The Anti-Pleasure Principle

The "food police" and the pseudoscience of self-denial

In the Northeast they call it "soda." In the Midwest they call it "pop." In the South they call it "coke." At the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), they call it "liquid candy" -- and they don't mean that as a compliment. CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson counts more than half a dozen ways in which soda is bad for you:

It makes you fat (although Jacobson concedes "it has not been possible to prove that [soda] is responsible for the excess calories that lead to obesity"); it causes osteoporosis (because "people who drink soft drinks instead of milk or other dairy products likely will have lower calcium intakes"); it rots your teeth (because "refined sugar is one of several important factors that promote tooth decay"); it causes heart disease (because "high-sugar diets may contribute to heart disease in people who are 'insulin resistant'"); it gives you kidney stones (possibly because of the phosphoric acid in colas, but "more research needs to be done"); it is spiked with an addictive drug (caffeine) that "can cause nervousness, irritability, sleeplessness, and rapid heart beat"; and it contains other additives that can make children hyperactive and cause "life-threatening" allergic reactions.

Jacobson's list of soda hazards nicely illustrates the hyperbolic approach to health advice favored by CSPI, which the microbiologist turned food activist co-founded in 1971 after working for Ralph Nader. Today the D.C.-based CSPI is one of the country's most influential nanny groups, with an annual budget of $15 million and some 800,000 newsletter subscribers. It has the ability to grab headlines, kill sales of products it doesn't like, and shape regulatory policy. The group is also emblematic of a troubling cultural trend whose motto might be, "If it feels good, don't do it."

The typical CSPI report takes one or two plausible concerns, blows them way out of proportion, and throws in several dangers that are trivial, unlikely, or highly speculative, all in an effort to scare people into the one course of action CSPI knows to be right. In the case of soft drinks, Jacobson is plainly alarmed and disgusted by the fact that in 1997 Americans consumed "1.6 12-ounce cans [of soda] per day for every man, woman, and child" -- "more than twice the amount produced in 1974." He concludes that "parents and health officials need to recognize soft drinks for what they are -- liquid candy -- and do everything possible to return those beverages to their former, reasonable role as an occasional treat."

That recommendation displays another CSPI hallmark: extremism disguised as moderation. Is there really no legitimate alternative to the "occasional treat" model of soda consumption? Jacobson's own numbers suggest one. "Artificially sweetened diet sodas," he notes, "account for 24% of sales, up from 8.6% in 1970." Getting rid of the sugar addresses Jacobson's most credible concerns about soft drinks without forcing people to give them up completely. Many people find diet sodas to be perfectly adequate substitutes; they get the flavor they want without the calories.

But the CSPI mind-set rebels at the idea that people might enjoy themselves without paying a price. Jacobson warns that "artificial sweeteners may raise concerns" and asserts that "aspartame should be better tested." A CSPI list of "Food Additives to Avoid" says, "There are quite a few problems with aspartame." According to the 2002 CSPI book Restaurant Confidential, co-authored by Jacobson and CSPI nutritionist Jayne Hurley, "Questions have been raised about the safety of aspartame....Some people believe that it causes dizziness, hallucinations, or headaches, but controlled studies have not confirmed those problems. In addition, aspartame needs to be tested better to confirm that it does not cause cancer."

In other words, there is no evidence that aspartame is harmful, but we want to make you vaguely uneasy about drinking diet soda anyway. "Some people believe" that the moon landings were faked and that Elvis is still alive, but that doesn't make it so. And while it is always possible to call for more tests, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -- which if anything has an incentive to err on the side of keeping products off the market -- is satisfied with the studies that have already been done. The only verified risk from aspartame, indicated on the labels of products that contain it, applies to the rare consumer who has trouble metabolizing the amino acid phenylalanine, one of aspartame's components. Aside from that, the FDA says it "has not determined any consistent pattern of symptoms that can be attributed to the use of aspartame, nor is the agency aware of any recent studies that clearly show safety problems."

CSPI's resistance to diet soda -- an innovation you might think the organization would embrace, given its frequently expressed concern about the "epidemic of obesity" -- is a matter of prejudice, not science. It reflects the group's preference for the natural over the synthetic, its dislike of big business and mass trends, and, perhaps most fundamentally, its suspicion of pleasure without pain, of enjoyment unencumbered by fear. That suspicion is the thread that runs through CSPI's uneasiness about artificial sweeteners and caffeine, its dire warnings about fat and salt, its campaign against the fat substitute olestra, its hysteria about acrylamide in French fries, its discomfort with food irradiation, its condemnation of the imitation-meat product Quorn, and its opposition to alcohol consumption as a way of preventing heart disease. For those who share its asceticism, CSPI offers pseudoscientific rationales to justify their phobias.

Perpetual Lent

The charge that CSPI is puritanical has been heard before, of course, especially in connection with the group's highly publicized hit-and-run reports on restaurant food, which earned it a reputation as "the food police." But if CSPI were nothing but a bunch of pleasure-hating sourpusses, it would be hard to understand the organization's success in generating press coverage and attracting supporters.

CSPI is a hit with journalists largely because of its inflammatory rhetoric and dependable alarmism, which make for eye-catching stories. It also helps that CSPI tries to be clever and often succeeds. It awards the title "Food Porn" to calorie-packed products such as Mrs. Fields' Cinnamon Roll with Cream Cheese Icing. It responded to J.K. Rowling's soda marketing deal with a campaign to "save Harry Potter from the clutches of Coca-Cola," and it rightly ridiculed the government's use of NASCAR driver Jimmy Spencer, a Budweiser promoter, as an "anti-drug" spokesman. But Jacobson does not have a very thick skin when it's his turn to be mocked. In February he castigated Rick Berman, the restaurant industry lobbyist who runs the anti-CSPI Center for Consumer Freedom, for "the goofy and low-brow tone of his efforts." This from a man whose publicity stunts have included dressing as Tony the Tiger, sending a bag of decayed teeth to the Federal Trade Commission, and whacking at a 50-pound block of vegetable shortening with a hammer and chisel on TV.

It's easy to see why CSPI gets the news media's attention. For the group's supporters, the appeal is different. CSPI's Nutrition Action Healthletter, its main source of income, claims more than 800,000 subscribers. You don't get that kind of readership by constantly scaring and haranguing people. The publisher of CSPI's book Restaurant Confidential, a spin-off of the group's restaurant reports, says it is selling "very well," with 93,000 copies in print. Like it or not, there clearly is a market for CSPI's product.

Written in a breezy, easily digestible style, CSPI's literature does provide useful information on topics such as the nutritional profiles of various vegetables, the availability of "light" menu items, and the dubious advantages of bottled water. More important, CSPI models a way of life that sets its followers apart from their less health-conscious, less eco-aware neighbors. "Instead of the conspicuous consumption that [economist Thorstein] Veblen talked about," the restaurant critic Robert Shoffner observed in a 1994 interview with the Washingtonian, CSPI pushes "conspicuous self-denial....They want us in a state of perpetual Lent." Like religious dietary laws, the rules laid down by CSPI create distinctions, provide structure, and invest everyday decisions with meaning. Underlying this system is an ethic that seems to value discipline and sacrifice for their own sake.

For those who live according to CSPI's edicts, there is never an easy way out. Consider fish, one of the few bright spots in the group's restaurant reviews: low in saturated fat and high in B vitamins and minerals, not to mention the omega-3 fatty acids that may help prevent heart attacks. As long as you don't order it fried or with a sauce, or get butter on your baked potato or dressing on your salad, fish seems to be a good choice in CSPI's book.

But that depends on which book you read. According to the 2002 CSPI book Is Our Food Safe?: A Consumer's Guide to Protecting Your Health and the Environment, "eating fish or shellfish can wipe out that species," "wipe out other species," and "pollute and destroy valuable habitats." CSPI adherents need to stay on top of which seafood species and varieties are harvested in a "sustainable," environmentally sensitive manner. Fortunately, "four knowledgeable organizations...have placed lists of good or problematic seafood on their websites," and "some of the groups offer handy wallet-sized cards summarizing their recommendations," although "a few of their conclusions are different."

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