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Don't Hold the Pizza Just Yet

Anti-fun food activists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest just delivered another junk science-fueled scare.

Pizza is the new laugh-out-loud hazard, an act of dietary terrorism apparently perpetrated to sell CSPI's new anti-restaurant book.

CSPI's report, "What Pizza Delivers," alarmingly claims "pizzas are loaded with salt, sometimes over a day's worth ... pizza is a minefield of saturated fat, and not just from the sausage, ground beef and pepperoni … Most pizzas have enough cheese to make a cardiologist order that second Jaguar."

"More cheese on your pizza means more crust in your arteries," warns CSPI.

The food nanny group recommends ordering half-the-cheese or no-cheese pizzas, and avoiding stuffed crust and multi-meat combo pizzas.

But don't cancel your regular pizza order just yet. CSPI again is scaring the public with selected bits and pieces of truth laced together with innuendo.

Yes, pizza contains fat and salt; these key components make pizza and many other foods taste good. But salt and fat aren't necessarily the dietary bogeymen portrayed by fun-food haters.

Harvard University researchers noted in a November 1997, New England Journal of Medicine study that, "The results of [studies] between dietary fat and coronary disease have been inconsistent." Their study of more than 80,000 women followed for 14 years reported no statistically significant associations between total fat, animal fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and risk of heart disease.

A recent article in the journal Science summarized the state of the knowledge about dietary salt and high blood pressure as, "After decades of intensive research, the apparent benefits of avoiding salt have only diminished."

The article continued, "This suggests either that the true benefit has now been revealed and is indeed small, or that it is nonexistent, and researchers believing they have detected such benefits have been deluded by the confounding influences of ... genetic variability; socioeconomic status; obesity; level of physical exercise; intake of alcohol, fruits and vegetables, or dairy products; or any number of other factors."

Yet CSPI runs with the fat and salt myths as if they were laws of nature.

CSPI mixes these myths with gross dietary generalizations concerning "recommended" daily intake amounts: "Just two greasy slices of Pizza Hut's Stuffed Crust Pepperoni Lover's or Meat Lover's pizza deliver ... about a day's worth of saturated fat and sodium."

The problem is the recommended daily values, called "daily reference values" (DRVs), are arbitrarily selected, not scientifically determined, and aren't applicable to most people.

With respect to daily caloric intake, for example, the Food and Drug Administration selected 2,000 calories as the DRV. But the FDA notes: "This level was chosen, in part, because it approximates the caloric requirements for postmenopausal women. This group has the highest risk for excessive intake of calories and fat."

Since postmenopausal women only make up about 10 percent of the population, the DRV for calories that includes the DRV for fat is a meaningless number for most of us. The same applies to the DRV for salt, such that CSPI's fat and salt characterizations aren't worth a hill of half-eaten pizza crusts.

In contrast to CSPI's demonization, pizza can be quite nutritious. "Depending on the topping, a couple of slices of pizza can provide a substantial portion of the recommended intake of calcium, protein and the B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin and niacin, as well as calories. And if you get extra veggies like spinach, peppers, and broccoli toppings, you can add vitamins C and A as well. If the crust is made with whole wheat flour, you can add a little more fiber too," says the American Council on Science and Health.

So why the scare?

CSPI has a new book to sell. Restaurant Confidential, written by CSPI's flaky boss Michael Jacobson and pizza report co-author Jayne Hurley, is a supposed "lowdown" on the calories, salt and fat in restaurant food. But like the pizza report, Restaurant Confidential relies on myths about fat and salt and the inappropriate generalizations about DRVs.

What would be more useful to consumers is something called "CSPI Confidential." Such a book might describe CSPI's 30-year history of fomenting bogus food scares including attacks on Chinese, Mexican and Italian foods, movie popcorn, caffeine, the fat-substitute Olestra, meat, fast foods, and snack foods to gain publicity for purposes of fundraising tens of millions of dollars.

The scam has been very profitable for CSPI, where "non-profit" doesn't mean that the organization doesn't make money, only that it doesn't pay any taxes, unlike the $30 billion pizza industry that it criticizes.

CSPI derides Pizza Hut's Stuffed Crust Pizza for being stuffed with cheese. CSPI should be derided for being stuffed with something else.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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