Slather on the epithets--Food Nazi, Twinkie Taxer, Nutrition Nanny. Michael Jacobson, nemesis of the multibillion-dollar U.S. food industry, relishes the attention. In the three decades since the soft-spoken microbiologist co-founded the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, he has enraged the restaurant industry (fettuccine Alfredo: "a heart attack on a plate"), forced a ban on sulfites at salad bars after a rash of fatal allergic reactions, shamed McDonald's into excising beef tallow from its French fryers, roused moviegoers against artery-clogging coconut oil in popcorn and successfully lobbied for nutrition labels on all supermarket processed-food items.
"Our society encourages sloth and gluttony," he says. "Obesity and related illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer cause as many deaths as tobacco." C.S.P.I.'s monthly Nutrition Action Health Letter, with a circulation of 850,000, combines articles on serious research--such as the questionable benefits of garlic supplements and St.-John's-wort--with healthy recipes and lobbying advice. Last month's issue urged readers to write the Food and Drug Administration asking it to label the "shocking levels" of added sugars in many foods.
Have Jacobson's junk-food jihads worked? "Michael's ideas about diet and health were seen as way out there 20 years ago," says former FDA commissioner David Kessler. "Now they are mainstream." Translation: we may be fatter than ever, but at least we are feeling guiltier about it. Jacobson, 57, spits out new initiatives faster than you can say olestra (slapped with a gastrointestinal warning, thanks to C.S.P.I.). He dreams of fast-food outlets listing calories. "I can just see it," he sighs. "Big Mac: 560 calories, $2.19." He's urging a federally funded campaign to promote five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. How likely is that? You won't catch Jacobson saying "Fat chance."
--By Margot Roosevelt/Los Angeles