In 1971, Michael Jacobson, along with two other scientists, founded the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The center’s missions are to “conduct innovative research and advocacy programs in health and nutrition, and to provide consumers with current, useful information about their health and well-being.”
Jacobson, who holds a doctorate in microbiology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been the center’s executive director for nearly four decades. He is now resigning this post to take on the role of chief scientist.
He was one of the originators of the current food movement and is responsible for many nutrition advocacy programs, including the campaign to put Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods, as well as finding and highlighting the nutrient content of movie theater popcorn, as well as foods at Chinese, Italian, Mexican and chain restaurants.
We chatted with him recently about the institute and the work it’s doing.
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How and why did you start the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)?
When I was in grad school in the late ’60s, Boston — and MIT in particular — was a hotbed of antiwar activities. After I got my Ph.D., I decided to postpone doing postdoctoral research for a year while I tried to find a way to use my scientific background to improve government policies and rein in corporate excesses.
I ended up volunteering for a year with Ralph Nader and his Center for the Study of Responsive Law, and, by chance, I was told to write a book (“Eater’s Digest”) about food additives … and that evolved into concerns about nutrition (“Nutrition Scoreboard”). I liked the work so much that two other scientists and I decided to leave Nader and start a public-interest organization that would work on health and environmental issues and encourage other scientists to do the same.
Is there a particular aspect of your work that you are particularly proud of?
On a general level, I’m proud that we at CSPI have always sought to base our opinions and positions on science. We don’t mindlessly follow “politically correct” positions (high-fructose corn syrup is worse than sugar; ingredients from genetically modified crops are dangerous; all additives are harmful, etc.). And we recognize that “the dose makes the poison.”
More specifically, I’m proud that CSPI was the first to evaluate the evidence and then wage policy campaigns to ban partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (trans fat), ban unsafe food additives (Violet 1, sulfites, olestra, “mycoprotein,” etc.), reduce sodium consumption, improve school foods, and reduce consumption of soda pop and sugar. We haven’t totally prevailed on all of those issues, but it’s remarkable how much of a difference our small organization has made.
CSPI has used litigation many times in order to achieve a food-system change. Do you see litigation as an important tool for food policy advocates?
The courts provide a relatively fair venue to bring about change, unlike Congress and the executive branch, where political considerations so often carry the day. We’ve had good success in stopping unfair and deceptive marketing practices by such major companies as PepsiCo, Campbell, Sara Lee, Coca-Cola, and others.
However, litigation is limited in that successes generally force changes by just one company and sometimes just one product or marketing practice. In contrast, laws and regulations affect entire industries. Sometimes, though, litigation against one or several companies can change broader industry practices. For instance, our threatened lawsuit against Kellogg for marketing junk foods to kids led not just to Kellogg’s improving its practices but to many other companies improving theirs as well.
What is the one policy change at the local (or state or federal) level that you believe would have the greatest impact on health and food?
No one federal policy would revolutionize our diet, but some top priorities would include (a) limiting sodium levels in packaged foods, (b) limiting the sugar content in beverages or levying a stiff soda tax, (c) subsidizing the purchase of fruits and vegetables.
I’m skeptical that the Trump administration and/or Republican Congress would do any of that, but public-health advocates certainly should push at the local/state level for such things as soda taxes, warning notices on soft drinks, “high-sodium” icons for chain-restaurant meals, nutrition standards for kids meals at restaurants, and warning notices on foods made with artificial colorings. Policies at the local and state levels sometimes percolate up into national policies.
Charles Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of DietDetective.com.