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Do They Enjoy Really Being Dinner Party Don't-Invite-'ems? : They Pointed Out the Perils of Popcorn, Chinese Food, Even the Unassuming Tuna Salad Sandwich. But What Really Goes On Inside the Center for Science in the Public Interest?

August 06, 1995|GERALDINE BAUM | Geraldine Baum is a Times staff writer who covers New York City

It's was easier for NASA to fix the carbon dioxide problem on Apollo 13 than it is for an observer to determine the origin of a plate of cold food being picked apart with oversized tweezers by men and women in white lab coats.

Yes, another investigation is under way by the consumer advocates at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

These are the people who informed us, thank you very much, that all the foods we love, such as egg rolls and cheese nachos and lasagna and movie theater popcorn, contain deadly calories and so much grease that if you dropped a hardened block of it on your toe, you'd probably break it. Imagine how it jams up your arteries.

These are also the people who conduct studies and brandish sound bites for deliberate headlines that appeal to the fear of the intimate enemy--the high fat and high salt--to make the point that food kills. Over the years, they've become experts in using the media to get a hearing. So that when they release pronouncements, they go for as big a bang as they can.

To observe the science behind their most recent investigation, an oath is taken: The type of food cannot be revealed; descriptions have to be general, and cities where meals are bought will remain anonymous until the investigators issue the results next month. "We have to preserve an embargo so we can sell the story to all the major media," says a spokesman for the center.

And so a deal is struck, and on a humid morning in late May a journalist is escorted into a private lab in an industrial park in the Baltimore suburbs. This is where chemists can determine anything about a food, from its fat content to what kind of preservatives it has. They can even lift fingerprints off a potato. Or so they say.

Before they begin their work, the lab workers don blue rubber gloves, oversized plastic lab glasses and white coats. Their task this morning is to methodically sort, weigh and grind up 50 restaurant meals laid out on a giant metal table. The food, bought at chain restaurants in two cities, had arrived in the overnight mail in a jumble of Tupperware and plastic foam containers.

Each component of the meal is first separated and categorized--animal, vegetable, fruit, nut, sauce and so on. After they are weighed and measured, they are reassembled and then stuffed through a grinder. The resulting mush is packaged in a plastic bag and coded. Later, 100-gram samples are blended to make "composites"--equal portions of the same meal from the same restaurant in different cities. The composites are then shipped to another part of the lab for analysis of calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.

As vile as the mush looks, it apparently doesn't taste too bad, though the workers refrain from tasting to preserve the integrity of the study.

"It's amazing," says Supat Sirivicha, co-owner of the lab, "after we grind up the whole meal you'd never know it once was a chicken sandwich. It tastes like a chicken sandwich, it smells like one, and if you close your eyes and eat it, you think, 'Gee, that's a chicken sandwich.' It just looks like brown mush."

At one point, chemists Gilbert Daljani and Roberta Xega debate over a congealed orange blob. They can't decide what it is. Daljani smells it first: "Count it with the sauce," he says. Then Xega takes a whiff, pushes it around with the tweezers and shakes her head: "No, no, it's from sauteeing peppers and onions." Daljani sticks his nose even closer. "No, it's not marinade, it's sauce." He prevails.

Later, Xega struggles with a smidgen of cheese that sticks to a piece of flat bread. Daljani wonders whether a red sliver is a piece of cabbage or a strand of lettuce soaked by red sauce. At times it seems tempting just to taste the food to get answers. But they resist and besides, who could stomach it?

When the lab was analyzing deli sandwiches (tuna salad is worse for you than roast beef on rye) for a report that was released this year, Alan Parker, another co-owner of the lab, came up with an idea for a Michael Jacobson sandwich--named for the center's founder.

So if at famous delis, a Tom Hanks sandwich consists of roast beef, chopped liver, onion and chicken fat, and a Dolly Parton is twin rolls of corned beef and pastrami, then a Michael Jacobson sandwich must be?

"A piece of lettuce between two slices of bread," Parker suggests.


If there is anything we loathe more than somebody who whines constantly about how much weight they need to lose, it's dining with someone who works for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

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