Dr. Walter C. Willett, an internationally regarded researcher and professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said Americans would know a lot less about the foods they eat and how their health could suffer were it not for C.S.P.I.
“Quite a bit of public dollars and scientific effort have demonstrated a clear relationship between diets and long-term health consequences,” Dr. Willett said. “The data are published and maybe reported in the news, but if that’s all that happens, the information is often forgotten.
“If you really want to improve public health, it has to be translated into public policies, and that’s where C.S.P.I. has played such an important role.”
The center has campaigned vigorously to rid foods of potentially hazardous food dyes; to get soda and junk food out of schools, and to include more vegetables and fruits in school lunches; to reduce trans fats in processed and restaurant-prepared foods to near zero; and to cut the amount of cardiovascular-damaging sodium in these foods.
Thanks largely to C.S.P.I., food labels now list the seven most common food allergens, like peanuts or soy, which can be fatal to sensitive people. Now there are notices on alcoholic beverages warning of potential harm to an unborn child. The term organic now has a legal definition, and safety measures have been strengthened to prevent food-borne illness.
As you might expect when a small nonprofit takes on a multi-billion-dollar industry, C.S.P.I. has not been free of controversy. Objections have been raised to the organization’s campaign to reduce dietary salt, for instance. Although some experts maintain salt is not a problem for most people, Dr. Jacobson believes that the best evidence says otherwise.
“We advocate a public health approach and government intervention, while the conservative approach is personal responsibility and no government involvement,” he said in an interview.
Dr. Willett noted, “Policy doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and an independent organization like C.S.P.I. is needed to counter the strong industry influence that seriously distorts nutritional science by influencing what research is done, what results get published and how the findings are slanted.”
Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and now a C.S.P.I. board member and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, said Dr. Jacobson “moved the country to demand healthier food. No single individual has done more. He converted an industry that initially was downright hostile to adopt nutritional values that have become mainstream.”
Among his other achievements were creation in the mid-1970s of National Food Day, which inspired millions of young food activists, and a handbook called “Food for People, Not for Profit,” which explained issues like the role agribusiness plays in determining food quality.
Equally impressive are Dr. Jacobson’s dependence on untainted scientific information and his willingness to amend his center’s advice when new evidence demands it.
C.S.P.I. was accused of helping to create the trans fat problem when decades ago it pushed the food industry to substitute hydrogenated vegetable oils for highly saturated animal fats. “In the ‘70s and ’80s, there was no good evidence that trans fats were a problem,” Dr. Jacobson recalled.
After reliable studies showed these fats were more damaging to cardiovascular health than beef and dairy fat, C.S.P.I. petitioned the F.D.A. in 1994 to label trans fats and championed their removal from commercially produced foods.
Marion Nestle, emeritus professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, called C.S.P.I. “a unique organization with no conflicts of interest that is able to look at the whole big picture.”
Its newsletter, she added, is “an extraordinary publication that over the years has covered every single issue in nutrition that anyone would care about. It boggles my mind that everyone doesn’t get it.”
Full disclosure: I have been a decades-long fan of C.S.P.I. and subscriber to Nutrition Action Healthletter, and have given many friends and relatives gift subscriptions.
From ice creams to meat substitutes, the newsletter helps take the guess work out of grocery shopping, ranking scores of commercial products as “best bites,” “honorable mentions” or simply “average,” according to nutritionally relevant contents like calories, sodium, sugar and protein.
In a recent evaluation of commercial breads, the newsletter touted one — Dave’s Killer Bread Organic Thin-Sliced, loaded with whole grains and seeds and only 60 calories — that has become my absolute favorite. Every one of the 10 ad-free issues a year has nutritious, easy-to-prepare recipes, several of which have become household staples, like garlicky roasted chickpeas with cherry tomatoes and spicy roasted butternut squash.
For consumers who often eat out or take out, the newsletter, guided by the extensive knowledge of the nutritionist Bonnie Liebman, suggests making more wholesome selections from among the usual offerings. At Panera, in lieu of an 840-calorie breakfast of a whole-grain bagel and cream cheese and 16-ounce caramel latte, the newsletter suggests an avocado, egg white and spinach breakfast sandwich on sprouted grain bagel flat and a latte with skim milk — for half the calories.
Into smoothies? Bypass Jamba Juice’s 22-ounce Amazing Greens Smoothie with sugary juices and 500 calories, and instead choose its 16-ounce Green Up ‘N Go Smoothie with only 250 calories. Salud!