commission, dressing up as Tony the Tiger to attack sugary breakfast cereals, and whacking at a 50-pound block of vegetable shortening with a hammer and chisel on TV.

One of Jacobson’s recent publicity gambits can best be described as “headlines through hyperbole.” At a February 2007 press conference announcing CSPI’s latest entrée exposé, Jacobson called large servings of pizza, pasta, and hamburgers offered by casual chain restaurants “harmful new creations” — as if spaghetti Bolognese is some Frankenstein-like construction that might crawl off your plate and attack your dog.

Of course it’s true that some restaurant food is high in calories. But it is misleading to say — as Jacobson does — that you can’t be healthy if you occasionally splurge on high-calorie foods.