FoodPolitik: Chewing on 40 years of food policing

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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What did you have for lunch today? It doesn’t really matter. Whatever it was, it’s probably going to cause heart disease, cancer, or hypertension.

At least, that’s the message coming from America’s self-anointed food police, such as those at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI turned 40 years old last month, and its accomplishments include calling salt a “silent killer,” dubbing bacon “the most dangerous food in the supermarket,” and famously deeming fettuccine alfredo a “heart attack on a plate.”

These days, trumpeting overwrought health claims is an entire playbook that groups use to garner media attention. So while we shouldn’t expect the “food cops” to get any less shrill about foods we love to eat, there are a few tips for Americans who want to splurge without ordering a side of hype-inducing concern.

Rule 1: The dose makes the poison.

CSPI’s latest antic involves clamoring for the feds to ban the caramel coloring, which is widely used in soft drinks. How “risky” is this additive? The studies of caramel coloring were done on rats — not people — pumped full of it. One toxicology professor calculated that a person would have to drink 1,000 sodas a day to be comparable to the dose that gave the lab rats cancer. (You’d sooner die of hyponatremia — drinking too much water — before getting cancer.)

Similarly, CSPI’s long-standing campaign against saccharin as a supposed carcinogen took another blow in December as the Environmental Protection Agency declared the sugar substitute is “no longer considered a potential hazard to human health.”

The bottom line is that just about anything can be bad in large enough quantities. People can die from too much vitamin C.

Rule 2: One or two studies does not a scientific consensus make.

It’s difficult to draw “one size fits all” nutritional rules because our bodies are all different. Take salt, which CSPI’s executive director recently called “the deadliest ingredient in the food supply.” CSPI wants federal limits on salt in food.

The editor of the American Journal of Hypertension recently reviewed nine studies of salt intake and strokes and heart attacks. Almost half found no association between salt and health. Despite the usual generalization that “salt leads to hypertension,” some people actually see their blood pressure rise in response to less salt.

The bottom line is that there’s a lot that we don’t know about nutrition and how our bodies respond.

Rule 3: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In the 1980s, CSPI called on restaurants to stop using beef tallow (fat) as frying oil because it is high in saturated fat. Most establishments switched to the only viable alternative: partially hydrogenated oil, which contained trans fats. CSPI said in a 1988 newsletter: “All told, the charges against trans fat just don’t stand up.” CSPI nutritionist Bonnie Liebman wrote:Trans, schmans.”

Yet, not long afterwards in an Emily Litella moment, CSPI publicly campaigned against the very same trans fats it had endorsed.

Similarly, CSPI’s recent push for federal salt restrictions could also backfire. As salt has become less prominent in processed foods in Britain, individual table salting has seen a dramatic rise in use—26.5 percent, according to one group.

It’s entirely plausible that the government-mandated cuts in salt that CSPI wants could result in people eating more salt than before. It’s also possible that people could overeat and gain weight by consuming more of the blander, less-salt food in order to reach sodium levels they’re accustomed to.

Rule 4: It’s OK to indulge a little.

No one with an IQ above room temperature thinks that mozzarella sticks are an everyday food. But neither would many advise the public to “just say no” to fried mozzarella as though it were an illegal drug. CSPI has.

It’s fair to say that not many people want to subsist solely on spinach, celery, and turnips. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional splurge as long as it’s balanced out. Maintaining weight, after all, is simply a matter of balancing calories in and calories out according to your metabolism.

H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” I imagine the Center for Science in the Public Interest food puritans lay awake at night fearing that someone, somewhere, is enjoying a midnight snack.

Rick Berman is President of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit http://www.BermanCo.com.