Michal Jacobson holds a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in microbiology from M.I.T. He earned his doctorate researching how polio viruses are formed within a cell, a subject that, as he says, "had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with nutrition."
"At that time—the late sixties—I was totally oblivious to nutrition. It was not something anybody cared or talked about—even many professional nutritionists. I used to work on the fourth floor of the biology building at M.I.T. The Food and Nutrition Department was on floors one, two, and three, and the junk food machines were in the basement. At break time, the nutritionists would be down there with the rest of us, partaking of the Twinkles and candy bars and soda pop and two-week-old pies."
An involvement with the antiwar movement led him to "squeeze in a couple of courses on politics while I was studying viruses. " By the time he graduated, he had decided that he wanted "to make use of my scientific background to help solve some immediate social problems rather than end up spending my whole life on some obscure basic research problem."
A fellowship from the Salk Institute allowed him to spend a year at Ralph Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law, where his research led to the publication of Eater's Digest, a consumer's directory of food additives.
After working with Nader's group, Jacobson and two other scientists decided to set up a group of their own, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which has become the most active pro-consumer food lobby in Washington, and one of the best sources of consumer-oriented nutrition information. Jacobson is currently Director of CSPI.
TF: Tell us, what were your conclusions about food additives?
MJ: Some were safe, some were dangerous, and many had been very poorly tested. And the regulatory officials who were supposed to be looking into such things seemed more interested in avoiding problems than in protecting the consumer.
I also concluded that food additives were not nearly as important as the foods themselves. Hot dogs are a good example of that. Even though hot dogs do include sodium nitrite, a harmful additive, the fat in a hot dog is a far greater health risk. Similarly, it's the tremendous amount of sugar in many processed foods that make them a health risk, much more so than the additives and colorings they contain.
So the thing to think about in determining a healthy diet is not the additives but the food itself?
It's the proportion of fats, sugars, protein, and starch—essentially where we get our calories. The best nutrition goal is to try to get more calories from grains and beans and vegetables and fewer calories from fats and sugars.
That sounds pretty simple.
It is simple. People have the idea that nutrition is hopelessly complex, that they can never understand it unless they read dozens of nutrition books. Nutrition books contain a lot of overkill—for most people. I think it's useful to have a few good cookbooks around, and there are some good books on the politics of food, and if you're interested, go ahead and read a good popular book on nutrition. But you can also get along very nicely without any of those.
The real basics, the area in which there is widespread general agreement, are so simple that one just doesn't need to read a book about it. We have a little ditty that goes:
- Eat less sugar,
- eat less fat.
- Bread and potatoes
- is where it's at.