CSPI treachery/idiocy

I vacillate between which organization I think is the most harmful to the health of America: is it PETA or is it the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)?

peta-nude-protest.jpgWhen I really think seriously about it, I realize that the CSPI is the more harmful by a longshot. The idiots at PETA are considered by most but the extremely simple minded as being an extremist organization full of idiots who want to take off their clothes to protest against fur. I’m sure these displays of nudity attract throngs of people (mostly prurient, I would imagine), but I doubt that they put many off of eating meat. Other than the simple minded, of course. But, that might not be all that bad. It could lessen their contribution to the gene pool.

The CSPI, on the other hand, is cloaked in the mantle of science. Whereas the media turns out to cover the PETA nude protests primarily because they’re so strange, this same media gives the idiotic pronouncements of the CSPI the legitimacy of real science. Since virtually all of the CSPI’s pronouncements are far from scientific nutritional reality, this press coverage creates a scorched-earth type of damage that has far-reaching untoward effects. We have the CSPI to thank for all the trans fats we’ve consumed over the past couple of decades. Remember, they are the one’s who came out disparaging butter, coconut oil, and beef tallow, causing restaurants and food processors to switch to trans fats – of which the CSPI approved then, thought they now profess to be against them.

made-to-stick.jpgNot long ago I posted on a review of a book I read about that had a section on the tactics used by the CSPI to disparage and ultimately get rid of coconut oil in movie popcorn. What was this coconut oil, a perfectly good saturated fat, replaced with? You’ve got it: trans fat.

I ordered the book that was reviewed, Made to Stick, not because I wanted to read more about the CSPI, but because, for whatever reason, I enjoy books on marketing techniques. (And who knows why I enjoy them? I’m not a marketer, that’s for sure.) The book is a prettu good one about methods good marketers use to get their ideas to stick in the minds of consumers.

In my reading I came across the section about the CSPI and the method its marketing wizard used to savage coconut oil. I’ve reprinted the section in full below.

The Truth About Movie PopcornArt Silverman stared at a bag of movie popcorn. It looked out of place sitting on his desk. His office had long since filled up with fake-butter fumes. Silverman knew, because of his organization’s research [show me one paper they’ve published], that the popcorn on his desk was unhealthy. Shockingly unhealthy, in fact. His job was to figure out a way to communicate this message to the unsuspecting moviegoers of America.

Silverman worked for the Center for Science and the Public Interest (CSPI), a non-profit group that educates the public about nutrition. The CSPI sent bags of movie popcorn from a dozen theaters in three major cities to a lab for nutritional analysis. The results surprised everyone.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that a normal diet contain no more than 20 grams of saturated fat each day. According to the lab results, the typical bag of popcorn had 37 grams.

The culprit was coconut oil, which theaters used to pop their popcorn. Coconut oil had some big advantages over other oils. It gave the popcorn a nice, silky texture, and released a more pleasant and natural aroma than the alternative oils. Unfortunately, as the lab results showed, coconut oil was also brimming with saturated fat.

The single serving of popcorn on Silverman’s desk – a snack someone might scarf down between meals – had nearly two day’s worth of saturated fat. And those 37 grams of saturated fat were packed into a medium-sized serving of popcorn. No doubt a decent-sized bucket could have cleared triple digits.

The challenge, Silverman realized, was that few people know what ” 37 grams of saturated fat” means. Most of us don’t memorize the USDA’s daily nutrition recommendations. Is 37 grams good or bad? And even if we have an intuition that it’s bad. we’d wonder if was “bad bad” (like cigarettes) or “normal bad” (like a cookie or a milk shake).

Even the phrase “37 grams of saturated fat” by itself was enough to cause most people’s eyes to glaze over. “Saturated fat has zero appeal,” Silverman says. “It’s dry, it’s academic, who cares?”

Silverman could have created some kind of visual comparison – perhaps an advertisement comparing the amount of saturated fat in the popcorn with the USDA’s recommended daily allowance. Think of a bar graph, with one of the bars stretching twice as high as the other.

But that was too scientific somehow. Too rational. The amount of fat in this popcorn was, in some sense, not rational. It was ludicrous. The CSPI needed a way to shape the message in a way that fully communicated this ludicrousness.

Silverman came up with a solution.

CSPI called a press conference on September 27, 1992. Here’s the message it presented: “A medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn at a typical neighborhood movie theater contains more artery-clogging fat [Jesus wept] than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings – combined!”

The folks at CSPI didn’t neglect the visuals – they laid out the full buffet of greasy food for the television cameras. An entire day’s worth of unhealthy eating, displayed on a table. All that saturated fat – stuffed into a single bag of popcorn.

The story was an immediate sensation, featured on CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN. It made the front pages of USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post Style section. Leno and Letterman cracked jokes about fat-soaked popcorn, and the headline writers trotted out some doozies: “Popcorn Gets an ‘R’ Rating,” “Lights. Action, Cholesterol!” “Theater Popcorn is Double Feature of Fat.”

The idea stuck. moviegoers repulsed by these findings, avoided popcorn in droves. Sales plunged. The service staff at movie houses grew accustomed to fielding questions about whether the popcorn was popped in the “bad” oil. Soon after, most of the nation’s biggest chains – including United Artists, AMC, and Loews – announced that they would stop using coconut oil.

Pretty effective, I would say. Notice how the authors of this book have even bought into the charade, using such phrases as :”[the CSPI] educates the public about nutrition,” “[the fat in the popcorn was] was ludicrous,” and, my favorite, “artery-clogging.” But you can’t blame them; they’re marketers, not scientists.

Were I to do my own marketing hatchet job on movie popcorn, I would put out a pile of sugar that is in volume about halfway between a quarter of a cup and a half cup. I would say that the consumption of a bag of movie popcorn is the metabolic equivalent to downing this pile of sugar. And I would submit that 3/8 of a cup of sugar would do infinitely more harm to a person’s metabolism than the 37 grams of coconut oil.

But, instead, we have the CSPI telling people that all the carb in the popcorn is okay, it’s the totally metabolically inactive fat that’s the problem. So, let’s keep the carbs and just add 37 grams of trans fat to make it really good.

Yes, definitely, the CSPI is worse.

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9 thoughts on “CSPI treachery/idiocy

  1. Mary Enig wrote a scathing article on CSPI.

    The bottom line:

    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.”

    Yeah, I have to agree CSPI is worse. It is some what like the frying-pan-into-the-fire problem though.

    Hi George–

    Thanks for reminding me of Dr. Enig’s expose.  I had forgotten about it.  And thanks for the link and excerpt. 

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  2. An afterthought, if wordpress allows a preview function for comments, dolts like me might catch a few more of our typos!

    Hi George–

    Don’t worry about it.  I do have a spell checker on WordPress, so I always check and correct misspellings and other typos on the comments.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  3. Dr. Eades,

    I couldn’t agree with you more! Do you know of any campaigns against CSPI as there are for those against PETA?

    Cheers,
    Anna

    Hi Anna–

    The same people who are against PETA: The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), which has its own set of biases since it is underwritten by the food and restaurant industry.

    Best–

    MRE 

  4. Sorry, I answered my own question from my earlier comment. http://www.cspiscam.com/ is run by Center for Consumers Freedom, who I think, are the same folks behind the anti-Peta campaign. http://www.consumerfreedom.com/

    I’ll have to take a closer look at CCF.
    Ciao, Anna

    Hi Anna–

    That’s what I get for answering these comments as they come up on my list instead of reviewing them all first.

    Best–

    MRE 

  5. This may be a little off topic, but I see where they are supposedly replacing transfats oils with interesterified oils. These are fully hydrogenated vs partially hydrogenated. How is this oil any better than the previous oil? My thought is that all hydrogenated oils are bad. My other question is how can a city ban the use of transfats in restaurants? Don’t get me wrong, I think transfats are bad but what happened to the freedoms we are suppose to have in this country? Why isn’t someone challenging this ban in court?

    I think these new fake fats are going to be as bad as the old transfats and with the current low fat mania you know that food preparers will not go back to saturated fats like coconut oil, etc.

    Hi Jay–

    These oils aren’t any better than trans fats.  Here’s a link to a recent study discussing the issue.

    As to why someone doesn’t fight it in court…whoever would do it would be portrayed as someone militating to feed people unhealthful food.  It would be a losing situation.  And if they lost it would be even worse.

    Best–

    MRE 

  6. Well said Doc: As a scientist-educator myself, I am astounded at how resistant the scientific community is to the many success stories like the Drs Eades, my wife and I, and countless others, who routinely test out with fabulous lipid profiles while consuming low carb meat and veggie dishes prepare in coconut oil. Do they think we’re lying, mere charlatans? I remember the outcry after Dr. Atkins died that the real culprit might have been heart disease, yet high carb/low fat dieters get a pass when they suffer coronaries. Thanks for your public display of outrage – we second it!

    Best,

    David and Susan Futoma

    Hi David and Susan–

    Thanks for the support.

    Best–

    MRE 

  7. One (of many) problems is that Americans generally don’t believe that sugar is bad for you. And to display 3/8 of a cup is really a bad excuse for a visual aid to most of them. The number needs to be bigger, how many grams of sugar is that? Americans would probably react better to a large number of grams then 3/8 of a cup. 3/8 is a fraction and fractions are small so even if sugar is bad it’s just a small amount. Americans are not well known for being bright.

    Dave

    Hi Dave–

    It’s about 75 grams or 15 times the amount of sugar dissolved in the blood at any given time.

    Best–

    MRE 

  8. I agree. The CSPI is a sham. They target saturated fats and get trans fats put in fast food in place of the saturates. Then when it’s found out that trans is bad, they sue to have them replaced with something else. I guess fixing their previous mistakes keeps them busy and justifies their existence.

    But I love PETA…People Eating Tasty Animals.

    Hi Scott–

    I love that PETA, too.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  9. Notice that the study you refer to about interesterified oils was written by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board. Not really fair to base an opinion on one study anyway.