The nutrition crusader credited with popularizing the phrase “junk food” looks exactly as one would expect: bespectacled, vaguely professorial — and very, very thin.
Michael Jacobson, who retired in September as executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, hasn’t eaten a hot dog or drunk a soda since the 1970s. That was when, at the behest of consumer advocate and activist Ralph Nader, the recent MIT graduate began researching the food industry and publicizing his findings about the safety of food additives and the health costs of poor nutrition.
Since then, Jacobson has helped lead the fight to ban trans fats from the food supply, push the government to standardize nutrition labels, and expose the dangers of everything from movie-theater popcorn to sulfites and artificial colorings.
In the early ’90s, the food industry dubbed him “the great ayatollah” — because of his zealous opposition to soda, Quarter Pounders and sugary cereals.
But the foods Jacobson included in his traveling “Junk Food Hall of Shame” in 1979 — full-sugar Froot Loops and Coca-Cola, Pop Rocks, fried potato chips — are now banned from schools, discouraged by the government’s Dietary Guidelines, and increasingly shunned by an ever more health-conscious public.
Jacobson sat down with The Washington Post to talk diet, nutrition and what comes next for food policy in the United States. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s start with something basic that a lot of people are worried about this time of year. I want to eat healthy, but there’s so much conflicting information out there. What do you think Americans should be eating?
It’s very simple. A good diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, seafood, low-fat proteins like chicken, and low-fat dairy products. And it’s low in added salt and sugar, which means eating more essentially unprocessed foods.
People get the vast majority of their sugar from soda, and some from things like pastries and ice cream. Most salt comes from processed foods — companies add it to everything. So if you cook at home, you can avoid those things.
But that’s it. It’s not complicated. And if you go back and look at the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans, that’s what the guidelines preached. There’s a little more emphasis on limiting fat intake, but aside from that, the message has been pretty consistent.
If the ideal diet is so clear and obvious to public health experts, why do Americans have such a wide variety of ideas of what “good nutrition” is?
There’s certainly confusion. When I open the newspaper and I see an article, “new study shows such and such,” you know I just think — “Oh God. What's happening now?”
There’s just a lot of information out there, and a lot of it isn’t reliable. Some studies are commissioned by industry and are designed to come out with a contrarian finding. Other times journalists — some at The Washington Post — publicize advice that isn’t supported by the science. Journalists love “man bites dog” stories, and you know anything that is contrary to conventional wisdom gets a headline. So that adds endless confusion. Among experts, there’s no question that people should cut down on sodium, but you’ve seen articles saying maybe too little sodium is dangerous.
I think the average person has to rely on sources that have been shown, over time, to be reliable: the Dietary Guidelines, the American Heart Association, us. Groups that aren’t grinding some industry ax. If we could only get people eating that basically healthy diet, that would be a major achievement.
Does the food industry have a role to play in promoting good nutrition? And have your views on that changed? There was a time when you were Public Enemy No. 1, as far as some food companies were concerned.
Yes, we’ve loosened up on that. You know, now I talk routinely with some of the big companies and trade associations, even if we disagree with them violently on certain things. I have had to kind of modulate what I say.
In the ’70s, I remember, I’d meet somebody from industry and I would just as soon insult them as say hello. But I realized that some of the people there are good people trying to make improvements to their products. And even if they aren’t such great people, they probably know more than I do about what’s going on in industry and government. So we can work together on some issues.
For instance, we’ve been very laudatory about companies like Mars, Pepsi, Nestle and Panera, which have gotten rid of some of the bad stuff in their foods — lowering sodium and providing more healthful alternatives. Thirty years ago, that wouldn’t have happened, on either side. They would not have come out with the healthier products, and we probably wouldn’t have applauded them even if they did.
So you’ve made your peace with “Big Food”?
Well — I’m certainly wary about applauding a company across the board. We support them on some specific things. We’ve applauded Mars for committing to get rid of food dyes in candies, for instance. But we still say the candies are junk. Just a little less junkie.
And we aren’t afraid to apply legal pressure. We have a litigation program that has been really effective at dealing with food companies on a level playing field.
Previously, we would have meetings with them and they’d say, “Oh, we’ll take your thoughts into consideration,” or we’d file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission or the FDA and nothing would happen. But once we started litigating, in 2004, companies took us seriously.
Kellogg stopped advertising some foods to kids — foods that have more than a certain amount of calories or trans fats or sodium per serving — because of a lawsuit we threatened. And we threatened to sue Coke, Pepsi and some other soda companies about marketing in schools. That spurred them to make a deal where they pulled full-calorie sodas out of schools within three years.
Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about government, which obviously also plays a major role in what and how people eat. What do you think the federal government still needs to do? What would be on your nutrition policy wish list, so to speak?
Getting sodium levels down, certainly. And limiting sugar and soda, maybe through a soda tax. Those two things would save thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of lives every year. They’re very important.
I know that a ban on junk-food advertising to kids is not going to happen soon, but that could also make a big difference. We really need to focus on kids. Adult obesity rates are not going down, in large part, because it’s extremely hard to lose weight. They aren’t going to come down until children have lower rates of obesity, and they gradually grow up and replace the adults who are obese.
But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just came out with new figures that show a shocking jump in obesity rates in kids ages 2 to 5 years old. So we still have a ways to go.
Are there any issues you fought for, at the federal level, but ultimately abandoned?
Oh, sure. At least temporarily. We fought to raise the alcohol tax but had to give up on it — the industry was just too strong among both Democrats and Republicans. Big-city Democrats have the big beer distributors to worry about, and Republicans are anti-tax. And some states — like Kentucky, Tennessee, California, Washington — have very influential wine and liquor producers. So you see how tough that kind of change becomes.
I would like to see nutrition labeling on alcoholic beverages. And I’ve always wanted ingredient labels on foods to be clearer — it’s just impossible to read that tiny sans-serif font. We petitioned the FDA without success.
And this is a little issue, but it galls me — this product called Quorn. That stuff shouldn’t have been approved, and it shouldn’t be on the market. Some people have severe allergies to it. But the FDA just won’t do anything about it.
I’d say somewhere down deep hope still exists. This stuff could go through in the right political environment.
A lot of public-health advocates would say, as you know, that this isn’t the right political environment for getting much done on nutrition. What do you think is the future of food and nutrition under the Trump administration?
Well, that’s why I’m retiring now — it’s a favor to my replacement! He will have plenty of work to do.
You know, so far we’ve seen more delays than real reversals from the Trump administration. They delayed rules that would put calorie labels on restaurant menus, and they delayed the rollout of new “Nutrition Facts” labels. They also delayed planned sodium reductions for school lunches. My feeling is that we have to wait and see. But delays are different from reversals.
I do think that there are things Trump can’t do anything about, even if he wanted to. Clearly there are cultural changes going on, as well.
Would you say Americans’ eating habits are trending in the right direction?
Oh, absolutely. Just look at a grocery store. In the 1970s, few even had whole-grain bread or canned chickpeas or yogurt. Now you have to walk through a huge product section to get to that stuff, and there’s a large selection.
When I was a teenager, soda was something we normally consumed. Now so many teenagers and young adults you know look at it and think, “It’s crap, why do I want to drink this?”
And there are other things, too. Millions of people just automatically buy whole grains or low-fat dairy products. Meat consumption, specifically beef and pork consumption, has gradually declined over the last 40 years. These things are great for health, and they have nothing to do with government.
Overall, I think we’ve had a great impact. But there is still more to do, and I look forward to that.
Correction: The headline on an earlier version of this post erroneously said Michael Jacobson coined the term junk food. He popularized the term.