Icons & Innovators
Practically everyone knows how unhealthy the modern diet has become, but Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, is determined to do something about it.
Michael Jacobson, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), may well be the world’s leading advocate for healthier eating habits. Today, after more than 30 years of fighting to change the way unhealthy foods and portion sizes are marketed and made available to consumers (including kids), Jacobson has a stronger resolve than ever to improve nutrition quality.
“Right now, in terms of food ingredients, high sodium content in restaurant and packaged foods is a huge threat to health. Americans are consuming more than twice as much as they should be for optimal health,” says Jacobson. “Unfortunately, salt isn’t very exotic, and we tend to think it doesn’t matter that much, but if we could cut the sodium content in half, we could save 150,000 lives a year.”
Education about salt consumption is just one of many campaigns that Jacobson and CSPI have undertaken, and there’s no telling how many lives have been saved by CSPI’s relentless efforts to inform consumers, influence business and shape public policy. Remember the scary news about calorie-laden, fat-drenched movie popcorn? CSPI’s exposé-style reports on soda, fast food and restaurant menu selections have been remarkably effective at gaining media and public attention—and getting companies to improve their products.
“We face three main barriers,” says Jacobson. “Businesses fight change tooth and nail, the government doesn’t want to fight with business, and consumers are content with whatever they’re being offered. We need to work on all three sides.”
Since 1971, Jacobson and CSPI have led efforts to win passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, as well as a law requiring warning notices on alcoholic-beverage labels, a law defining the term organic as applied to food, and an FDA regulation requiring that trans fat be listed on packaged-food labels. CSPI is also successfully targeting junk-food marketing aimed at kids, and focusing on the nutritional quality of school meals.
Jacobson credits CSPI’s success to credibility. “We stick to the facts, and we rely on science. We also try to be practical and stay in the real world, rather than in some academic dreamland. We evaluate the foods that people eat, and journalists and consumers can relate to that.”
Although detractors sometimes peg Jacobson as overly rigid, he says that criticism usually comes from food industry groups that don’t understand his message. “We don’t believe people have to eat perfect diets or never touch a grain of salt. We know people can tolerate a hot dog or steak or fettuccine alfredo once in a while. We believe in gradual change. Personally, I have a family that makes sure I don’t get too rigid!”
Working with Ralph Nader prior to founding CSPI greatly inspired Jacobson as an activist. His PhD in molecular biology also helped set the stage for his career. “My scientific training has taught me not to let rhetoric get ahead of facts. But the desire to create change—and not give up—is something that has to come from within, I think. Going to college during the Vietnam War and civil rights era was a big influence on me. There were a lot of us that wanted to devote our lives and careers to creating change.”
Jacobson continues to believe that individuals can effect important change if they’re willing to take action. “Fitness and wellness professionals can get involved and get their clients involved. For example, they can help their clients recognize deceptive food advertising and labeling.”
Jacobson notes that while legislative action in the United States is a long, slow process and heavily influenced by industry, European governments are moving more quickly to put pressure on the food industry to improve its products. “I think that influence is also reaching the United States.”
In the meantime, Jacobson urges everyone to go to www.cspinet.org and find out what they can do to advocate for healthier nutrition. “We try to make it as easy as possible for people to get involved in some of these battles. After all, it isn’t just up to the corporations or the government. It’s our health that’s at stake.”
Mary Monroe is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.