TCS Daily

Food Fights

By Sandy Szwarc - March 19, 2004 12:00 AM

On March 10, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson launched public service announcements depicting dismembered body parts of fat people -- double chins, stomachs, buttocks, and thighs -- caught in grocery cart wheels, found by children along the beach and tripped over by mall shoppers. They're part of Thompson's efforts to educate Americans about obesity and persuade them to change their eating habits by showing fat people what they should "lose."1

Yes, eating is becoming political. Our government is increasingly adopting the false science of a special interest group intent on making sure we all eat what they think we should -- and look and behave acceptably, too. If we're not careful, this new eugenics will see to it we're no longer free to eat what we want and we'll pay more for the privilege. If this sounds overly dramatic, look at what's already happened.

Just over four years ago the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) laid out their latest agenda for public policy changes that would bring increased governmental intrusions to our food choices and the food industry. Authored by CSPI executive director, Michael Jacobson, PhD, and former board member Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., "Halting the Obesity Epidemic" outlined the arguments necessary to create a costly obesity crisis and heighten fears surrounding obesity and unhealthy foods to justify their goals for restrictions on food advertising and television watching; food labeling regulations; federal funding for obesity research and education campaigns on obesity and healthy eating; nutrition and weight management in school curricula; making plant-based diets the focus of dietary guidance; prohibiting the sale of sodas and "junk" food in schools or to those on government food assistance; requiring health professionals to counsel against and treat obesity; federal funding for transportation and urban development initiatives; taxing "bad" foods; tax incentives for weight loss programs; and developing a federal obesity policy.2

Allied with numerous groups with vested interests in researching, covering or treating obesity as well as those offering "healthy" foods, CSPI appears increasingly successful. There are 50 obesity-related bills in Congress, according to Thomas Legislation, hundreds of bills going through state legislatures according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and CSPI's imprint is unmistakable.

Officials are lining up to determine what foods we should be eating and which are bad for us. Surgeon General David Satcher's "Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity" included CSPI-outlined programs that "span multiple departments, offices, and agencies in the Federal Government." Obesity has become big business, the obese have become profit centers and "treating" them a lucrative $117 billion growth industry.3,4 The American Obesity Association (AOA) has proposed the HHS and Treasury Department govern which foods are "of high nutritional value" and which are of no value and make changes in the corporate tax laws on advertising to "create an incentive to shift the considerable marketing skill of food companies to healthier foods." They noted the resultant comparatively higher costs on "bad" food could impact what people purchase and consume.5 Last December, Jacobson proposed that Congress and the FDA develop a nationwide governmental program to label "good" foods, modeled after Sweden's "keyhold symbol," based on foods' fat and calorie counts.6

It's noteworthy, however, that these agendas don't require science, or any evidence at all. As Judith Stern, Sc.D., RD, founder and vice president of the AOA, said at the conference, "Obesity in the 21st Century: Translating Science Into Public Policy" in Boston: "In the absence of quantitative research consumer perception prevails." She admitted the CSPI-led grassroots campaign against sodas in schools resulted in ordinances in California "that passed with absolutely no data."7

Clearly CSPI has been entrusted for nutritional guidance by our elected officials and is taken credibly by many consumers. But does CSPI really know best how you should eat? A close look at their track record for scientifically sound dietary advice provides the answer.

What is CSPI?

CSPI typically presents food choices in terms of dichotomies, with no room for balance, moderation or pleasure. This group has declared an exhaustive list of foods "bad" or downright treacherous for making us fat or unhealthy. Foods they say should be off limits include: Chinese, Italian, Greek and Mexican dishes; oatmeal and peanut butter cookies; pizza and pasta alfredo; soda, diet soda, coffee and tea; tuna, chicken and potato salads; movie popcorn; potato, corn and tortilla chips; french fries; red meat; whole and 2% milk; butter and margarine; mayonnaise; jello; beer, wine and alcoholic drinks; granola bars; candy bars; hot dogs and hamburgers; pretzels; baby food and baby formula; ice cream and salad dressings -- basically, anything with sugar or fat, or processed. Foods that taste good seem to be especially sinful.8

The top 10 foods CSPI says we should never eat are: Quaker 100% Natural Oats & Honey Granola, Bugels, Contadina's Alfredo Sauce, Pizza Huts' New Yorker Pizza, Entenmann's Frosted Donuts, Nissin's Cup of Noodles and Shrimp, Burger King French fries, Campbell's Red and White label condensed soups, Frito-Lay's Wow Potato Chips and Denny's Grand Slam breakfast.

Common sense aside, the positions of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) are there are no "good" or "bad" foods and all foods can belong in a good diet. But CSPI's blame of "bad" foods isn't even defensible in light of obesity. Obesity experts Rudolph Leibel, MD, Samuel Klein, MD, and William Dietz, MD, Ph.D. said at that Boston conference that no foods cause obesity.

Nor are there certain foods that are "good." As David Klurfeld, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at Wayne State University, editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition and Nutrition New Focus, wrote recently: "There is not a shred of evidence that any specific food...contributes to better health or longer life...The entire diet is what counts."9 In fact, enjoying the greatest variety possible has repeatedly been found to be the soundest nutritional advice of all.

More importantly, CSPI's frightening accusations about dangers lurking in our food have, time and again, been disproved as unsound or even harmful. In fact, much of what CSPI says runs contrary to scientific, medical and nutritional experts. Here are a few examples:


CSPI: In Jacobson's Nine Weeks to a Perfect Diet, CSPI declares eggs dangerous. "One yolk contains almost a day's worth of cholesterol. That cholesterol clogs arteries, promoting heart disease and stroke. The fewer egg yolks you consume, the better."

Facts: Eggs have been exonerated by research. As Klurfeld explained, dietary cholesterol has little effect on blood cholesterol in most people as our liver makes most all of the cholesterol our body needs. According to the American Heart Association, studies have not shown increased blood cholesterol or risks for heart disease or stroke in healthy people who even eat two eggs per day. Nutrition experts and ACSH recognize eggs as an economical source of high-quality protein, B vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, iron and other minerals.10,11

Fried foods

CSPI: In a recent press release, CSPI announced: "Known Carcinogen - Acrylamide - Discovered In Fried, Baked Foods." CSPI claims acrylamide, a substance produced naturally when starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures, causes "several thousand deaths in the U.S. each year," and tells consumers this "unwelcome contaminant" provides "another compelling reason to slash consumption" of french fries, chips and snack crackers.

Facts: While CSPI has petitioned the FDA over acrylamide in foods, the Center for Consumer Freedom revealed that CSPI used "willful manipulations and junk science calculations." They detailed how "CSPI arbitrarily 'adjusted' government statistics and made faulty assumptions about the minimal risk."

There is no sound evidence behind CSPI's acrylamide scares. Far from it. For example, last year a Swedish study published in the January British Journal of Cancer and another European study in Lancet's February issue found no increase in any type of cancer. In fact, they found a 20% reduction in colon cancer risks among those eating the most French fries and acrylamide! According to the researchers, the amount of acrylamide in our diet is about 1000 times less than the "No Observable Adverse Effect Level" which governments use to set exposure limits. Klurfeld wrote of CSPI's tactics that "panicking before the facts are in is not in the public interest." It's unknown if humans metabolize acrylamide like lab mice or if such low level exposures have any adverse health effects, he said. The data clearly indicates that changing our diets or cooking methods isn't warranted based on what is currently known. While government regulators are being pressured to do something about acrylamide, he said, "that is not how the scientific process is supposed to work."


CSPI: In another press release, CSPI has called for an immediate ban on potassium bromate used in bread, claiming it causes cancer and accusing the FDA of knowing for years it was dangerous but failing to protect the public's health.

Facts: When given high doses of potassium bromate more rats developed cancer, but the doses were more than 10,000 times the maximum legally allowed in bread. In actuality, during baking bromate is converted to the harmless form, potassium bromide, and there's almost no detectable residue in baked goods, according to Klurfeld.

ACSH scientists examined CSPI's allegation and noted that "it was only after the FDA helped to develop a more sensitive analytic method -- capable of even detecting chemicals at the parts per billion level -- that it became possible to detect the minuscule amount of potassium bromate in bakery items." According to the FDA, there have been no studies in humans finding cancer from usual amounts eaten. "This is typical of CSPI's habit of calling attention to hypothetical health risks," said Dr. Gilbert Ross, ACSH's Medical Director.12


CSPI: CSPI's Perfect Diet states vegetarian diets are best and red meat is "Heart Disease Enemy No. 1" and should be avoided because of its "artery-clogging saturated fat." According to CSPI's A Dozen Diet Do's and Don'ts, even lean meats are bad because they're not labeled so you don't really know how much fat may be hidden in them. "Meat has also been linked to cancer of the colon and prostate."

Facts: Scares over a link between red meat and cancer have been repeatedly challenged by researchers.13 According to ACSH, scientists have found red meat offers numerous healthful benefits. Meat protein helps build strong muscles and appears to improve bone density in all ages, according to the 2002 Rancho Bernardo Study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Meats, poultry and seafood are some of our best sources for essential B vitamins and certain minerals, and play a significant role in lowering our risk for heart disease.14 Beef is the biggest dietary source of vitamin B12 and appears beneficial at lowering homocysteine, said Klurfeld. Homocysteine is believed to be a major risk factor for heart disease, as significant as cholesterol, yet nearly a third of vegetarians have elevated levels as compared to 5% of meat-eaters. "Even though a vegetarian diet can lower serum cholesterol, the opposite effect on homocysteine could offset any potential benefit," he said.

Sugar and high fructose corn syrup

CSPI: CSPI's Perfect Diet states, "sugar (or corn syrup, dextrose, white grape juice, etc.) is a waste of calories, promotes obesity, causes tooth decay, and dilutes the nutritional quality of your diet." High fructose corn syrup is the cheap raw material for the giant food industry and found in sodas and thousands of processed foods, CSPI told ABC viewers on Dec. 8, 2003. The "government's known for years it's bad and is causing obesity" but "corn farmers get $5.5 billion in federal subsidies every year."

Facts: See "Trick or Treat."


CSPI: Calling salt "the deadly white powder you already snort," in their Perfect Diet, CSPI continues to sound the alarm that "salt increases the risk of high blood pressure -- and that increases the risk of heart attack and stroke."

Facts: After decades of research and over 20,000 scientific studies, salt remains one of the most contentious debates in nutrition. But low-salt recommendations are "entirely lacking in scientific justification" according to the Salt Institute in their comprehensive review of the evidence in a letter to the World Health Organization.

"The best controlled studies fail to show a significant benefit on blood pressure," said Klurfeld in a series of articles on salt. He reported that researchers recently concluded, "reducing salt intake may help hypertensive people stop their medication but that there are no other benefits."

There is no evidence long-term salt restriction is safe or effective for most people and in healthy people it actually imposes health risks of its own. "Real concerns about low sodium intake cannot be dismissed" and negate benefit of blanket recommendations, Klurfeld cautioned. Our salt needs appear to be highly variable. Last month, six medical agencies concurred, rejected making salt restrictions part of Canadian Guidelines. That was in contrast to a recent American Institute of Medicine report which was soundly criticized by Steve Milloy, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, publisher of

Antioxidant and vitamin supplements

CSPI: "DO take a multi-vitamin-and-mineral supplements...and maybe more," states CSPI's Diet Do's and Don'ts. Its Perfect Diet adds, "Antioxidants may protect against chronic diseases. Consider taking daily 250 milligrams of vitamin C and 100 units of vitamin E."

Facts: Popping a vitamin supplement is no substitute for foods. A recent comprehensive research review by the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force concluded that randomized, controlled trials of vitamin supplement use have not shown consistent or any significant benefit on major diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

According to Antioxidants and Other Phytochemicals: Current Scientific Perspective by Stephen Barrett, M.D, the consensus of the scientific community and research is there is no evidence that taking supplements prevents any disease, but several supplements have been shown to adversely affect health. An ACSH press release about possibly harmful supplements, for example, cautioned that the antioxidant beta-carotene increases death from all causes, heart disease and cancer.15,16

While CSPI sounds like a legitimate health advocacy organization, it's not associated with any scientific body, nor is their publication, Nutrition Action Healthletter, peer-reviewed. In fact reputable science and nutritional organizations have been repeatedly critical of CSPI.

"The three primary purposes [of CSPI's Healthletter] are: a) to raise anxieties about the safety and healthfulness of the American diet; b) to offer false assurances about the route to long life and good health; and c) to raise funds to support CSPI," wrote Elizabeth M. Whelan, Sc.D., M.P.H., ACSH President.

"We have a totally different view on food and nutrition than [Jacobson] does. He takes all the pleasure out of eating by scaring people and using terror tactics," said Dr. Ronni Chernoff, ADA past President.

"We take issue with [CSPI's] sensationalist and alarmist tone. Numerous CSPI press releases seem to be more of a vendetta than an objective presentation of the facts," according to Tufts University Nutrition Navigator.

CSPI has a "30-year history of fomenting bogus food gain publicity for purposes of fundraising tens of millions of dollars. The scam has been very profitable for CSPI," said Milloy.

"On balance, the organization has done far more harm than good," concluded John Carlisle in a historical overview of CSPI. "It has not achieved its mission to better inform the public about the link between good health and nutrition. It has needlessly frightened the public with scientifically-baseless food scares. It has hindered efforts to improve food safety and nutrition. No matter what it calls itself, CSPI does not do science and it certainly isn't in the public's interest."17

When anyone tells you what you should and shouldn't eat, or makes you feel frightened about your food, take it with a grain of salt. Let common sense be your guide as dietary advice, like everything, is best in moderation. Let's hope our public officials figure this out soon, too.

As Klurfeld said: "Variety and moderation in diet is still the rule you can take to the bank."


1. Citing "Dangerous Increase" in Deaths, HHS Launches New Strategies Against Overweight Epidemic. HHS News Press Release, March 9, 2004.

2. Nestle M, Jacobson M. Halting the Obesity Epidemic: a public health policy approach, Public Health Reports; January-Feb 2000; 115: 12-24.

3. Foreman J. Care for the obese is a growth industry. Boston Globe, Oct 7, 2003.

4. Chakravorty J. Obesity is big business in the United States. Independent News & Media,South Africa, October 07 2003.

5. Downey M. Letter from AOA to Commissioner Mark McClellan, Docket # 2003N-0338, September 30, 2003.

6. Jacobson M. Take Home Messages. Nutrition Action Healthletter, Dec 2003: 2.

7. Obesity in the 21st Century: Translating Science Into Public Policy, Boston, MA, October 3rd.

8. Compiled form CSPI press releases and Nutrition Action Healthletters.

9. Klurfeld D. Magic Bullets. Nutrition News Focus, Feb 27, 2004.

10. Klurfeld D. Heart Diet Guidelines - General Population. Nutrition News Focus, Oct 18, 2000.

11. Meister K. The Role of Eggs in the Diet: Update. ACSH, Aug 2002.

12. Science Panel Disputes Charge that Bread Additive Poses Cancer Risk. ACSH Press Release, July 1999.

13. Letters: Diet and the prevention of cancer, BMJ, July 17, 1999; 319:186.

14. Meister K. The Role of Beef in the American Diet. ACSH, Jan 2003.

15. Klurfeld D. Antioxidants and Cardiovascular Disease. Nutrition News Focus, July 30, 2003.

16. Klurfeld D. New Carotene Non-Recommendation. Nutrition News Focus, June 7, 2000.

17. Carlisle JK. Center for Science in the Public Interest: Profiting from Peddling Junk Science. Capital Research Center, Oct 2001.

© 2004


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