The Tragic Legacy of Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI

Oh Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, who’s the most revisionist of us all?

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) provides the classic example of chutzpah, like when the child who murders his parents pleads for mercy in court because he is an orphan! In this case, the crime is the complete ruination of the food supply with the replacement of healthy traditional saturated fats with partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and the victim is the unsuspecting public, suffering from ever-increasing rates of cancer, heart disease, infertility, impotence, asthma, allergies, learning disabilities, bone problems, digestive disorders, diabetes and obesity.

On October 20, 1993, CSPI had the chutzpah to call a press conference in Washington, DC and lambast the major fast-food chains for doing what CSPI coerced them into doing, namely, using partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in their deep fat-fryers. On that date, CSPI, an eager proponent of partially hydrogenated oils for many years, even when their adverse health effects were apparent, reversed its position after an onslaught of adverse medical reports linking trans fatty acids in these processed oils to coronary heart disease and cancer. Instead of accepting the blame, CSPI pleaded “not guilty,” claiming that the fault lay with the major fast-food chains–including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, because they “falsely claim to use ‘100% vegetable oil’ when they actually use hydrogenated shortening.” (Actually, a fat or oil or mixture of fats and/or oils is called a “liquid shortening” when it is used in baking and frying; similarly, when poured over lettuce and tomatoes, it is called a “salad dressing.”)

According to the CSPI press release, “In 1984, CSPI organized the first national campaign to pressure fast-food restaurants and food companies to stop frying with beef fat and tropical oils, which are high in the cholesterol-raising saturated fats that increase the risk of heart disease. After six years of public pressure–including full-page newspaper ads placed by Nebraska millionaire and cholesterol-crusader Phil Sokolof–the industry finally relented in 1990. But instead of switching to vegetable oil for frying, CSPI’s research shows, the companies opted for hydrogenated shortenings, which have a longer shelf life and can be used longer in deep-fat fryers.”

To understand the depth of the hypocrisy and deception perpetrated on the public, let’s look at the sordid history of CSPI’s anti-saturated-fat campaign.

Anti-Saturate Rhetoric

One of America’s most influential and vocal consumer-advocacy group, CSPI was founded in 1972, the year that Michael Jacobson, CSPI’s Executive Director, published Eaters’ Digest, a book filled with anti-saturated-fat rhetoric.

CSPI’s well publicized campaign against “saturated” frying fats, especially those used by fast-food restaurants, was launched in 1984 and was continued in 1986 when CSPI added the “tropical oils” to their list of supposed villains in the American diet.

The whitewash of trans fatty acids began in 1987 with an article by Elaine Blume, published in CSPI’s Nutrition Action newsletter. Wrote Blume: “From margarine to Tater Tots, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils play a major role in our food supply. . . . In fact, hydrogenated oils don’t post a dire threat to health. . . . Improving on Nature. . . . Manufacturers hydrogenate. . . these vegetable oils so they won’t become rancid while they sit on shelves, or during frying. . . . it seems unlikely that hydrogenation contributes much to our burden of heart disease. . . The fact that hydrogenated oils appear to be relatively benign is cause for thanks, because these fats are everywhere.”

In 1988, CSPI published a booklet called Saturated Fat Attack, which defended trans fatty acids and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and called for pejorative labeling of “saturated” fats. The booklet contained a section called “Biochemistry 101,” which claimed that only tropical oils were dangerous when hydrogenated. “Hydrogenated (or partially hydrogenated) fats are widely used in foods and cause untold consternation among consumers. . . [they] start out as plain old liquid vegetable oils (usually soybean), which are then reacted with hydrogen. . . converting much of the polyunsaturated fatty acids to monounsaturated fatty acids. . . [with]. . . small amounts. . . converted to saturated fatty acids. . . [e.g.], stearic acid, which seems to have no effect on blood cholesterol levels.

“Overall, hydrogenated fats don’t pose a significant risk. . . exceptions are hydrogenated [tropical oils, which are made]. . . even worse after hydrogenation.”

Obviously, the individuals writing the booklet were completely ignorant (or pretended to be ignorant) of lipid science. Modern hydrogenation methods create trans fatty acids rather than monounsaturated fatty acids, and very few saturated fatty acids. By 1988, the adverse effects of trans fats were well known. The article points out that stearic acid has no effect on blood cholesterol levels, yet CSPI continued to accuse beef tallow, which is rich in stearic acid, of “raising cholesterol and increasing the risk of heart disease.” As for the tropical oils, they do not need to be hydrogenated!

Blume was at it again in March 1988 with another article, “The Truth About Trans .” “Hydrogenated oils aren’t guilty as charged. . . . All told, the charges against trans fat just don’t stand up. And by extension, hydrogenated oils seem relatively innocent.. . . . As for processed foods, you’re better off choosing products made with hydrogenated soybean, corn, or cottonseed oil. . . ” This article was widely disseminated; Michael Jacobson provided it as a handout to members of the Maryland Legislature during hearings when the University of Maryland group tried to introduce labeling of trans fatty acids in the State.

But by 1990, CSPI could no longer defend the indefensible. In October of that year, Bonnie Liebman, CSPI Director of Nutrition, published an article “Trans in Trouble” which referred to recent studies by Dutch scientists showing that trans fats raised cholesterol. “That’s not to say trans fatty acids are artery-cloggers,” she wrote, “. . . the fats in our foods may affect cholesterol differently than those used in the Dutch experiment. . . . The Bottom Line. . . Trans, shmans. You should eat less fat. . . Don’t switch back to butter. . . use a soft tub diet margarine. . . . ”


In May, 1991, I wrote a letter to the editor of Nutrition Action, outlining and correcting Ms. Liebman’s numerous errors, including her claim that consumption of trans fatty acids in the US typically ranged from 4 to 7 grams per day. By 1991, many Americans eating processed foods were consuming over 50 grams of trans fats per day.

The revisionism began in December 1992 when Ms. Liebman wrote: “We’ve been crying ‘foul’ for some time now, as the margarine industry has tried to convince people that eating margarine was as good for their hearts as aerobic exercise. . . . And we warned folks several years ago that trans fatty acids could be a problem. . . . That’s especially true now that we know that trans fatty acids are harmful, but we don’t know how much trans are in different foods.” Of course, CSPI had issued no such warning, but had been defending trans fats for more than five years. And there’s no apology for falsely demonizing traditional fats. “Don’t switch back from margarine to butter,” wrote Ms. Liebman, “. . . try diet or whipped margarine. . . use a liquid margarine.”

In November 1993, Bonnie Liebman coauthored an article with Margo Wootan called “The Great Trans Wreck,” which would have been in preparation well before Michael Jacobson’s infamous press conference, in which they asked, “Why do companies love hydrogenated fat if it’s so unhealthy? . . . . despite the claims on many packages, most companies switched not to vegetable oil, but to vegetable shortening. And that created a problem.”

Jacobson’s press conference was an attempt to deceive CSPI’s own readers and the public in four distinct ways:

  1. He wanted laymen to think that vegetable oil and vegetable shortening are two essentially different things
  2. He claimed that CSPI recommended vegetable oils only (and not shortenings containing trans fatty acids) during its anti-saturate campaign
  3. He accused the fast food chains of lying when they used shortenings, but advertised vegetable oils
  4. He asserted that CSPI thought the chains were using vegetable oils and not shortenings.

These are just a few elements in the tissue of lies, false innuendoes, and cover-ups in the Great Deception orchestrated by Liebman, Wootan and Jacobson, for in CSPI’s January 1991 Nutrition Action, Jacobson reviewed CSPI’s twenty-year history and gloated: “Last year, Nutrition Action provided members with postcards to send to McDonald’s and Burger King criticizing the frying of potatoes in beef fat. The postcard was timed to coincide with full-page ads sponsored by the National Heart Savers Association criticizing the way McDonald’s fries its potatoes. The companies, which were besieged with bad publicity and barraged with thousands of postcards, changed their shortening (emphasis added).”

This statement, presented to CSPI’s readers during the height of their anti-saturated-fat campaign, destroys the myth that CSPI began to promulgate in 1993, namely, that CSPI did not know that the chains had switched to shortenings, which for all practical purposes meant shortenings mainly composed of partially hydrogenated fats and oils. In fact, as early as 1986, when CSPI announced that “McDonald’s restaurants in New York will stop frying Chicken McNuggets and fish filets in beef fat and will use vegetable oil instead,” I wrote to Bonnie Liebman warning her that vegetable oil is almost always partially hydrogenated.

Damage Done

CSPI’s 1988 publication, Saturated Fat Attack, contains a long list of processed foods said to be made with coconut oil, palm oil, tallow, butter or lard. Actually, processors used mostly partially hydrogenated oil for snack foods and baked goods, but often included a small amount of other fats and oils, which were, of course, listed on the label. There were a few hold outs, however: Hi Ho crackers were made with coconut oil, Uneeda biscuits were made with lard, Sara Lee croissants were made with butter and Pepperidge Farm used a blend that contained a lot of coconut oil.

But it was the fast food chains that received the brunt of Jacobson’s wrath, because they used a blend of 91-95 percent beef fat or 100 percent palm oil for frying. He orchestrated well publicized demonstrations in front of McDonald’s and a post card campaign to the corporate offices of the fast food chains to protest the use of these “artery-clogging” saturated fats for frying.

It is impossible to measure the hazards and grief that Liebman and Jacobson–the leaders of the major nutrition “activist” consumer organization–have inflicted on many millions of an unknowing public–because CSPI’s campaign was wildly successful. Thanks to CSPI, healthy traditional fats have almost completely disappeared from the food supply, replaced by manufactured trans fats known to cause many diseases. By 1990, most fast food chains had switched to partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. In 1982, a McDonald’s meal of chicken McNuggets, large order of fries and a Danish or pie contained 2.4 grams of trans fat, out of a total of 54 grams of fat. In 1992, that same meal contained 19.2 grams trans fats, a 700 percent increase. After his victory with the fast food chains, Jacobson went after the popcorn in movie theatres and our last good dietary source of coconut oil—one of the supremely healthy fats on the planet–disappeared. “Today,” brags Jacobson, “‘no tropical oils’ is a badge of honor worn by many food packages.”

Coincidence or Conspiracy?

Who benefits? Soy, or course. Eighty percent of all partially hydrogenated oil used in processed foods in the US comes from soy, as does 70 percent of all liquid oil. CSPI claims that its support comes from subscribers to its Nutrition Action newsletter, which continues to issue hysterical warnings against “artery-clogging” fats in steak, whole milk and fettucine Alfredo. One million subscribers provide more than 70 percent of CSPI’s $13 million annual income, according to a recent report, but CSPI is extremely secretive about the value of its assets, salaries paid and use of its revenues. If CSPI has large donors, they’re not telling who they are, but in fact, in CSPI’s January, 1991 newsletter, Jacobson notes that “our effort was ultimately joined. . . by the American Soybean Association.”

Jacobson’s latest crusade? A new meat substitute called Quorn, made from protein produced by a fungus, which has proved popular in Europe. Thanks to Jacobson’s opposition, Quorn wil l not compete with imitation meat products made from soy in the US.


This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2003.

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