The Anti-Pleasure Principle

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

(Page 3 of 4)

The negative publicity engineered by CSPI had a lot to do with olestra's disappointing performance. Because of lobbying by CSPI and its allies, snacks made with olestra bear a daunting FDA warning that they "may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools." Since olestra's molecules pass through the body undigested, it can have gastrointestinal (GI) effects similar to those of foods high in fiber. The difference is that baked beans were never stigmatized with a government warning label. Naturally, when people are told that a certain product causes gastrointestinal symptoms, they are apt to blame it for any discomfort they feel after eating it. "GI disturbances are a common occurrence among the American populace," writes Ruth Kava, director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health. "It is likely that the connection [to olestra] was due more to widespread adverse media coverage than to any effect of olestra itself."

Last year CSPI bragged that 20,000 reports of "gastrointestinal misery" -- "more than all other food additive complaints in history combined" -- had been forwarded to the FDA, mostly through CSPI. "Olestra may be circling the drain," Michael Jacobson crowed, but it is still "causing too much pain, embarrassment and inconvenience. That this product was ever allowed on the market at all will go down in history as one of the biggest blunders at the FDA." CSPI said its files were "brimming with grisly reports of diarrhea, fecal incontinence, cramping, bleeding, and yellow-orange oil in toilet bowls and underwear." CSPI has even suggested that olestra can be fatal: "Think of the driver of a giant 18-wheeler barreling down the highway at 70 miles an hour when he gets hit with a bout of fecal urgency."

None of the scatological accounts lovingly cataloged by CSPI proves anything about the effects of eating olestra snacks. All rely on post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning to impugn a product that may have had nothing to do with the symptoms reported by these "victims." The evidence indicates that CSPI has grossly exaggerated olestra's gastrointestinal impact. A placebo-controlled, double-blind study of olestra reported in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 1998 found that "consumption of olestra potato not associated with increased incidence or severity of GI symptoms, nor does the amount consumed predict who will report GI effects after short-term consumption of either olestra or [regular] potato chips."

Welcome Contaminants

Having scared people away from olestra, CSPI needed to deter them from returning to full-fat snacks. Fortuitously, a group of Swedish researchers last year announced that they had found acrylamide, a rodent carcinogen, in a variety of baked and fried foods. The chemical appears to be produced whenever starches are cooked at high temperatures. Referring to acrylamide as "a probable carcinogen in humans," CSPI said the Swedish discovery was "extremely worrisome." It commissioned its own food tests, which found that, of the products analyzed, fast food French fries had the highest levels of acrylamide, followed by Pringles potato crisps and Fritos corn chips. CSPI called foods with acrylamide "contaminated," as if the chemical's presence had resulted from someone's negligence. That's like saying beer is "contaminated" with alcohol or coffee is "contaminated" with benzo(a)pyrene, a chemical produced when the beans are roasted.

"The amount of acrylamide in a large order of fast-food French fries is at least 300 times more than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows in a glass of water," CSPI said. It cited an estimate that acrylamide "causes several thousand cancers per year in Americans." By that fall, the estimate had become "several thousand deaths in the U.S. each year." (Emphasis added.)

In contrast, a December 2002 report by Rutgers University food chemist Joseph D. Rosen, published by the American Council on Science and Health, notes that "acrylamide has not, even in high exposure occupational settings, been shown to cause cancer in humans." Rosen offers several reasons to be cautious about extrapolating from rodent studies to human exposure and calls the risk from acrylamide in the diet "hypothetical at best." A study reported in the January 13 British Journal of Cancer, involving 987 cancer patients and 538 healthy controls, provided further reassurance. It found "no association between consumption of foods high in acrylamide and increased risk of three forms of cancer" (bladder, large bowel, and kidney).

CSPI's decision to scare people about acrylamide is of a piece with its warnings about pesticide residues, artificial sweeteners, and other unproven risks. But it also serves CSPI's nutritional agenda. Immediately after the Swedish researchers announced their findings, CSPI called acrylamide "yet another compelling reason to slash [your] consumption of french fries and potato chips." Writing in CSPI's Nutrition Action Healthletter last fall, Jacobson observed: "Of course, many health experts have been urging people to cut back on lousy foods like fries all along. But the unwelcome contaminant provides yet another reason."

Likewise, bacteria provide yet another reason for avoiding meat. Food-borne illness has long been a major CSPI concern, but the group is strangely resistant to irradiation as a way of killing pathogens that would otherwise sicken or kill people. Is Our Food Safe? concedes that "most irradiated food will be safer than traditional food because irradiation kills bacteria and parasites that cause illness." But the authors implicitly endorse special labels on irradiated food, which reinforce the public's groundless suspicion of the process, and assert that "consumer confidence in the safety of food will depend on making food clean to begin with, not on irradiation as the final processing step."

Similarly, last fall CSPI's DeWaal responded to the sale of irradiated beef at Giant Supermarkets by declaring that "food irradiation is an end-of-the-line solution to a problem that should be cleaned up at the source," which would "eliminate the need for irradiation." She could not resist adding that "the biggest health concern about ground beef is neither the pathogens nor the irradiation, but the saturated fat, which promotes heart disease." DeWaal thereby implied that irradiation is a health concern, at the same time suggesting why CSPI might prefer that people continue to worry about food poisoning from ground beef.

Fungus Among Us

Should you decide to give up meat, CSPI wants you to know you've got a range of vegetarian substitutes to choose from. The March 2002 issue of CSPI's Nutrition Action Healthletter carried an upbeat article on "Meatless Marvels" that surveyed the fake meat market and recommended the best imitations. Among other developments, the article noted that "the faux-chicken market is about to get a shot in the arm from Quorn, a new dead-ringer for poultry that's already available in Europe." CSPI singled out Quorn as the best poultry substitute by far: "This new product, sold in England for years before it hit U.S. shores, is a 'mycoprotein.' Translation: It's made from a fungus...but a darn good-tasting one. Quorn somehow manages to mimic the texture and taste of moist, tender chicken."

But CSPI quickly lost its enthusiasm for Quorn and gave it the olestra treatment, announcing that the product causes awful gastrointestinal problems and soliciting complaints to that effect. In the May 2002 Nutrition Action Healthletter, Jacobson referred to "people who reported vomiting or diarrhea after eating the mycoprotein" and invited consumers with similar experiences to register their complaints at a CSPI-sponsored Web site, The accounts from "victims of Quorn poisoning" that CSPI has collected combine the fecal fascination the group displayed in its attacks on olestra with a 10-year-old's passion for puke: "I suffered severe, sudden nausea followed by a few hours of violent vomiting....I was so ill that I vomited blood....My stool [was] extremely slack, and really foul-smelling...I was twice incontinent of feces in public!"

In addition to the gastrointestinal complaints, Jacobson raised the possibility that "Quorn causes cancer or reproductive problems," despite a complete lack of evidence to support such concerns. He expressed a preference for "farm-grown ingredients" over "mold grown in vats" and concluded, "Why anyone would want to eat Quorn is beyond me." In a May 2002 press release, he declared, "This could be the FDA's worst blunder since olestra." A few months later, he was wondering "why 'natural-food' stores...would sully their reputations by selling these vomitburgers" and asking the FDA to order a recall of Quorn products.

In response to CSPI's criticism, Quorn's manufacturer, Marlow Foods, noted that the product had been available in Europe for 16 years. Millions of people had eaten it, and only a tiny percentage had complained to the company about adverse reactions. There were 89 complaints in 2000, for example, or one per 146,000 consumers.

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