What's Really in Your Food? Tips for Safer, Healthier Eating

Health + Fitness

Michael Jacobson 250x250
Michael Jacobson, Executive Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest





Should you eat this, or that? What should you avoid consuming at all costs, and what food scares are overblown?

Michael Jacobson, a national leader in the movement to ban unsafe additives and to require that labels on foods and beverages be honest, gives us tips on how to navigate our food choices -- for optimum safety and health.


What should the average consumer be most concerned about in her daily diet?

In terms of long-term harm to your body, the three most important concerns are:

  • Salt: High sodium contributes to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. A major report by the Institute of Medicine is coming out in April about the need to reduce sodium levels. It likely will call for action by the government and industry, not just asking people to put down their salt shaker.
  • Transfat: Trans fat promotes heart disease and should be avoided almost entirely. Also limit your intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Sugar and high fructose corn syrup, especially in beverages, contribute to weight gain.

We should be minimizing all three.  Sugar and salt are not poisons that need to be totally avoided, but we’re consuming far too much of both.





What advice do you have for women who eat out a lot?

Most people have to put aside their dietary scruples when they eat out because it’s so hard to find healthy meals at a regular restaurants. People need to be demanding diners. Almost every restaurant meal is loaded with salt, calories and saturated fat. So you have to make the best of a bad situation. Sometimes you’ll find some healthy dishes like grilled fish or chicken, as well as salads, provided they’re not pre-drenched with high calorie, salty dressings. Tell the servers not to add salt to what you order, ask for whole grain bread and brown rice, and use olive oil instead of butter on your bread.  You can pretty much forget about soups because they’re invariably loaded with salt.

What are the more immediate, and avoidable, food safety problems?

#1 would be germs. The main thing when you’re eating out is to make sure that the foods are thoroughly cooked. If the hamburger is rare, there’s a decent chance that bacteria is lurking in the middle of the burger.  At home, we need to:

  • Cook foods thoroughly – such as eggs, fish, meat -- especially ground beef.
  • Handle the foods carefully to avoid contamination -- don’t chop up raw chicken on a cutting board and then use it to chop up vegetables. 
  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.  Freeze foods that you want to store longer than a few days. And – “when in doubt, throw it out.”

What are the most common food additives that we should all avoid in our daily diets?

Most food additives don’t pose a significant risk, although some of them can cause allergic reactions. If you suffer from hives or asthma, you should figure out if those problems might be caused by foods or additives.

  • Food dyes are especially a problem for kids who display hyperactivity, tantrums or an inability to pay attention. Parents should try to keep food dyes out of their kids’ diets.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) will be publishing a report on the toxicity of dyes and has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban most food dyes. The United States is way behind Europe on this issue.
  • Artificial sweeteners also raise safety questions. There’s serious debate in the scientific community about three artificial sweeteners: saccharine, aspartame, acesulfame K. Some tests indicate they could increase the risk of cancer.  A small amount each day isn’t a big deal, but drinking two or three cans of diet soda a day gives you a hefty dose. People should minimize their consumption, though artificial sweeteners are probably not as bad as the 10 teaspoons of sugar you’re getting in a regular soda.

For a list of which food additives are safe and which to avoid, visit

Michael Jacobson is the co-founder and executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. He is a national leader in the movement to ban unsafe additives, require that labels on foods and beverages be honest and non-misleading and improve the safety of the food supply. Michael is also known for popularizing the phrase “junk food.”

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  • This article is a great summary of what food additives are and why they present a danger to healthy living. While I knew a majority of this information already, I had never been motivated to change my intake of artifical sweeteners until reading what dangerous potential they have in the human body.

    Michael Jacobson reminds me of Michael Pollan, and this article could be a shortened version of one he wrote a couple years ago for the New York Times:

    Posted by mbeardsl, 4 June 2010.