Nutritional 'killjoy' has more bad news he's happy to share An Appetite for Controversy

October 19, 1994|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Correspondent

Washington -- As the watchdog of America's diet, Michael Jacobson starts by guarding his own offices.

In this run-of-the-mill warren of rooms, there are no Snickers, no Cheese Curls, nothing by Frito-Lay. M&M breaks are strictly forbidden. And employees live dangerously to even sip a diet soft drink in front of the boss.

Instead, he prefers the nutritionally balanced world before him now: the ruby-red apples atop desks, employees downing spring water to quench their thirst and framed photos of gooseberries gracing the walls.

But while the Center for Science in the Public Interest may seem like the land of low-fat living, it's actually more a hotbed of food controversy these days. And executive director Michael Jacobson is its caustic, charismatic king.

After releasing ground-breaking studies trumpeting the fat in Italian, Chinese and Mexican restaurant food -- and being labeled everything from "Ralph Nader of the Refrigerator" to "the great Ayatollah of the food industry" -- he's preparing to dish up more sound bites today when the center releases its research on seafood restaurants.

Sitting in his office, having just finished a luncheon salad of lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, chickpeas, black olives and canned beets, it's hard to imagine this wiry, intense man being the object of so much name-calling.

"It's shameful," Mr. Jacobson, 51, says with a laugh. "The one I found most amusing was a headline in the San Francisco Examiner. It was something like: "Is Michael Jacobson America's biggest killjoy?" I just see it as sophomoric. I don't take any of it personally. . . . All we're doing is providing information that's never been available before."

Food professionals believe the center does much more than that, though.

"They've made it clear that . . . they're going to methodically attack every part of the restaurant industry," says Wendy Webster, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, a Washington-based group with 150,000 members.

This time, though, the organization is ready with a counterattack. Days ago, it prepared a five-page general "response" with a parody of Jack Sprat in which the Sprats, after listening to the center's advice, starve on beans and weed paste.

Renowned cookbook author Julia Child says that while it's sensible to be warned about fat, Mr. Jacobson's work produces more anxiety than awareness.

"It's poisoning people's pleasure," she says. "This sounds like the death knell of gastronomy. . . . People need to take an adult point of view. We know what we need to do: eat in moderation, small helpings, a great variety, weight-watching, moderate exercise and have fun."

But with obesity on the rise and heart disease still the No. 1 killer in America, the center's work takes on greater importance -- and has been lauded by policymakers including FDA Commissioner David Kessler. At times, Mr. Jacobson has felt the public has blamed the messenger for the message.

"Our studies on restaurants and popcorn have discomfited people," he says. "What happened is that people were happily eating their Chinese food thinking everything is fine. Now their tongue tells them 'Eat that food. It's delicious,' but their brain says, 'Don't eat it. Didn't you hear about the fat content?' And those people are blaming us for engendering that internal conflict.

"You chalk it up as resistance, denial. People have ingrown habits. They want to stick with them. They don't want to have any information that should suggest they change. . . . But over time, people will change and restaurants will change."

Those changes are already happening. After the center's study about movie-theater popcorn showed that a medium buttered popcorn at a typical theater had more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-egg breakfast, a Big Mac with fries and a steak dinner combined, just about every movie chain introduced low-fat alternatives to popcorn that was popped in fat-filled coconut oil.

Using a blend of showmanship and science, he takes on popular targets such as popcorn, tacos and kung pao chicken and sums up his findings with clever one-liners (popcorn was called the "Godzilla" of snacks; fettuccine alfredo was "a heart attack on a plate") that make his message memorable.

Finding fault

As for the research itself, the center's nutritionist Jayne Hurley recommends the subject based on surveys of popular mid-priced meals. On average, the center picks three cities, three restaurants in each city and up to 15 dishes at each restaurant. The meals are shipped to a Washington lab where a composite of each meal is formed. Samples are then sent on to another lab where they're analyzed for fat, calories and sodium at a total cost per survey of $25,000.

Ms. Webster of the National Restaurant Association faults the study for mixing samples, measuring portions that are sometimes larger than people eat and choosing items that aren't always representative of menus.

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