If you are the kind of person who picks up a box of food in the store and studies the label to see how much sugar or salt is in it, you can thank a man named Michael Jacobson.
Those labels with nutritional facts are a part of Jacobson’s legacy, one of his many victories in a four-decade-long battle against “junk food.” He has also had a hand in halting the marketing of many sugar-filled foods to children, reducing salt levels in packaged foods, and banning transfats. Next week, he’s stepping down, after 46 years, as president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.
Jacobson is a paradoxical character. When he’s quoted in a news story, he typically sounds ferocious. But in person, he’s soft-spoken and chooses his words carefully. He’ll break into a friendly, wide-eyed smile while insulting the nutritional quality of your favorite breakfast cereal.
He is a food activist who doesn’t really love food. When he was growing up, he didn’t really care or notice whether the food he was eating was healthy. “You know, I’m a kid from Chicago. So a hot dog on a white bun, with relish, that’s what you eat!” he says.
He found his calling by accident, in 1970. He was 26 years old, on track toward a career as an academic scientist. He’d just received his doctorate in microbiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But he’d also been caught up in the political ferment of the time.
“I loved laboratory research,” he says. “My experiments worked well. But I saw cities burning down, Vietnam being toasted to a crisp, and I thought, ‘Do I want to spend all my time in a lab, or could I be doing something using my background that would have a more direct involvement in trying to improve society?’ ”
He landed an internship with Ralph Nader’s newly founded group of activist lawyers. Nader had become a household name a few years before that, by fighting the auto industry on behalf of consumers.
Jacobson showed up on the first day, “and Ralph says, ‘OK, here’s Jacobson, he’s got a Ph.D. from MIT in microbiology. What could he do?'”
Read more at NPR.