Do They Enjoy Really Being Dinner Party Don’t-Invite-’ems? : They Pointed Out the Perils of Popcorn, Chinese Food, Even the Unassuming Tuna Salad Sandwich. But What Really Goes On Inside the Center for Science in the Public Interest?

It’s was easier for NASA to fix the carbon dioxide problem on Apollo 13 than it is for an observer to determine the origin of a plate of cold food being picked apart with oversized tweezers by men and women in white lab coats.

Yes, another investigation is under way by the consumer advocates at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

These are the people who informed us, thank you very much, that all the foods we love, such as egg rolls and cheese nachos and lasagna and movie theater popcorn, contain deadly calories and so much grease that if you dropped a hardened block of it on your toe, you’d probably break it. Imagine how it jams up your arteries.

These are also the people who conduct studies and brandish sound bites for deliberate headlines that appeal to the fear of the intimate enemy–the high fat and high salt–to make the point that food kills. Over the years, they’ve become experts in using the media to get a hearing. So that when they release pronouncements, they go for as big a bang as they can.

To observe the science behind their most recent investigation, an oath is taken: The type of food cannot be revealed; descriptions have to be general, and cities where meals are bought will remain anonymous until the investigators issue the results next month. “We have to preserve an embargo so we can sell the story to all the major media,” says a spokesman for the center.

And so a deal is struck, and on a humid morning in late May a journalist is escorted into a private lab in an industrial park in the Baltimore suburbs. This is where chemists can determine anything about a food, from its fat content to what kind of preservatives it has. They can even lift fingerprints off a potato. Or so they say.

Before they begin their work, the lab workers don blue rubber gloves, oversized plastic lab glasses and white coats. Their task this morning is to methodically sort, weigh and grind up 50 restaurant meals laid out on a giant metal table. The food, bought at chain restaurants in two cities, had arrived in the overnight mail in a jumble of Tupperware and plastic foam containers.

Each component of the meal is first separated and categorized–animal, vegetable, fruit, nut, sauce and so on. After they are weighed and measured, they are reassembled and then stuffed through a grinder. The resulting mush is packaged in a plastic bag and coded. Later, 100-gram samples are blended to make “composites”–equal portions of the same meal from the same restaurant in different cities. The composites are then shipped to another part of the lab for analysis of calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.

As vile as the mush looks, it apparently doesn’t taste too bad, though the workers refrain from tasting to preserve the integrity of the study.

“It’s amazing,” says Supat Sirivicha, co-owner of the lab, “after we grind up the whole meal you’d never know it once was a chicken sandwich. It tastes like a chicken sandwich, it smells like one, and if you close your eyes and eat it, you think, ‘Gee, that’s a chicken sandwich.’ It just looks like brown mush.”

At one point, chemists Gilbert Daljani and Roberta Xega debate over a congealed orange blob. They can’t decide what it is. Daljani smells it first: “Count it with the sauce,” he says. Then Xega takes a whiff, pushes it around with the tweezers and shakes her head: “No, no, it’s from sauteeing peppers and onions.” Daljani sticks his nose even closer. “No, it’s not marinade, it’s sauce.” He prevails.

Later, Xega struggles with a smidgen of cheese that sticks to a piece of flat bread. Daljani wonders whether a red sliver is a piece of cabbage or a strand of lettuce soaked by red sauce. At times it seems tempting just to taste the food to get answers. But they resist and besides, who could stomach it?

When the lab was analyzing deli sandwiches (tuna salad is worse for you than roast beef on rye) for a report that was released this year, Alan Parker, another co-owner of the lab, came up with an idea for a Michael Jacobson sandwich–named for the center’s founder.

So if at famous delis, a Tom Hanks sandwich consists of roast beef, chopped liver, onion and chicken fat, and a Dolly Parton is twin rolls of corned beef and pastrami, then a Michael Jacobson sandwich must be?

“A piece of lettuce between two slices of bread,” Parker suggests.

*

If there is anything we loathe more than somebody who whines constantly about how much weight they need to lose, it’s dining with someone who works for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The center, a consumer-advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., has been the nation’s mom since 1971, battling the wealthy food industry and telling us to eat our broccoli. This band of baby-boomer advocates sees itself as an intermediary between real science and popular culture–between the Ph.D. who proves saturated fat can cause colon cancer and the guy who orders a marbleized steak for dinner. They’ve worked against deceptive advertising campaigns by food giants such as Kraft and Kellogg’s and lobbied Congress to require ingredient and nutrition labels on everything from a can of soup to a bottle of beer. But they are best known for taking these extreme positions:

“Fettucine Alfredo is the worst dish we’ve seen in 23 years of evaluating foods. It’s a heart attack on a plate.”

“Popular Chinese dishes like Kung Pao chicken and moo shu pork are as bad for you as a greasy cheeseburger and fries.”

“A medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn at a typical neighborhood movie theater contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon and eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch and a steak dinner with all the trimmings–combined!”

Admittedly, these are the sound bites that were gobbled up by the news media even though the center gave equal time to healthful ethnic dishes and movie theaters that eventually switched oils or to air in their poppers.

In fact, many Americans have gotten the word that a lousy diet can be dangerous. They need only watch their neighbors waddling down the block to see why: One in three Americans are obese, up from 1 in 4 in the 1970s. At the same time, a generation of scientists has proven that diet and lack of exercise can kill: At least 300,000 people a year are dying from an unhealthy diet and sedentary life, second only to the 400,000 who die from smoking. And eating with abandon can lead to high blood pressure, cancer, heart disease and tooth decay, not to mention the enormous societal prejudice that exists against fat people.

Increasingly, we are what we hate. Fat.

But only with its recent findings has the center hit a nerve–mostly prompting a collective groan from the public of “What will they tell us we can’t eat next? There’s nothing left!”

The frenzy began in September, 1993, when the center’s first restaurant-food study crushed the public assumption that Chinese cuisine was somehow “more healthful” than others. News that Kung Pao chicken has nearly as much fat as four McDonald’s Quarter Pounders, and that moo shu pork has 1,228 calories, with about half of them from fat, caused dyspeptic headlines around the world. (Little attention was paid to the center’s volumes of advice on how to make it healthier. For an egg roll: “Sop up some grease. Roll it in a napkin.” For sweet and sour pork: “Most of the fat’s in the breading. So take it off.”)

After additional surveys of Italian, Mexican, seafood and deli restaurants and theater popcorn, name recognition of the center picked up. So did the name calling. A list of negative descriptions is cheerfully kept in the center’s computer:

*

“Ayatollah of the food industry,” “broccoliheads,” “direct descendants of Chicken Little,” “gastronomical gestapo,” “knee-jerk-manipulative-press-releasery,” “party poopers,” “puritan self-denyers” and “Anorexic Left Wing Trust Fund East Coast Elitist Busybodies.”

While the restaurant studies have catapulted him into the biggest food-fight of his professional life, Michael Jacobson insists that he is used to controversy. Jacobson, executive director of the center and a wiry, middle-class child of the Midwest, says throughout the 1970s he was dismissed as a food faddist, a health nut and a quack.

“It’s amusing to see us being criticized as trying to change people’s diets when McDonald’s spends $750 million a year on advertising,” he says. “The biggest fast-food company goes into everybody’s homes on Saturday mornings and says, ‘Kids, eat this. You’ll love it.’ If McDonald’s sent sales people around door to door and said, ‘Ma’am, Can I talk to your child about fast foods? Alone.’, you’d slam the door in that guy’s face. But McDonald’s gets into our homes with this very insidious, harmful message and we accept it.”

This man who got his start working for Ralph Nader seems to have no problem pushing dietary concerns to uncomfortable levels to counterweight a consumer culture in which 704 new salty snack foods are introduced in a single year (1994) and companies spend $25 million a year advertising a single candy bar.

In the past decade, America has caught up with Jacobson’s concerns about diet and health. Instead of being a voice in the wilderness, the center has become part of the mainstream, campaigning against fat and salt alongside such forces as the U.S. surgeon general and the American Heart Assn.

“Washington is a finely balanced town,” says Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler. “And when that balance is not there, things tend to go awry. [The center] has served as a very important balance to the food industry.” Kessler also confesses that since the assault on Chinese restaurants, he eats more rice with his chicken.

But as the center’s profile has grown, so has the list of its detractors in unofficial but nevertheless influential circles.

There are the scientists who question why the center sticks with the Establishment view that all fats–not just saturated fat in meat and dairy products–are health hazards. Many dietitians take issue with the center’s radical position that the public should avoid so-called “bad” foods rather than recommending that people try to strike a healthy balance in an overall diet.

Food company executives don’t give these public advocates a lick of credit for changes in their $450-billion business, which now devotes 15% to 25% of its sales to reduced-calorie foods.

“Foodies”–critics and cookbook writers–blame Jacobson for taking the fun out of eating by injecting paranoia into one of the most important human pleasures. Jacobson counters by saying that most of us don’t love food. “The average person kind of just gobbles down the same dozen meals and doesn’t really think much about food.”

Yet few of Jacobson’s critics, except for the officials at the meat, milk and grocery associations, are willing to openly run him down.

“He’s got the story the media wants,” grumbles one food executive. “If he’s the good guy in the white hat, we’re the bad guys in the black hats. So there’s no mileage to taking him on except for the five minutes of emotional satisfaction.”

The people at the center seem to relish some of the criticism. Certainly the commotion has increased their resources. The center is funded mostly by $24-a-year subscriptions to its Nutrition Action Healthletter. Since 1991, the newsletter’s circulation has tripled from 240,000 to 780,000 today, thus tripling the center’s budget to $12 million. (Jacobson insists that the increased circulation is coincidental to the center’s new fame. He says it has more to do with aggressive marketing of the newsletter than his multiple appearances on CNN.)

Even though the staff prefers to think of themselves as “food detectives” rather than “food cops”–they’re investigators, not enforcers–they embrace exaggerated images. Art Silverman, spokesman for the center, offered to have Jacobson photographed dressed like a cop. “If you’re tagged with an image, you can go against the tide or go with it,” Silverman says. “We’d rather go with it to get our bigger message across.”

But mostly the center’s staff feels miserably misunderstood, that their broad, scientifically based advocacy agenda has been reduced to an investigation of what will drive us to the grave faster–deep fried seafood or taco salad. And so the time has come to suck in our collective gut, pack a politically correct snack and visit the squad room of the food detectives at 1875 Connecticut Ave., the center’s headquarters in northwest Washington, D.C.

*

The center’s offices are located in the third-floor suite of a building just above the eclectic Dupont Circle in downtown Washington. In many ways, this could be any workplace in the nation’s capital–a smoke-free environment filled with clean-living yuppies. But when you walk the hallway leading to the center’s offices, a gallery of posters such as the “Anti-Cancer Eating Guide: Fight Cancer With Your Fork” and the “Fiber Scoreboard: Rough It Up” signal that what lies ahead is not a normal nest of bureaucrats.

The staff of about 45 are for the most part slim, fit, and young. They are compelled to follow a strict no-junk-food-in-the-office rule that was set down by Jacobson as a way to keep reporters from playing “gotcha.” In the office lunchroom, there are cases of Bluebird orange juice instead of sodas. A giant metal bowl holds fat-free graham crackers. The refrigerator is crammed with bag lunches–salads and healthy-looking leftovers in plastic containers–and there must be a dozen fat-free salad dressings. One jar of regular Hellmann’s mayonnaise stands alone, with barely a teaspoonful missing, clearly the remnant of a study past.

The staff seems used to this type of inspection, and nobody flinches when queried not just about their work but also about their eating habits, height, weight, cholesterol level and what their kids eat for snacks.

Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director and chief interpreter of food science for the hungry and hurting masses who read the Nutrition Action Healthletter, has three young children whom she tries to keep on the dietary straight-and-narrow except when they attend birthday parties.

“I’m not going to send a note that says ‘Hannah can’t eat ice cream,’ ” says Liebman of her 8-year-old daughter. “If you deny children certain food it becomes an obsession.”

But Liebman, 42, sees the wisdom in adults’ striking some foods from their regular diets. “If people just ate fettucine Alfredo once in a while it would be one thing,” says Liebman. “But no: it’s a doughnut for breakfast, a burger for lunch, topped off by fettucine for dinner.” Rather than consume these “bad” foods, people should use healthy substitutions. “We at CSPI created a subset of more health-conscious Americans who prefer SnackWell’s [a brand of low-fat cookies and crackers] over Oreos,” she says.

The center, in fact, has been at the forefront of the movement that has embraced a low-fat diet as if it was a holy writ. Liebman sees no point in changing course now, as some scientists have suggested, to warn only against saturated fats and leave the public alone about counting grams of other fats such as olive and peanut oil. It’s more practical, she says, to ask the public to lower its total fat consumption rather than ask Americans to totally change their way of eating.

“We could go on a campaign to create a Mediterranean diet, but that would be one hard fight,” she says. “We’re not talking about switching from steak to flounder. We’re talking about getting both off the plate and replacing them with [simple] pasta.”

But Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, says studies have proven that only saturated fat leads to disease and that a low-fat diet is not necessarily the best way to fight obesity.

The low-fat obsession by the center and the government, he says, reflects “a paternalistic idea that the public is not smart enough to distinguish between types of fat. I think we should tell people the facts and give them options. Fat in the diet, fat in the body–it’s not the same.”

Yet Willett figures he and people like Liebman and Jacobson, whom he admires for taking on the food industry, follow a similar diet. “The difference is I have a bottle of olive oil on the stove and on the table because it makes things taste better.”

If Bonnie Liebman is the office scientist willing to take on the forces at Harvard, Jayne Hurley is the head detective–the office Sherlock Holmes.

Senior nutritionist Hurley, 38, can read any label in a grocery store and detect exactly what’s in a package–the good, the bad, the artificial. For the summer edition of the newsletter she recently assessed 125 bottled juices, teas and quenchers. Orange juice received the highest score because it’s loaded with vitamins and minerals. Apple and grape juice landed at the bottom of the juice barrel. “We like to score things for nutritional values,” she says.

Hurley also writes a column in the newsletter that routinely slams specific products. For example, a few years ago she went after “Lunchables,” an Oscar Meyer lunch product that originally had round pieces of fatty meat, squares of cheese, fat-laden crackers, a candy bar and sugary drink all in one package. “Lunchables,” according to a company spokesman, represents $250 million in annual sales. “I gave them a ‘food porn,’ ” she says, of the newsletter’s worst rating, “but before I could have any effect, or stop it, several companies copied Oscar Meyer.”

As the mastermind of the restaurant studies, Hurley, who is 5′ 8″, 120 pounds and an exercise fiend, has probably taken the worst public beating recently of anyone on the staff. Chicago columnist Mike Royko referred to her as a “skinny harpy” after seeing her on television talking about the perils of Chinese food. She was upset but is ready for another go-around: “We always do our research, so I’m always prepared,” she says. For the study under way in the Baltimore lab, she had spent weeks researching and planning and will spend as much time analyzing results this summer.

“There’s no rocket science here but it’s also not just going randomly to a restaurant near our office and tasting the food,” she says.

After Hurley finishes her analysis, she turns the results over to Art Silverman.

He is the center’s quick-witted phrase maker who came up with “heart attack on a plate” for fettucine Alfredo and recast movie theater popcorn as “the Godzilla of snack foods.” (Since coming to the center three years ago, Silverman, 44, has dropped 20 pounds and 70 cholesterol points.)

Before he arrived, only Jacobson wrote press releases, although all of the senior staff has always been allowed to talk to reporters. “What distinguishes us is that we have scientists and lawyers who know how to speak English and deliver sound bites,” he says.

Essentially, the organization is run by ‘60s-minded ideologues with a ‘90s view of using the media. Sometimes that means issuing lengthy tomes entitled “Government Involvement in Agricultural Marketing: Taxpayer Handouts–Government for Hire.” But more often, that means a snappy press release once a week and a dramatic press conference every few months. If the news is sensational, nothing gets in its way: Jacobson was interviewed about popcorn by South Africa’s major radio station the week of Nelson Mandela’s election as president.

But in April, Jacobson released a report revealing that baby-food companies such as Gerber used starch fillers in their bananas and tapioca meal, among other complaints. The nation’s mothers did not rise up in arms, perhaps because they were busy grieving elsewhere: The report came the morning of April 20, one day after a federal building was blown up in Oklahoma City.

Stephen Schmidt prints news of a milder sort, though it’s still critical to his readers.

Schmidt, 46, is the editor of the Nutrition Action Healthletter. He is the only buongustaio on the staff. He loves food–he loves to cook; he loves to eat; he loves to talk about cooking and eating. Schmidt, baldish, smiling and seemingly more robust than the others, says, “I bring an attitude we need.”

He claims to be the only admitted vegetarian among the top staff. Because his overall diet is so exemplary he allows himself occasional lapses, he says: “If I’m sauteeing mushrooms in olive oil, I’ll throw in a little butter because it tastes soooooooo wonderful.” But if he’s writing about butter, he advises the public to stay away from it because most people don’t limit those killer saturated fats. “So as a nation,” says Schmidt, “if we switch from butter to margarine, thousands of fewer people will die.”

In fact, most of Schmidt’s readers have more than a casual interest in health. Most are women, average age mid-50s, with health problems; about 15% are Californians while the rest live near big cities on the East Coast. Despite the seriousness of his subject, Schmidt says, he aims to inject humor wherever he can into the 16-page newsletter. “Maybe if you can laugh while you’re reading, it’s less depressing,” he says.

Most people in the office wear jeans and T-shirts, shorts and sneakers. But as you round the last corner of the office suite, there finally appears a real Washington-looking person.

“I’m the guy in the white shirt and tie,” says Bruce Silverglade. He’s the lawyer.

Silverglade lobbies Congress and federal and state agencies, often hiking the halls of government with a giant leather briefcase crammed with empty boxes of breakfast cereal and desserts with misleading health claims. “Both Democrats and Republicans have cholesterol problems.” he says.

When Silverglade joined the center in 1981, he filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission challenging the claim that “with Wonder bread, good nutrition doesn’t have to be whole wheat.” The company rewrote the package for the white bread.

Probably Silverglade’s biggest effort–and success–went into fighting for the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which requires all food products to disclose nutritional information and established standard definitions for claims such as “low fat” and “light.” More recently, Silverglade has filed a lawsuit in federal court to persuade the FDA to apply labeling rules to restaurant menus so that places such as Don Pablos in Dallas–he pulls the restaurant’s giant menu from his bookshelf–can’t say that an avocado dish “lowers blood cholesterol.”

“They can’t make positive health claims like that when everybody knows that avocados are high in fat,” he says.

Asked about his own diet, Silverglade stiffens a little. A solid, seemingly reserved man, Silverglade says he sticks to a conservative diet. Since he’s been in this job, however, he has made a few changes: “I’ve switched from 2% to 1% milk. I will take a polite nibble at dessert. But I still eat red meat.”

*

Michael Jacobson’s assistant, Geoffrey Barron, is taking a typical call.

“Tuna salad has a lot of fat,” he says.

Silence.

“Well, what’s in the vinaigrette? It’s OK, as long as there’s no mayonnaise.”

Silence.

“Yeah, olive oil’s OK.”

Silence.

“It sounds OK, just leave out the dessert.”

Click.

In Jacobson’s office the lessons continue.

This guy must have excelled in show-and-tell. He shows off a graduated cylinder containing equal portions of fat and protein in a single hot dog. “This is not terribly dramatic,” he says, twirling the cylinder in his hand and closely examining it in the manner of a scientist, which he is. “It’s only dramatic if you realize that people think of a hot dog as protein and it’s really a fat food.” He seems to savor the wincing faces of people who look at the grease, knowing they’ve spent a lifetime chowing down hot dogs at ballgames and barbecues.

Then, his eyes brightening with expectation, Jacobson, 52, offers to produce a block of hydrogenated fat, which looks like a cubic foot of soap except that it’s rock hard. Fast-food restaurants often use hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fat for frying, he explains. “People normally assume that partially hydrogenated vegetable oil pours. I mean that’s the dictionary definition of oil.” And to make the point that it doesn’t, Jacobson for years during speeches would open a jar of coconut oil and turn it over his head. Of course, nothing came out.

These aren’t just props or stunts to Jacobson. Rather, they are symbols that have been central to his 24-year crusade. The effectiveness of visual images was impressed upon him when he was a boy roaming among the dioramas and exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

“He loves tubes of gross fat or blobs of grease. He always looks for a way to make [the problems] seem real,” Liebman says.

Over the years, Jacobson, an MIT-trained microbiologist, has urged Liebman to stop writing like a scientist, to be more direct by removing “weasel words”–qualifiers such as “suggests” and “maybe.”

In addition to Jacobson’s dramatic bag of tricks–he stunned the Federal Trade Commission a few years ago when he sent it 170 rotted teeth attached to a petition about the advertising of junk food in children’s television programs–almost everything that comes out of the center is made simple: No one talks about the government’s recommended daily allowance of fat without pointing out that 65 grams equals 13 teaspoons; everything is compared to Big Macs and Quarter Pounders.

Jacobson’s detractors say he overdoes the Big Mac analogy and simply goes too far.

Does he have to scold President Clinton? In more than one public speech, Jacobson has said he wished Clinton could be persuaded to stop for sweet potatoes, rated by the center to be the perfect food, at least as often as he stops at McDonald’s.

And did Jacobson really have to write the Washington Post suggesting its recipes belonged on the obituary page?

“Well, some of it is fun,” he admits.

For someone who is so involved in the food industry, Jacobson really had no special interest in food in his youth. He was raised on meat and potatoes in Chicago by his father, Larry, a camera-store owner, and his mother, Janet, a substitute teacher.

Although he was briefly a vegetarian in college, his first real contact with the complexities of healthy eating came in April, 1970, when he went to Washington to work with Ralph Nader. His first assignment was to investigate food additives. In the course of writing a book on the subject for Nader’s group, he learned about nutrition, and discovered that additives weren’t nearly as dangerous to the public’s health as high fats and cholesterol. By 1971, he and two other scientists, who have since left, pooled their money and founded the center to pass on their new knowledge to the public.

Though Jacobson loves to talk of his triumphs during that first decade–organizing Food Day and pressing the government about pesticides in food–he didn’t become known beyond the world of experts until he took on the fast-food industry.

That campaign began in 1983, when Liebman, at Jacobson’s urging, decided to look at what was being served to millions of customers in fast-food restaurants. At the time, food writers largely ignored fast food because it was too plebeian.

“It was a pretty big industry–$30 to $40 billion a year–probably bigger than the tobacco industry back then,” says Jacobson. After Liebman’s investigation, he says, he recognized that he had a juicy opportunity. “I thought, ‘Yes, big target.’ ”

When the companies refused to reveal ingredients, Jacobson sent an assistant to forage for packages listing ingredients in dumpsters at a Washington-area McDonald’s. But a breakthrough, according to Jacobson, came when a competitor of McDonald’s told him that chicken McNuggets contained ground-up chicken skin. He dissected a serving of McNuggets in his office and found the skins. In short order, he called a press conference, which led to a furor over McNuggets. Later, his staff discovered that McDonald’s and others were frying their French fries in beef fat, which a lot of people also found appalling.

Beyond the fast-food joints and grocery stores, which the center focused on during the 1970s and 1980s, Jacobson says he began to broaden the center’s reach when he realized how often Americans eat outside their homes. In fact, nearly half of the American “food dollar” is spent in restaurants. And so the 1990s became the decade the center took on restaurant foods, and the period that Jacobson’s public battles escalated.

Probably the worst charge leveled at Jacobson–perhaps even worse than that he takes a dim view of humanity and talks in hyperbolic terms to scare people healthy–is that he doesn’t like to eat.

“I have certainly grown to like it,” he says. “I see the pleasures and I love meeting a new vegetable from time to time.”

*

There is something that food scientists, as they attempt to re-create the taste of fat, like to refer to as “mouth feel”–that sense of weight and texture, of tenderness and juiciness, that people so crave and enjoy in foods that invariably are unhealthy.

And if there is something fundamental that people at the center recognize, but sometimes shortchange, it is the enormous barrier Americans must get past as they try to adjust their palates, actually recalibrate them, so that, indeed, a plain sweet potato can somehow taste as satisfying as it would had it been slathered in butter or marshmallow.

The problem is that many Americans eat like lumberjacks at the same time they smoke, drink, sit behind desks and are being persuaded by a consumer culture to want things that aren’t good for them. The food detectives try to be a voice that sometimes shouts above the din in America’s 150,000 fast-food restaurants or in the center aisle of thousands of grocery stores.

Jacobson has seen some signs that people are listening: heart-attack rates have come down, people are drinking more 1% milk and eating more fresh fruits and vegetables. In the future, he says, he plans to hammer the same messages but, hopefully, through new means such as the Internet, 30-second spots on radio and television and in programs for children.

“Some things really are moving in the right direction and others aren’t,” he says. “But the campaigns to promote better nutrition are so puny and they’re opposed by such enormous cultural forces that to expect great progress in a brief period of time is naive. It’s going to take decades to really change a culture’s eating habits.”

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