I have to admit, I’ll kind of miss The Guy From CSPI. It’s rare that someone pretending to promote science is such a goofball that he becomes a parody of himself. Life will be a little less entertaining without him declaring that fettucine alfredo is a Heart Attack on Plate! and a Hardee’s Thickburger is a Heart Attack on a Bun! (I’ve eaten both without so much as a chest pain afterwards.)

But alas, he’s apparently strapping on his Birkenstocks, putting a carrot in his mouth, and walking off into the sunset, according to a fawning NPR article online. Let’s take a look.

If you are the kind of person who picks up a box of food in the store and studies the label to see how much sugar or salt is in it, you can thank a man named Michael Jacobson.

Those labels with nutritional facts are a part of Jacobson’s legacy, one of his many victories in a four-decade-long battle against “junk food.” He has also had a hand in halting the marketing of many sugar-filled foods to children, reducing salt levels in packaged foods, and banning transfats. Next week, he’s stepping down, after 46 years, as president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.

Hmmm, perhaps the reporter should do a little research before crediting The Guy From CSPI with banning trans fats. Dr. Mary Enig was warning about trans fats back when CSPI was actively promoting them as a safe alternative to “dangerous” animal fats. For her efforts, CSPI attempted to trash her reputation. In fact, it’s largely because of The Guy From CSPI that trans fats become so ubiquitous in the food supply.

And it wasn’t just fried foods that became laden with trans fats thanks to The Guy From CSPI. If you’re my age or older, you may remember the big scare over tropical oils – coconut oil being one of them. Here’s how that played out.

As for salt … ugh. Take a look at the CSPI-provided picture that accompanies the article:

Yup, The Guy From CSPI thinks the physiological need for salt is just 200 mg. per day, so he spent decades trying to harass food companies into selling low-salt foods.

Trouble is, a ton of research has demonstrated that 1) restricting salt doesn’t prevent high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease, and 2) going too low on salt might actually be dangerous for many people. So once again, The Guy From CSPI is kind of like a well-meaning but incompetent paramedic who rushes in to save people, but believes poking holes in their hearts is a good idea.

Anyway, back to the fawning article:

Jacobson is a paradoxical character. When he’s quoted in a news story, he typically sounds ferocious.… He is a food activist who doesn’t really love food.

And I think that has rather a lot to do with it. If you don’t like food, it probably seems like no big deal to remove all the flavor – the fats, the salt, etc. And hey, if it’s no big deal for you, then it shouldn’t be a big deal for anyone.  So why not leverage the coercive power of government to try to make people eat (ahem) “better” … for their own good, of course. Why not take the pleasure of ordering a restaurant meal by forcing people to look at calorie-counts on menus, whether they want to see them or not?

Of course, that didn’t work out so well. Exactly as I predicted at the time, forcing customers to be confronted with calorie counts didn’t prompt them to eat less in restaurants – because when people buy a double-whopper-whatever and big order of fries, they already know it’s a high-calorie meal.

The Guy From CSPI eventually had to admit that people’s eating habits aren’t going to change because of government-mandated finger-wagging, as the article notes:

After 40 years of trying to change America’s food habits, Jacobson has come to terms with the fact that those habits change very slowly, if at all. Nutrition labels, for instance, “haven’t generated as much change as we hoped.”

That’s because people have this crazy habit of eating foods they like.

“One of the saddest things is fruits and vegetables. Despite all the free publicity that fruits and vegetables get, requirements in school food programs, farmers markets everywhere, fruit and vegetable consumption has not increased in 20 years.”

That’s because people have this crazy habit of eating foods they like.

Despite all that, he’s optimistic. “When I think back to supermarkets when I got into the food biz in the early 1970s, you couldn’t find whole wheat bread, you couldn’t find brown rice, you couldn’t find yogurt,” he says. “There have been such huge changes! I think our culture clearly is moving in a much healthier direction. And industry will follow. Industry is following.”

Yes, industry is responding to consumer demand for healthier foods. Our local grocery store is stocking more full-fat dairy products and now sells potato chips cooked in coconut oil – which of course would give The Guy From CSPI fits.

That’s the lesson he never learned: we don’t eat foods he thinks are bad because the evil corporations produce them. Corporations produce those foods because we buy them. It’s consumers who control the market, not the manufacturers.

Yup, I’ll kind of miss seeing The Guy From CSPI flail around and attack food companies and fail to grasp basic economics … along with several principles of basic science.

See you, CSPI Guy.

41 Responses to “Say Goodbye to The Guy From CSPI”
  1. Paul Dozier says:

    Man, I forget sometimes just how good “Fat Head” is until I see a clip like in this article. I need to go find my DVD, it’s time for a refresh viewing!
    Best Wishes!

  2. Lori Miller says:

    What the Guy from CSPI needed was a good friend to tell him to shut up, get off the soapbox and get a life. Especially when he went after movie popcorn. Just how much movie popcorn were middle-aged men (i.e., people prone to heart attacks) eating every week in the 90s?

  3. js290 says:

    Mary Enig On Saturated & Trans Fats http://bit.ly/2qPDRJj

  4. Curtis says:

    “When I think back to supermarkets when I got into the food biz in the early 1970s, you couldn’t find whole wheat bread, you couldn’t find brown rice, you couldn’t find yogurt,” he says. “There have been such huge changes! I think our culture clearly is moving in a much healthier direction.”

    Right! Healthy-Whole-Grains, I don’t think anybody told him it’s just a marketing slogan. I certainly wouldn’t call a high Glycemic starch healthy. Brown rice? Another high Glycemic starch with an added bonus of arsenic. Sure sounds healthy to me!?!? He couldn’t find yogurt back then because hardly anyone would buy it…until they started adding a bunch of sugar to it, and a little fruit for coloring and flavor. Voila! Another multi-billion dollar industry created from sugar.

    “I have to admit, I’ll kind of miss The Guy From CSPI.”

    I have a feeling you won’t have a shortage of people that’ll cause you to bang your head on the desk!

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I’m afraid you’re right on that last point.

    • Erica says:

      Actually, my mother bought into all that stuff. We ate ice milk and Diet Rite Cola (as ‘coke floats’) in the 60s, and we ate Roman Meal bread (the only whole wheat at the time) plus brown rice in the 60s and 70s. She tried hard to lose the weight after she had a partial hysterectomy in 1958. The sad thing was she started Weight Watchers in late 1973 but gained weight. In May of 1974 she found out she had 2 5lb ovarian tumors (so she was actually losing weight while the cancers were growing). She survived that, btw.

  5. Firebird7478 says:

    Who would you rather listen to, the Guy from CSPI, or this lady?

  6. Brandon Lee says:

    Got to say I’m glad the companies give us nutritional info; it kind of helps me figure out what I can and can’t eat. Maybe I can’t be as hard on the guy as I want to.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I like having labels available as well. But there’s a difference between asking companies to provide what you want (which they will eventually do to satisfy customers) and using the coercive power of government to force them to provide you what you want.

      And the calorie counts on menus weren’t directed at restaurants — that information was already widely available. It was directed at you and me. That was The Guy from CSPI deciding we needed to have calorie counts shoved in our faces so we’d eat as he believed we should eat. The usual attitude from The Anointed.

      • Walter Bushell says:

        And people on a budget go for the food with the most calories per dollar, or at least eschew the lower calorie options. After all if you are laking calories in the long run nothing else matters.

      • chris c says:

        The telling part of nutrition labels here in the UK is the RDAs. Despite what dieticians may claim, the Government’s RDA for carbs is 230 – 300g including 70 – 90g sugar. Our dietary policies used to be determined by the Food Standards Agency, who basically just imported the Food Pyramid and turned it into a plate before you did. This was such an abject failure that the Government took the job away from them – and gave it to the likes of McDonalds and Pepsico direct, cutting out the middle man.

        I have a theory that the CSPI only turned against trans fat when the Foodlike Substance Manufacturing Industry had invented interesterified fats as a not-animal replacement. I haven’t seen any costings but I strongly suspect the latter may be cheaper to produce and the decision was nothing to do with health.

        Just like the early Dean Ornish, didn’t he look like the guy who bent the busty blonde over the washing machine in those early porn movies? “It’s all right, darlin’, I’m a vegan too”.

        This gave me another flashback to the Firesign Theater, I just about cracked up at their first reference to “polyunsaturated yin”

  7. bill says:

    When I saw your title: “Say Goodbye to The Guy From CSPI”
    I immediately thought: “What’d he die of?”

    Re: Government coercion through force, both Dr. Eenfeldt and
    Dr. Lustig have advocated government regulations on sugar.
    That’s not something to support whether it’s the issue you
    agree with or the one you don’t. Gov’t is just as likely to
    regulate fat as to regulate sugar. The good doctors just
    don’t seem to get that.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      Yup, my position is that you change behavior through persuasion, not through government coercion. If you go the coercion route, you have no right to complain when government tries to limit something you don’t believe is unhealthy — like saturated fats.

    • chris c says:

      “When I saw your title: “Say Goodbye to The Guy From CSPI”
      I immediately thought: “What’d he die of?””

      He ascended into heaven on a staircase made entirely from tofu.

  8. Emily says:

    I’ve never understood people who don’t like food. It’s the way the cultural left in this country practices Puritanism, I guess. I grew up in that milieu on one side of my family, but the other side and my friends were blue collar, so I got a good dose of reality along with it.

    Speaking of, my husband’s father didn’t care about the taste of food at all and forced him to eat tasteless vegetable stews and other crud in the name of “health” when he was growing up. Now whenever my husband hears that something’s healthy, he tends to eat way less of it, even stuff like bacon. The subconscious is a weird thing. The food policing in our country has been a long experiment on how long you can scold people about their private choices before being told to sod off in no uncertain terms. I wonder how long it’ll be until the mass media realizes we’ve reached that point.

  9. Zachary says:

    Thankfully the Wisdom of the Crowd effect seems to be working in grocery stores regardless of The Guy From CSPI. Things like coconut oil, kerrygold butter and grassfed beef are a lot easier to find in regular grocery stores. I’m willing to bet that’s happening because of consumer demand, not people like The Guy From CSPI lobbying the government to mandate it.

  10. Walter Bushell says:

    Belike he’s turn up somewhere else where he can do even more damage.

    • Dianne says:

      No, he’s going to sneak away to an undisclosed location, shave his head, grow a beard, change his name, and spend the rest of his days eating well-marbled beef cooked in coconut oil with a side of asparagus drenched in Kerrygold butter. May he enjoy it all.

  11. Kerstin says:

    Complete change of topic…sorry…

    So I had read several times that farmers were worried about grass not being as rich in protein for the buffalo and other herbivores to eat, so they had to eat more for the same amount of nutrition…now there is this article…


  12. Firebird7478 says:

    Happy National Cheeseburger Day! And on Meatless Monday! Take that vegans! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aS_4u73d1PQ

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