With its flair for sound bites -‘soda is a slow-acting but ruthlessly efficient bioweapon’ - and its undisputed PR skills (remember those diabetic bears? ), the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has a knack for getting its name in the papers.
But while critics argue the Washington DC-based consumer advocacy group exerts an unwarranted influence over the political debate about tackling obesity, supporters say it deserves every column inch it garners, given the wads of cash the food industry spends to ensure its voice is also heard.
The food industry has resources, political connections and tools at its disposal that we simply don’t have
Not surprisingly, the CSPI’s director of nutrition policy Margo Wootan thinks the food industry can look after itself: “The industry has resources, political connections and tools at its disposal that we simply don’t have.”
She also points out that the CSPI has a constructive relationship with industry on several issues, notably calorie labeling on menus, although “what most people see in public is when we are having a more combative interaction”.
However, there will always be some level of tension, she says, because the CSPI and the food industry have fundamentally different objectives.
Of course, making a profit (the industry objective) and promoting health (the CSPI’s objective) are not mutually exclusive, as many healthy products are profitable, and many food companies actively promote healthy eating.
But no business is going to willingly engage in initiatives that could damage sales of its biggest brands, points out Wootan who was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA as part of our weight management special edition.
The idea that the marketplace will take care of every problem known to man is ridiculous
And in areas such as sodium reduction - where many firms have struggled to make a business case - legislation may be the only way to enforce change, she claims.
“The idea that the marketplace will take care of every problem known to man is ridiculous.”
And while food companies are fond of wheeling out voluntary initiatives such as calorie labeling on soda, reduced ‘junk food’ marketing to kids, and the provision of healthier snacks in schools, as examples of how proactive they have been, these things only came about because of relentless pressure from advocacy groups such as the CSPI, argues Wootan.
“I don’t think the food industry suddenly woke up one day and said we want to stop marketing junk food to kids. We’re been pushing for action on this for 15 years.”
Is the CSPI supported by sound science?
But what about hard science, which the food industry argues - with some justification - that many consumer advocacy groups often ignore in favor of emotional arguments?
In the case of the CSPI, its reputation within industry is mixed in this regard. For example, some industry sources praise its balanced take on biotechnology and the relative merits of high fructose corn syrup vs sugar - two particularly emotionally-charged topics.
However, others say its description of edible fungus Quorn as a ‘dangerous new food ingredient’ is inaccurate and alarmist, while its criticism of caramel coloring, BVO, aspartame and other legal and exhaustively tested ingredients also frustrates many firms.
As for tackling obesity, however, there is a wealth of scientific data to support the CSPI’s relentless hammering of the soft drinks industry, its petition calling for the FDA to determine a safe level of sugar and HFCS in beverages, and its support of Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on large sugary sodas, insists Wootan.
And while some feel the CSPI’s rhetoric (is soda really a 'bioweapon'?) is unduly alarmist, Wootan begs to differ. With a third of the US population now obese and another third overweight, we should be alarmed, she points out.
Bad foods or bad science?
Meanwhile, the stock industry response to any attempt to restrict access to junk foods - ‘there is no such thing as bad foods, only bad diets' - is starting to wear pretty thin, she claims.
“Of course if your diet is generally very good, you can fit in treats now and again, but the ‘there are no bad foods, only bad diets’ mantra is just an excuse to cover up irresponsible food industry practices.
“A 3,000 calorie plate of cheesy fries IS a bad food, and trying to fit foods like this into your diet on a regular basis and maintain a healthy weight is almost impossible.”
If healthy choices are not available, reasonably priced and attractively presented and promoted, people will have a hard time eating well
And while better education and clearer labeling is a good start, the food environment has to change if we are going to make the dramatic changes to our diet and lifestyle required to keep obesity at bay, she claims.
“Even if people have great nutrition education, if healthy choices are not available, reasonably priced and attractively presented and promoted, people will have a hard time eating well.”
We need to totally rethink the way we eat out
And this is particularly evident when eating out, where trying to eat healthily can feel like “swimming upstream”, she remarks.
“We need to totally rethink the way we eat out. It’s not an occasional treat anymore. For many people, it’s lunch every day, and maybe breakfast and dinner a few times a week.”
You go to a drugstore to buy shampoo, go to pay and you’re bombarded by an array of candy bars
And while it’s easier to find healthy options when shopping in a grocery store, it’s still hard to find them at many c-stores, she says, while retailers of every description continue to stock ‘junk’ food at the checkout.
“You go to a drugstore to pick up some shampoo, go to pay and you’re bombarded by an array of candy bars. But you didn’t go in to buy one.”
But can groups like the CSPI really make a difference, as well as generating catchy headlines?
Absolutely, argues Wootan, citing successes in securing nutrition labeling of packaged foods; taking or threatening legal action against firms making deceptive health claims; and menu labeling as some highlights.
However, when every attempt to legislate change - from Mayor Bloomberg’s super-size soda ban to the IWG proposal to curb junk food marketing food to kids - is met with immediate and overwhelming opposition from the food industry, the slow pace of change can be very frustrating, she says.
“On a good day, I think my job is totally do-able; on a bad day I feel completely overwhelmed.”