Eschewing the Fat

updated 08/08/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/08/1994 01:00AM

MAYBE GOING TO A RESTAURANT with Michael Jacobson, America's top nutrition monitor, wasn't the ideal first date, admits his wife, Donna Lenhoff. In addition to the usual getting-to-know-you jitters, Lenhoff was worried that whatever she ordered at Otello's, an Italian restaurant in Washington, would infuriate this scourge of fat-laden foods.

"We were sitting there, and the waiter asked, 'Would you like a drink?' " recalls Lenhoff, 43, general counsel for the Women's Legal Defense Fund. "Michael said, 'I'll have a glass of wine.' I breathed a sigh of relief.

"Then the waiter asked if we'd like to order," she continues. "I said, 'I'm a vegetarian.' You could see him breathe a sigh of relief."

Lenhoff passed muster that evening in December 1988. She didn't order red meat or fettucine Alfredo, two of the nonos on Jacobson's long list. As director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, Jacobson, 51, is on a mission to educate Americans about the fat, cholesterol and sodium that saturate their diets. Last month, as part of an investigation of restaurant food, the center dished out the bad news on Mexican fare: A serving of such favorites as beef and cheese nachos, beef chimichangas and a chile rellenos platter far exceeds the daily allowance of 65 grams of fat for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet recommended by the FDA. A beef chimichanga, for example, served with beans, rice, sour cream and guacamole, contains nearly as much fat (86 grams) as a stick of butter. "I was shocked," says Jacobson. "Nobody thought of Mexican restaurants as health-food spots, but I didn't know the meals had this much fat and salt."

Mexican menus are only the Center's latest target. In recent months CSPI blew the whistle on Italian food (fettucine Alfredo, containing 97 grams of fat, is described as "a heart attack on a plate"), Chinese food (an order of kung pao chicken has almost as much fat—76 grams—as four McDonald's quarter pounders) and movie-house popcorn (one small bucket is nearly equal in fat—50 grams—to six Kentucky Fried Chicken drumsticks). The reports have infuriated the food and restaurant industries. "Jacobson should be buried up to his neck in sour cream and guacamole," fumes Jeff Nedelman, vice-president of communications for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "He has singlehandedly taken the fun out of eating."

Jacobson is not above using media stunts to wake Americans up to food hazards. In 1977 he delivered 170 decayed teeth to the Federal Trade Commission to protest the sugar content of snack foods advertised on children's TV Last year he chiseled away at a 50-pound block of hydrogenated vegetable shortening in front of TV cameras to demonstrate the artery-clogging properties of the oil used by fast-food restaurants for deep-frying. His tactics work. Shortly after the popcorn report, most movie theater chains switched from coconut oil to canola oil, which is lower in saturated fat. Says Peggy Charren, a children's consumer advocate: "Michael has become a major player on food in this country."

Jacobson certainly didn't learn about good nutrition growing up in Chicago. His father, Larry, a camera-store owner, and his mother, Janet, a substitute teacher, served, among other things, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and meat loaf. When Jacobson was 9, his mother and his aunt were drowned in a freak undertow on a family outing to Lake Michigan. Though his father remarried happily, Jacobson has never forgotten the scene. "It was awful," he says. "The whole family was on the beach." Jacobson attended the University of Chicago and then MIT, where he earned a Ph.D. in microbiology in 1969. In 1970 he signed on to work as technical consultant for Ralph Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law in Washington. One day Nader took Jacobson aside and asked him to write a book on food additives. "I told him I knew nothing about food additives or writing," he says. "But I had a sense I could do it."

Jacobson's first book, Nutrition Scoreboard, spawned his interest in food content as well as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which he founded in 1971 with Ronald Collins, now a law professor at George Washington University. Under Jacobson, CSPI has grown into a $10 million organization that publishes both books and the Nutrition Action Healthletter, which goes to 750,000 subscribers and which lobbies on nutrition and food labeling. "In 1970 people who cared about food were called health nuts," says Jacobson. "Now the government says, 'All you hippies were right.' "

These days, Jacobson shares a refrigerator with Lenhoff, whom he married in 1989, and their daughter Sonya, 22 months. Not surprisingly, fatherhood has spurred Jacobson to investigate children's diets; his 13th book, What Are We Feeding Our Kids?, will be published this fall. Jacobson feeds his own daughter egg-white omelettes, low-fat milk and lots of fruits and vegetables. He has banned foods high in fat, sugar and sodium from his home and his office. "I'm not saying everyone should eat what I eat," he says. "But right now people are going from one junk food to another, and I don't think they're getting that much pleasure from the junk foods they're eating."

SUSAN REED
JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington

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