They've been called the nation's nutrition nags for taking on Chinese food and movie popcorn, the diet terrorists for ruining a dinner of fettuccine Alfredo.
Now that they've shattered illusions about the all-American sandwich, just what do the fat cops themselves eat for lunch?
A peek in the fridge at the Center for Science in the Public Interest reveals: Chinese take-out boxes. Plates of leftover spaghetti. Full-fat Russian dressing. Black bean tamales. A pre-wrapped slice of American cheese.
"This is not for consumption," spokesman Art Silverman explained quickly, holding the cheese by its corner. "A lot of the stuff in here is for testing and analysis."
Same for the stick of butter, Hungry Man meatloaf dinners, Celeste Californian pizzas and the package of hot dogs in the freezer. But the Lite Miracle Whip, mustard, Garden Vegan burgers, pumpernickel bread and Ciao Bella mango low-fat frozen yogurt were edible items.
In fact, as the 50 CSPI staff members cycled through the crammed office kitchen for lunch one day last week, most of them, though certainly not purists, appeared to practice what CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson, the high priest of the low-fat diet, preaches.
The thin-bordering-on-gaunt Mr. Jacobson is a hard act to follow. A microbiologist who founded the CSPI in 1971 with money from his own savings, he grew up on hamburgers and soda. But now lunch is homemade, fat-free lentil soup, a bagel with honey or yogurt and a couple of pieces of fruit.
Snacks are usually carrots or a handful of peanuts. A splurge, he insists, might be a tomato and low-fat cheese sandwich, or butter on a poppy seed bagel.
"Look, I don't rush out to buy Oreo cookies or sit down to a pint of Haagen-Dazs," he said. "A splurge for me might be not having a one-cup serving of frozen yogurt, but a 1 1/3 -cup serving."
Mr. Jacobson started CSPI in his rented Washington townhouse. It now runs on a $10 million-a-year budget, primarily from subscriptions to its nutrition newsletter. Its work has changed menu offerings after exposing the hidden fat in Chinese, Mexican and Italian food and in movie theater popcorn.
At lunchtime, Bonnie Liebman, who directs the nutrition program, toasted whole-wheat pitas and stuffed them with salad from the nearby Safeway salad bar. She uses tuna salad as a dressing.
"I already knew about the fat before yesterday, I just didn't know how much fat," Ms. Liebman said. "But I like tuna salad, so I use it sparingly. We're not real strict around here. It's not like we sit around eating brown rice and seaweed."
In a study released last week, CSPI analyzed 170 different deli sandwiches from around the country and found that a tuna salad sandwich with mayo on the bread supplies a whole day's allowance of fat, or about 80 potato chips' worth.
Stephen Schmidt, who edits the Nutrition Action Health Letter, was so effusive about his plain baked sweet potato and homemade lentil, shiitake mushroom and kale soup that he coerced a visiting reporter to taste them. "It looks disgusting, but it tastes great," he assured.
The potato, though it looked rotted, was sweet. The soup? Blech.
Good eating habits came slowly to Ms. Liebman and Mr. Schmidt. They grew up on chicken fat sandwiches and bread plastered with olives and cream cheese.
David Schardt, an associate nutritionist, sat in the cookbook-lined conference room with his usual lunch: hot and spicy soup and surimi with mixed vegetables from a nearby Chinese take-out restaurant.
But wait! Didn't CSPI blast Chinese food for being high in fat and salt?
"There's some irony in that," Mr. Schardt said. "After the study we were accused of being racist when in fact we were eating Chinese food all the time, and still do."
In fact, CSPI Senior Nutritionist Jayne Hurley decided to look into Chinese food first just because so many CSPI staffers ate it every day. The tra
dition continues, only now, many no longer order the old Thursday special: "killer" kung pao chicken.
Ms. Hurley, whose face was plastered on TV last week as she explained how Reubens and grilled cheese sandwiches can clog the arteries, flushed when asked to show off her own lunch.
Dressed in jeans, tennis shoes and a green sweat shirt, one large gold earring off from doing so many telephone interviews, the slim Ms. Hurley opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bowl of Chinese ramen noodle soup with spinach. "The ramen's fine, fat-wise, but probably has too much salt," she said, "and no, I haven't analyzed it."
A "grazer," Ms. Hurley also likes to munch on Triscuits. But don't they have more fat than most crackers?
"True, but they're one of the few crackers made from whole grain," she said. "Snackwells are fat-free, but they're like eating white bread."
And her fat-free Creme Caramel yogurt has aspartame, an artificial sweetener. "We normally don't recommend aspartame . . . but it was on sale."