Robert B. Choate, 84, Dies; Played Crucial Role in Changing U.S. Eating Habits

In 1970, Mr. Choate caused a stir by exposing "empty calories" in cereals.
In 1970, Mr. Choate caused a stir by exposing "empty calories" in cereals. (United Press International)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009

Robert B. Choate Jr., 84, a Boston Brahmin and self-styled "citizen lobbyist" who in the 1960s and 1970s played a vital role in exposing malnutrition in America and was best remembered for embarrassing cereal companies into providing nutritional labels on their boxes, died May 3 at a retirement community in Lemon Grove, Calif., near San Diego. He had a medical condition that prevented him from swallowing.

Mr. Choate, who inherited much of his wealth as the son of a newspaper publisher, was a civil engineer before reinventing himself in the late 1950s as a philanthropist, civil rights and consumer advocate, and quixotic businessman.

He was living in Phoenix at the time and started a short-lived magazine called Reveille "to wake up the hidebound establishment of this state" and draw attention to poverty and race relations. He also attempted, without much luck, to promote freshly squeezed Arizona orange juice to compete with better-known groves across the state line in California.

As his civic involvement deepened, so did his compulsion to make solving poverty, hunger and malnutrition a greater national priority. He made forays into Washington as what The Washington Post called "a consultant, a board member, a resource witness, a lobbyist and change advocate, and that rare being, a do-gooder with political savvy."

It helped, he said, that he was a Republican and had political access to the Nixon White House denied to many other progressive interest groups. Mr. Choate's efforts were credited with helping establish the Senate Select Subcommittee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by George McGovern (D-S.D.), and the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health, started by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969.

Mr. Choate created his biggest stir in 1970 by ranking the nutritional value of 60 best-selling dry cereals and pointing out that about 40 were no more than "empty calories -- a term thus far applied to alcohol and sugar."

Kellogg's Product 19 and General Mills' Total were listed among the better cereals, based on their vitamin, mineral and protein content. But he said Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies and Frosted Flakes, and General Mills' Cheerios and Wheaties ranked among the worst.

To an industry that spent a reported $87.5 million on TV advertising every year, Mr. Choate was not a welcome presence. Industry spokesmen pointed out what they considered flaws in his data. He raised the ante by complaining about how "the worst cereals are huckstered to children" through television advertising.

His rating system succeeded in attracting media attention. One Time magazine headline asked, "Breakfast of Chumps?" -- a reference to the Wheaties slogan as the breakfast of champions.

It was not long before nutritional labels began appearing on cereal boxes.

"He was a pioneer in refocusing public policy in Washington on nutrition and making the connection between nutrition and health," consumer advocate Ralph Nader said in an interview last week.

In the years before the organic food movement, Nader said, Mr. Choate "helped revolutionize the eating habits of Americans. The result was not just nutritional publicity. That's when companies started offering better kinds of breads, not just Wonder Bread, and better kinds of cereal instead of just those with 50 percent sugar coating."

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