A Conversation With Michael Jacobson, Food and Public Health Advocate

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MJacobson_2_sized.jpg Empty calories. Liquid candy. Junk food. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), has been credited with inventing these phrases--and, in doing so, he has helped shape the national dialogue on food and public health for the past four decades.

Jacobson co-founded the CSPI in 1971 and has been its director since 1978. He has spearheaded efforts to stop or reduce the use of food additives like trans fats, salt, and food dyes; ban the marketing of junk foods to children; lower consumption of sugary drinks; improve the country's food safety mechanisms; and get healthier foods into schools. In turn, the food industry (and sometimes the press) has dubbed Jacobson "chief of the food police."

This year, the CSPI has organized Food Day, its "most ambitious project ever," a day of education and advocacy featuring hundreds of local events that will be held on October 24. Here, Jacobson discusses dietary supplements, how young people are changing America's food systems, and why we shouldn't spend so much time talking about high-fructose corn syrup.

What do you say when people ask, "What do you do?"

I'm an advocate, first and foremost. I advocate to improve our diets and create better food policies to ultimately prevent hundreds of thousands of unnecessary diet-related deaths each year. CSPI identifies problems backed by scientific research that are receiving inadequate attention. We then pull out all the stops to solve those problems--from education to litigation to congressional funding of studies by the National Academy of Sciences.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people think about food?

The requirement for restaurant chains to list calories on menus will encourage many restaurants to expand their lower-calorie offerings. Once that labeling is firmly in place, millions of people will begin to put their restaurant meals in the context of a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. I've also been impressed with how Michael Pollan's books on food have captured Americans' imaginations. For nutrition advice, you could certainly do worse than "eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

What's something that most people just don't understand about your job?

Because the Center for Science in the Public Interest and I are frequently in the news with comments about how healthy or junky certain foods are, I suspect that many people think we're superhuman raw-food athletes who never eat cookies and spend our days preparing clever press releases. In fact, we're normal, real people who believe in moderation and transparency (disclosure: yes, I sometimes eat white bread!). And we typically spend many months undertaking painstaking research, including studying scientific papers and consulting with experts in government, industry, and universities, before launching our reports and exposés.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the food world?

Young people caring about what they eat and how it affects the world around them. High school and college students are increasingly concerned about the impact of their diets on the environment and the welfare of farm workers and farm animals. That's spurring many of them to become vegetarians and food activists. And that, in turn, is influencing what giant foodservice companies are serving and what farmers and food processors produce. That's one of the many reasons CSPI created Food Day. We want to harness the energy of young people (and everyone else) and unite America in a common movement to truly change the way we eat.

What's a food trend that you wish would go away?

Totally disproportionate attention has been devoted to alleged hazards of such things as monosodium glutamate and high-fructose corn syrup--it's as bad as sugar, but no worse--and the ostensible virtues of raw milk and coconut oil. The same passion might yield far greater benefits if it were focused on such matters as cutting salt in packaged and restaurant foods, getting funding for programs that would eliminate "food deserts" (neighborhoods without access to healthful foods), shifting farm subsidies from giant farms to small- and mid-size sustainable and organic farms, and funding major dietary change campaigns to prevent obesity and heart disease.

What's a food or health idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

In the 1990s, I was overly impressed by preliminary evidence indicating that taking vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements would provide major health benefits ... and I even thought of publishing a newsletter focusing on supplements. As more reliable studies were published, few of the supposed benefits panned out (though some people should take calcium, vitamin D, or multi-vitamin supplements). But that hasn't stopped hucksters at companies large and small from advertising the glories of their dietary supplements or fortified foods.

Who are several people you'd put in a food or nutrition Hall of Fame? Why?

Walter Willett, chair of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, oversees huge epidemiology studies (such as the Nurses Health Study) and, unlike most academics, is a vocal advocate for healthier food policies. He has been a leader in the fight against artificial trans fat, reduced consumption of which has probably saved tens of thousands of lives in the past five years.

Jean Mayer, now deceased, was a nutrition professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and president of Tufts University. He deserves to be remembered for chairing the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health, which led to the establishment or expansion of vitally important anti-hunger programs, such the food stamp program and school lunches.

Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Rosa DeLauro have been indefatigable champions of better diets and health. They championed laws that are improving the safety of the food supply, reducing sodium consumption (and the risk of cardiovascular disease), putting calorie counts on menus at chain restaurants, getting junk foods out of and healthier foods into schools, and reducing the advertising of junk foods to children. Senator Harkin and Representative DeLauro are the honorary co-chairs of Food Day.

Frances Moore Lappé wrote Diet for a Small Planet, which was published 40 years ago. It spurred millions of readers to consider, for the first time, the impact of a meat-heavy diet on health and the environment.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

After I got my Ph.D. in microbiology, I decided to try to use my scientific background to help improve government policies or corporate practices. I went to Washington to work with Ralph Nader, but didn't really know or care what issue I'd work on. On my first day there, Ralph suggested that I follow up on a just-published book about the Food and Drug Administration by writing a book on food additives. Two years later, my book Eater's Digest: The Consumer's Factbook of Food Additives was published. From then on I've worked on nutrition and food-safety issues, gradually improving my own diet along the way. Had Nader asked me to work on environmental pollution or worker health, I might have ended up in a very different place.

What's a food website or app that you wish more people knew about?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's sprawling website provides reliable information on everything from the number of calories people consume to the latest research on agriculture's role in climate change. And CSPI's Chemical Cuisine app has a lot of useful information on those hard-to-pronounce mystery ingredients you see in packaged foods.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

Having just seen 42nd Street, my head is buzzing with "Lullaby of Broadway."


Image: Courtesy of CSPI

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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