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Dinner with Michael Jacobson, 'Chief of the Food Police'

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"It wasn't Paula Deen carrot cake," Sonya says. "But it was good."

Inevitably, temptation arrived in the form of a round cookie with white filling.

"I remember the first time I ate an Oreo," she says. "I said, 'What is this? This is good!' "

Erring on the side of pragmatism, her parents decided to serve healthful fare at home but not to force Sonya to adhere strictly to their diet beyond their kitchen.

As he stirs mushrooms in a cast-iron skillet, Jacobson sounds sanguine about the matter. Once kids pass age 3 or so, they "go out into the world, to friends, to McDonald's, birthday parties," he says. "We said, 'She's going to learn. She'll have to decide.' "

Jacobson grew up in Chicago eating brisket, hamburgers, deep-dish pizza, fried chicken and, yes, Twinkies. Though he long ago switched to a low-calorie diet, he acknowledges that he is "a bit thin-skinned" when put on the spot about his gastronomic habits. "If I'm a purist, then I get made fun of for being a purist. If I'm not a purist, then I'm a hypocrite," he says. "I don't pretend to eat a perfect diet."

His reputation also makes him an intimidating dinner guest. "I don't think we get as many dinner invitations as we would otherwise because people are afraid to cook for Michael Jacobson," Lenhoff says.

In the dining room, Smelkova, the CSPI employee, dishes out a generous portion of rotini on each plate. Jacobson follows with the sauce. Sonya asks for extra. "If you're going to make me eat whole-wheat pasta, at least cover it up!" she says.

The only beverage offered is seltzer water. The only garnish is a container of Giant-brand powdered Parmesan. Before setting down the cheese, Jacobson reads aloud the sodium content: 120 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon. "But we're eating only a teaspoon," he says, shrugs and puts it down.

Processed food for thought

Jacobson, who holds a doctorate in microbiology, never thought about what he ate until he arrived in Washington in 1970 and Nader set him to work on a book about food additives. He said that once he was aware of the nutritional deficiencies and dangers of many processed foods, he stopped eating a lot of things. For instance, he hasn't eaten a hot dog since the Carter, or possibly the Ford, administration. His indulgences consist of a white flour bagel with cream cheese and frozen yogurt, which is the night's only other course.

He co-founded CSPI in 1971 with another scientist and a Catholic priest, both of whom have left the group. The counter-cultural trio were pioneers in turning processed-food makers into corporate bogeymen.

As CSPI grew - it now has a staff of 70 in the United States and Canada and a $17 million annual budget - its props became more sophisticated. To illustrate potential side effects of the fat substitute Olestra, which include diarrhea, the group gave out toilet paper with "Olestra" printed on it. In the 1990s, Jacobson appeared on CNN and chiseled a 50-pound block of lard to show the artery-blocking hazards of trans fats. The unsaturated fat was later banned in California and New York City restaurants.


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