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."

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.

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 chips...is 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, www.quorncomplaints.com. 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.

Last September, after CSPI urged it to ban Quorn, the British Food Standards Agency noted that "any protein-containing food has the potential to cause an allergic reaction," and research before Quorn was introduced in the U.K. indicated "a low level of intolerance to the product." The agency added that "it is important to recognize that several commonly consumed foods and food ingredients have much higher intolerance levels [than Quorn]. For example, the intolerance to soya is reported to be 1 in 300 and that to shellfish, even higher....Taking into account that those who are intolerant to [Quorn] are able to avoid it by studying the label...the Food Standards Agency does not consider that, on present evidence, it would be right to prevent those who currently enjoy this product from being able to continue to purchase it if they wish."

CSPI's Quorn intolerance can be explained partly by the group's quest for publicity (hence Jacobson's hope that Quorn would be "the next olestra"), partly by its aversion to "artificial" foods ("mold grown in vats" vs. "farm-grown ingredients"). Could it also be that Quorn is simply too good a simulation of meat? Perhaps this "dead-ringer for poultry" raised red flags at CSPI because, like olestra, it seemed to offer something for nothing.

Driven to Drink

Given the heaping helpings of anxiety that CSPI dishes out along with its nutritional advice, the group's followers must often feel the urge for a drink. Naturally, they are supposed to resist it. Is Our Food Safe? concedes that moderate alcohol consumption "may lower your risk of heart disease." But CSPI has long resisted attempts to publicize that fact. It went so far as to condemn the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms for allowing wineries to include a suggestion on their labels that consumers seeking "information on the health effects of wine consumption" consult the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

That pamphlet's section on alcohol is a litany of warnings that includes one positive statement: "Drinking in moderation may lower risk for coronary heart disease, mainly among men over age 45 and women under age 55." CSPI maintains that telling consumers about the guidelines "could increase alcohol problems." George Hacker, CSPI's director of alcohol policies, explains: "Just suggesting that there are potential health benefits in consuming small amounts of alcohol may help heavy drinkers rationalize their unhealthy consumption and justify their dependency."

What about the rest of us? "If you do not drink," Is Our Food Safe? advises, "do not start. Exercising and eating better are much safer ways to improve your health." Since there's nothing inherently dangerous about moderate alcohol consumption, one suspects the crucial point is that working out and dieting are much less fun than drinking. For CSPI, the idea that a pleasure could be not only harmless but healthy is anathema. CSPI is determined to find the catch, even when there is none.

If CSPI's hypervigilant lifestyle seems overwhelming, you can start small. Avoiding olestra and Quorn is easy enough. Then you can move on to alcohol, caffeine, diet soda, nonorganic produce, salt, sugar, fat, and the rest of CSPI's food taboos. Soon, perhaps, you will feel safer and healthier, or at least more virtuous. For my part, I think I'll try some cheese fries with ranch dressing. They've never tempted me before, but if CSPI says they're "worse than anything we've analyzed," they must be pretty damned good.