Diet Detective: Michael, thank you so much for doing this interview. I guess the first question I would have for you is how and why did you started the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)?
Michael Jacobson: When I was in grad school in the late ’60s, Boston and MIT in particular was a hotbed of anti-war activities. After I got my Ph.D., I decided to postpone doing post-doctoral 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.
Diet Detective: Is there a particular aspect of your work that you are particularly proud of?
Michael Jacobson: 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.
Diet Detective: 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?
Michael Jacobson: 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.
Diet Detective: 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?
Michael Jacobson: 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 certain 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.
Diet Detective: What was your breakfast this morning?
Michael Jacobson: a couple of clementines, a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal, a third of a pumpernickel bagel, and a cup of tea with a teaspoon of sugar. (horrors!)
Diet Detective: Your last meal would be?
Michael Jacobson: homemade lentil-vegetable soup, grilled scallops on a bed of quinoa, a couple of fish tacos, a large serving of roasted cauliflower, a baked sweet potato, a handful of cashews, a big slice of watermelon and a bowl of ice cream.
Diet Detective: Your favorite “junk food”?
Michael Jacobson: frozen yogurt.
Diet Detective: Your worst summer job?
Michael Jacobson: 1 week in college unsuccessfully selling newspaper subscriptions over the phone.
Diet Detective: As a child you wanted to be?
Michael Jacobson: Grown up.
Charles Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of DietDetective.com.