CSPI Fundraising Letter Is Full of Biomedical Misinformation

By Alex Berezow, PhD — Dec 30, 2019
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is often consulted by the media as a legitimate voice on scientific issues. On some topics, such as the worthlessness of many dietary supplements and the dangers of raw milk, CSPI is absolutely correct. On other topics, such as sugar substitutes and pesticides, it spreads misinformation.
Credit: Petar Milošević/Wikipedia

How's this for irony? The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is headed by a medical doctor, yet their latest fundraising letter is full of junk science, bogus health claims, and medical misinformation.

This really shouldn't be a surprise, given that one survey showed that 79% of toxicologists believed that CSPI (as well as NRDC and EWG) overstate the health risks of chemicals. Scaring people is an extremely effective way to raise money (just ask any politician), and the folks at CSPI are masters of the craft.

This is a real shame because, on some issues, CSPI is spot-on. For instance, the organization warns of the dangers of foodborne illnesses, which claim the lives of 3,000 Americans every year. It also calls out worthless dietary supplements that don't have scientific evidence to back up the manufacturer's claims. It also gives some sensible advice on how to avoid certain (sneaky) high-calorie foods. ACSH applauds CSPI for its crucial work on those issues.

Unfortunately, CSPI then contaminates its legitimately good public health advice with pure nonsense, such as rejecting evidence-based conclusions and advocating for a cancer warning label on meat. Some of that nonsense was featured in a recent fundraising letter.

No, Sugar Substitutes Don't Cause Cancer

CSPI repeats a whopper on the first page of its fundraising letter, where it claims that sugar substitutes like saccharin can cause cancer. That is a lie.

We have covered this issue in depth for decades. In 2015, we published the 2nd edition of Sugar Substitutes & Your Health, a guide to the eight FDA-approved sugar substitutes (acesulfame-K, advantame, aspartame, Luo Han Guo fruit extracts, neotame, saccharin, stevia, and sucralose). They are safe. In fact, it has been known since the 1970s that saccharin does not cause cancer, but the myth still exists nearly 50 years later.

No, Healthy Fruits Aren't Contaminated with Pesticides

Taking a page out of the Environmental Working Group's playbook, CSPI also claims that extremely healthy foods, like strawberries and blueberries, are contaminated with pesticides.

This is pure nonsense. There is nothing to fear from the trace amount of pesticides used on fruits and vegetables. By scaring people into avoiding conventionally grown produce (or into paying for more expensive organic produce -- which still contains pesticides), they are discouraging the public from consuming healthy food. That is utterly irresponsible.

No, Food Additives Don't Cause Cancer

CSPI wants to warn people against "unsavory food additives," particularly ones that cause cancer.

CSPI is being intentionally vague, so it's difficult to know exactly to what they are referring. But the American Cancer Society says that new food additives (which are often used to prolong shelf life or enhance color, flavor, or texture) have to be cleared by the FDA. The ACS also notes that additives are usually present in tiny amounts, so avoiding them is unlikely to appreciably lower a person's cancer risk.

Sincerely Yours, A Medical Doctor?

The fundraising letter contains other dubious claims, such as scaremongering over too much sodium in an Olive Garden meal. But what is particularly infuriating is that a medical doctor, CSPI President Peter Lurie, signed off on this garbage.

It seems that, "First, do no harm," has been replaced with, "First, raise some money."


Alex Berezow, PhD

Former Vice President of Scientific Communications

Dr. Alex Berezow is a PhD microbiologist, science writer, and public speaker who specializes in the debunking of junk science for the American Council on Science and Health. He is also a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and a featured speaker for The Insight Bureau. Formerly, he was the founding editor of RealClearScience.

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