Another American staple falls to the 'Food Police'

March 27, 1995|By MIKE ROYKO

Michael Jacobson sounded genuinely puzzled and a little hurt.

"It surprises me how the media attacks us for our work," he said last week. "All we do is provide information for people to make smart decisions about their health."

For more than 20 years, his organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has been giving us advice on what we should and shouldn't eat if we want to avoid the discomfort of massive chest pains, the social embarrassment of bulging eyeballs and loud death rattles.

They're the people who told us about the deadly popcorn, the killer egg rolls, the murderous taco, and the savage fettuccine Alfredo and dozens of other homicidal food choices.

Last week, they came out with a warning about the sadistic deli sandwich, all plump and juicy and slathered in death-dealing mayo.

But how do many of us in the media thank Jacobson for his concerns about our health?

"I've seen a lot of snideness in editorials," he says, "calling us the food police. I find that ironic and shocking.

"It's killing the messenger. A newspaper is a messenger of news, but newspapers are trying to kill the messenger.

"There have been editorials, especially in the Southwest, that said: 'We don't want to hear this stuff. We don't want to know.' But all these same newspapers care about the cost of health care, and if we ate a better diet, we'd save billions of dollars."

Jacobson's puzzlement is understandable. His organization goes to all the effort of telling us not to plunge our heads into a vat of whipped cream, and all we do is tell him to go mind his own tofu.

Which isn't a nice way to treat someone who is simply worrying about our arteries getting clogged.

But our reaction is also understandable. For years we've been told by food nags that just about anything that tastes good is really bad and anything that tastes bad is really good.

After a while, it becomes easy to resent someone who pushes a sliced turkey sandwich when what you really want is a bacon and Cheddar cheeseburger with fries, and Twinkies on the side.

A shrink might even say that there is more to our hostility. For people of my generation, it might be a dislike that dates back to our formative years and all those hungry children in China.

Yes, those hungry children of China. We heard so much about them, they seemed almost like relatives or neighbors.

All we had to do was try to leave something uneaten on our plates -- broccoli or cabbage or rhubarb -- and our mothers would say: "Finish everything. Remember, all those hungry children in China."

So we'd force the unpleasant stuff down our throats, even though I never understood how my eating some steamed broccoli could make life better for some hungry children in China. I might have understood if it was sweet and sour pork, or even chop suey. But I was sure that even the hungry children in China hated steamed broccoli as much as I did.

But if we said that, we'd be told: "Those hungry children in China would love to have it as good as you do. They'd eat all of their steamed broccoli, and they'd be grateful for it."

I once asked my mother how she knew so much about the hungry children of China. But when I raised the question, all my mother would say was: "Don't talk with your mouth full," even when it was empty.

And there was something else I noticed. If my grandfather staggered off to bed and left half a glass of beer or a couple fingers of Old Skullpopper on the table, nobody said to him: "Finish your drinks. Remember all the thirsty old drunkards in China."

Not that it happened very often. Without being told, Gramps had compassion for thirsty Chinese lushes.

Years later, I found myself trying to do the same thing to my children when they wouldn't finish their dinners.

But they were a different generation. They responded: "If they are hungry, it is not my fault. They should blame the failed agricultural policies of Mao and the rest of their oppressive communist leaders."

So from now on, when Jacobson tells me not to eat something I really like, I'm going to think about some hungry guy in China who wouldn't dream of leaving a perfectly good pork shank on his plate.

And I'll eat it as an act of compassion.

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