Commentary

Stop Doing What I Said

This article appeared on TCSdaily.com on June 23, 2006.

The task of responding to the latest crusade from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has become almost tedious. Last week, the organization was busy, announcing a lawsuit against Kentucky Fried Chicken and targeting Starbucks for its “high-calorie, high-fat” drinks and pastries.

For the Starbucks campaign, CSPI teamed up with the union of Starbucks employees, which at the moment is all of about a dozen strong. The idea of suing a company that serves a beverage loaded with a stimulant for obesity is rather absurd on its face. There’s nothing fattening about coffee. Of course, adding whole milk, sugary flavoring, and gulping it down with a toffee-almond bar is another story. But that’s a decision Starbucks customers make, is it not?

My favorite line from the Starbucks story concerns the union, which apparently is concerned about the increasing heft of the Starbucks staff:

“The union contends that Starbucks staff gain weight when they work at the chain. They are offered unlimited beverages and leftover pastries for free during their shifts.”

Good thing we have organized labor around to complain about companies who give employees free stuff (the typical “obesity’s costs to society” arguments don’t even fly here, given that Starbucks gives its employees comprehensive health insurance).

As for KFC, CSPI wants the restaurant chain to either stop using trans-fats to fry its chicken, or warn its customers about the dangers posed by eating food cooked in partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils. CSPI makes the ridiculous claim that trans-fats kill 50,000 people per year (in an op-ed just two years ago, CSPI’s founder Michael Jacobson put the high end of his estimate at just 30,000 — that a lot of added death in just two years time).

There does seem to be an emerging scientific consensus that trans-fats are worse for you than other fats. But this is a fairly recent development.

In fact, CSPI itself explicitly endorsed the use of trans-fats as an alternative in its campaign to get fast food companies to stop using animal fats and tropical oils for frying back in the 1980s.

A 1988 issue of CSPI’s “Nutrition Action Newsletter” devoted some 1,200 words to an article entitled, “The truth about trans: hydrogenated oils aren’t guilty as charged,” which attempted to allay fears about emerging research linking diets high in trans-fats to heart disease and elevated cholesterol levels. The author wrote: “All told, the charges against trans fat just don’t stand up. And by extension, hydrogenated oils seem relatively innocent.” And that was not all: “Despite the rumors, there is little good evidence that trans fats cause any more harm than other fats. Though new questions can always be raised, some of the standard accusations can be laid to rest.”

CSPI seemed rather certain in its position in 1988, didn’t it? That was shaken a little in 1990 by a Dutch study, but even then CSPI director of nutrition Bonnie Liebman wrote that while the study raised serious questions, “That’s not to say trans fatty acids are artery-cloggers.” “The Bottom Line,” she concluded, “Trans … schmans.”

It took until the mid-1990s for the organization to trans-form its position and call for a ban on trans-fats.

Given such schizophrenia, one would be inclined to forgive the food industry for not drastically altering its business model with every CSPI press release. And while it does now seem that trans-fats are worse for you than other types of fat, there’s still certainly no indication that they can’t be eaten in moderation. That is, they may not be good for you, but they aren’t cyanide, either. Moderation, though, seems to be a word foreign to Jacobson’s vocabulary, as he once said on Good Morning America, that if you’re going to indulge once in awhile, “Just know that you’re going to kill yourself.”

Given that the scientific and nutrition communities are still hashing out the relative differences between the different types of fats, and that trans-fats are neither addictive nor toxic, it’s far too early to start equating fried food purveyors with tobacco-like nefariousness. And since the same nutrition activists were once pushing these oils, it seems only prudent for a company to hold off on absorbing the costs of switching until there’s near-universal consensus.

It’s probably also worth noting that despite all of the dire warnings about our increased intake of trans-fats over the last 20 years, heart disease in America has been in swift decline — and life expectancy has been up — over that very period. Indeed, national health statistics show that in the era of fast food and obesity, death rates from heart disease had declined from 492.7 per 100,000 in 1970 to 321.8 by 1990, a 33% drop. The spread of transfat and Starbucks didn’t change that trend, with the death rate dropping nearly another 30%, to 232.2, by 2003. So, if they’re killing us, they’re not doing a very good job.

Most people who follow food and nutrition issues are now familiar with CSPI, an activist, puritanical organization more interested in generating headlines and scolding Americans than in dispensing sound nutritional advice. The group’s relentless attack on alcohol is a good example.

Scientific research overwhelmingly now shows that there are few habits one could take up that are better for the heart than a drink or two per day. In 2002, the New York Times’ Abigail Zuger surveyed the medical research and concluded, “A drink or two a day of wine, beer, or liquor is, experts say, often the single best nonprescription way to prevent heart attacks—better than a low-fat diet or weight loss, better even than vigorous exercise.” Zuger quoted one expert at the Boston University school of public health, who implored, “The science supporting the protective role of alcohol is indisputable … There have been hundreds of studies, all consistent.” As long ago as 1994, the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that as many as 80,000 deaths per year could be prevented with moderate alcohol consumption. That’s more even than Jacobson’s high-end estimate associated with cutting trans-fats (but hey, give him a couple more years — the number’s bound to grow again).

Yet Jacobson — who once insisted that “the last thing the world needs is more drinkers, even moderate ones,” and that a 75% decrease in alcohol consumption in the U.S. would be “an astonishing public health victory.” — continues his assault on alcohol. In light of more than a decade of research showing otherwise, it’s hard to interpret that as anything other than an hysterical devotion to temperance.

The whole of what comes out of CSPI, in other words, ought to be taken with a grain of salt. Except, of course, that they’re against that, too.

Indeed, as fast food companies have discovered with trans fats, there is no satisfying CSPI, even if you did what it said.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst specializing in “nanny state” issues and author of the forthcoming study “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Drug Raids in America.”