Elizabeth Whelan Has Only to Say Saccharin or Bacon Is Harmless, Then Await the Tide of Criticism
Dr. Elizabeth Whelan must be appearing on a lot of enemies lists these days. One TV host introduced her as “pro-air pollution.” The National Nutritional Foods Association, a “health” food trade group, is suing her for $1.3 million for defamation. A New Jersey legislator demanded she be investigated after she concluded that the state’s cancer rate was no higher than other industrialized Eastern states. “A lot of people imagine I’m drinking chemicals out of a beaker all day,” chortles Whelan, 35, an epidemiologist whose doctorate in science is from Harvard’s School of Public Health.
Whelan is now the executive director of the controversial Manhattan-based American Council on Science and Health, which she founded last year to voice “the scientifically balanced truth” on how foods and chemicals affect health. Her critics charge that council studies are just apologias for the food and chemical industries. The council, for example, insists there is no proof that red dyes, nitrites (found in bacon) or saccharin hurt humans; the harm they cause lab animals, she maintains, is caused by excessive dosages. “There is no evidence any food additive currently in use has ever caused any ill health, much less cancer, in Americans,” she asserts.
Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Ralph Nader’s Health Research Group, is outraged by, among other things, Whelan’s claims on saccharin: “No responsible scientist has said that it is safe. It is clearly a carcinogen.” Adds Wayne L. Pines, information director of the Food and Drug Administration: “Whelan just makes blanket endorsements of food additives. Her organization is a sham, an industry front.”
Whelan got into the field in the early ’70s when cyclamates were banned by the FDA. “I was at Harvard and heard about rats being fed cyclamates. All of a sudden my diet sodas were gone. I saw a misuse of scientific data and got enraged,” she says. Following graduation in 1971, she co-wrote a book, Panic in the Pantry, which charged there was a “back-to-nature mania perpetrated by opportunists intent on taking advantage of very gullible consumers.” She says now, “A major hoax was being perpetrated. Things were banned at the drop of a rat.”
After the book appeared in 1975, Whelan was billed by the press as a counterforce to natural-food advocates, so she decided to formalize her role. She assembled a board of scientists—a critic asserts it reads like “a who’s who of defenders of industry”—and after two years got a $100,000 grant from Pittsburgh’s Sarah Scaife Foundation. Whelan says she’s meeting her $250,000 annual budget without food and chemical industry subsidy.
Whelan is not automatically pro-business. She indicts cigarette smoking as a cancer cause and criticizes irresponsible dumping of chemicals. “But,” she says, “the concept of safety has gone berserk. We’re out to say we can have good health and the benefits of technology.”
She was raised in Larchmont, N.Y., the daughter of an attorney (now on her council board). After graduating from Connecticut College, Beth went on to Yale for her master’s and met her husband Steve, a Wall Street lawyer, while at Harvard.
The mother of a daughter, Christine, 2, Whelan starts her day preparing the family breakfast at 6:30 a.m. and has swum half a mile at the local Y before arriving at her office at 8 a.m. She hosts a syndicated radio health show, is a research associate at Harvard, writes on health, pregnancy and diet for a number of women’s magazines and has written seven books and co-authored another four. Even when she travels (which is often), she and Steve exchange memos about household details during the week.
The Whelans ban nothing from their diet, though Beth limits her “fun” food to two glasses of rosé a day, since she fights a constant weight battle. She once bought some wheat germ but, upon discovering each tablespoon contains 36 calories, left it to bloom in her refrigerator.