The Anti-Pleasure Principle

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

(Page 2 of 4)

The authors of Is Our Food Safe? -- Warren Leon, executive director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, and Caroline Smith DeWaal, CSPI's director of food safety -- concede that "most consumers won't want to try to keep track of 40 to 50 different seafood types when they go to the grocery store or out to eat." Only the select few, inspired by a noble vision of eating in harmony with the oceans, will go to such lengths. And in case you're wondering, Leon and DeWaal say fish farming is "no panacea" because "it can actually increase pollution and damage essential natural ecosystems."

CSPI's advice about fruits and vegetables also seems designed to test eager acolytes. Naturally, you should eat lots of them, because they're good for you. Just keep in mind that they may be killing you. "In 1987," say Leon and DeWaal, "the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that pesticide residues on food might cause cancer in as many as 6,000 people annually in the United States." Given the uncertainties about extrapolating from huge doses of a chemical in rodents to tiny doses in humans, the actual number may be closer to zero. "No definitive research studies have linked pesticide residues in food to human illnesses," the authors concede. "For the individual consumer, [the] risk may seem small. But it certainly isn't small if it is your family member who faces chemotherapy or the cloud of living with cancer."

Still, you shouldn't let that thought put you off your veggies. "Even though pesticides and other chemicals in our food are a public health concern," Is Our Food Safe? advises, "the risks should not discourage you from eating plenty of fruits and vegetables." To reduce those hypothetical, possibly nonexistent risks, Leon and DeWaal urge you to "thoroughly wash and peel your fruits and vegetables." Don't be so reckless as to pick up an apple or pear and take a bite: First you must eliminate the skin, in which lurks "hazardous pesticides...with the potential to cause serious public health effects."

Death Comes to Dinner

If this is how CSPI deals with foods it likes, you can imagine what it has to say about the foods it hates. Restaurant Confidential calls dishes that offend CSPI's sensibilities "masterpieces of overwrought excess," which is also an apt description of the group's press releases. In CSPI lingo, which relies heavily on adjectives like artery-clogging and heart-stopping, a double cheeseburger is "a coronary bypass special," fettuccine Alfredo is "a heart attack on a plate," and a baked potato with butter, sour cream, bacon bits, and cheese is "the culinary equivalent of a loaded pistol."

CSPI prides itself on such over-the-top invective. The preface to Restaurant Confidential brags that "the National Restaurant Association labeled us nutrition terrorists," and the book is peppered with the subtle rhetorical touches for which the group is known: "enough to make your arteries howl...make sure your cardiologist is on call...just think: double bypass." Although CSPI insists it does not want to "take the fun out of eating out," its repeated insinuation that ordering the wrong item might just kill you is not exactly conducive to an enjoyable dining experience.

In both Restaurant Confidential and Is Our Food Safe?, the authors make a point of identifying themselves as moderates who understand the importance of pleasure. And it's true that CSPI is moderate when compared to, say, the vegans at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (who would be appalled at CSPI's acceptance of fish, poultry, and the occasional piece of lean, well-trimmed red meat) or the anti-dairy activists who insist that milk should play no part in the human diet (CSPI endorses skim milk and permits low-fat cheese). But CSPI avowedly deviates from mainstream thinking among nutritionists, which emphasizes balance, by boldly identifying foods that no one should ever eat. Michael Jacobson's list of the world's worst foods includes hamburgers, whole milk, soda, egg yolks, and salad dressing. The best, he says, are whole wheat bread, sweet potatoes, fresh spinach, cantaloupe, and skim milk. These are not just Jacobson's personal picks and pans, mind you; they are a guide to what every rational person should be eating.

"Our goal has always been to provide reliable information," Jacobson and Hurley say in Restaurant Confidential. But CSPI is not shy about telling you what you should do with that information. The book includes a "Bottom Line" for each dish it analyzes, in case you're too dim to understand that anything with lots of calories and fat is off-limits. The low-down on pizza with extra cheese: "Never order an extra-cheese pizza." Likewise fried mozzarella sticks ("Just say no"), buffalo wings ("Order something else"), crispy orange beef (ditto), beef and cheese nachos ("Order just about anything else"), a gyro ("There's no way to make this a healthful choice"), a mushroom cheeseburger ("Forget about this one!"), a fried whole onion ("a bomb"), a milk shake ("Skip it"), the Cheesecake Factory's carrot cake ("the worst dessert on the menu"), and cheese fries with ranch dressing ("worse than anything we've ever analyzed").

Because Jacobson considers traditional food advice bland and uninformative, CSPI is deliberately provocative. "Most dietitians talk in terms of moderation and balance," he told The Dallas Morning News in 1995, "and they wonder why no one listens." Although there is an audience for CSPI's blunt, definitive-sounding advice, I'm not the only one who finds the group's dogmatism and condescension off-putting. Much of the criticism generated by CSPI's restaurant reports has come from food critics, chefs, and nutritionists who emphasize that it's possible to be healthy without renouncing certain foods forever.

Elizabeth Whelan, executive director of the American Council on Science and Health, is one of CSPI's most persistent and perceptive critics. Back in 1992, a year before CSPI launched its "investigation into restaurant nutrition," she put her finger on the attitude behind the project. In a letter to Jacobson, she wrote: "You and your colleagues think in terms of dichotomies -- good foods and bad foods; the 10 'best' foods and the 10 'worst' foods. I believe such dichotomies are misleading and unrealistic. There are no good or bad foods, only good or bad diets."

Salt Assault

At least CSPI is on solid scientific ground in warning against overeating. Its obsession with the salt content of food has a much shakier basis. CSPI is constantly decrying the amount of salt in packaged foods and restaurant dishes. "You should aim to consume no more than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day," Restaurant Confidential advises, parroting the federal government's guidelines. Yet "it is nearly impossible to walk out of a restaurant without having consumed 1,000 to 3,000 milligrams." Salt is not a new concern for CSPI. Back in 1978, it was calling salt "the deadly white powder you already snort."

Contrary to the impression given by CSPI, there has never been clear evidence that reducing salt intake helps prevent hypertension. Decades of research have produced conflicting, ambiguous results. Advocates of salt reduction argue that a population-wide decrease in sodium consumption would have a measurable impact. But as a 1998 review of the controversy in Science noted, "for the agencies involved to induce the public to avoid salt, they must convince individuals that it's bad for their individual health, which, for those with normal blood pressure, it almost assuredly isn't."

Given the weakness of the evidence, why has CSPI never wavered in its conviction that everyone ought to cut back on salt? You could chalk it up to the group's tendency to err on the side of alarm when confronting speculative risks -- the same tendency that helps explain its anxiety about pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables. But it surely doesn't work in salt's favor that it makes food taste so much better -- a fact you don't fully appreciate until you've eaten in a home where the cook has taken CSPI's sodium advice to heart. If it tastes good, according to CSPI's implicit logic, it must be bad for you.

This presumption helps explain CSPI's campaign against olestra, a promising fat substitute that the group helped sink by linking it to stomach cramps, diarrhea, and "anal leakage." Foods fried in olestra, a synthesis of sugar and vegetable oil also known as sucrose polyester, have the same texture as foods fried in oil, but olestra adds no calories because its molecules are too large to be digested. The result is potato and corn chips with the same taste as their full-fat counterparts but half the calories. Olestra's manufacturer, Procter & Gamble, originally hoped to expand its use beyond packaged salty snacks to other foods. Today olestra products, introduced in 1996, have a tiny share of the snack market, plans to use it more widely have been abandoned, and Procter & Gamble has sold its olestra plant to another company.

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