CSPI Food Police badge cartoonIf you believe the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), all sorts of health catastrophes stalk you whenever you dare darken a restaurant’s doorway. So it is only by scaremongering about fettuccine alfredo as a “heart attack on a plate” or by the presentation of “Xtreme Eating Awards” for particularly calorie-rich meals — as CSPI did today — that Americans avoid the supposed pitfalls.

But reading the award winners shows no specters or hidden poisons. Instead, all the winners are obvious indulgences — fried shrimp in cream sauce, a bacon double cheeseburger with a milkshake, and enormous cakes — that nobody would mistake for Lean Cuisine. Freedom to choose includes the freedom to choose culinary pleasure over the food police’s view of optimal health, especially with a one-time splurge.

And it’s even more pointless given that all the restaurant chains that CSPI tries to shame with its “awards” offer options with far fewer calories than the meals highlighted by CSPI, including in many cases specific menus for the calorie-conscious. But by focusing on bashing the “sinners” rather than promoting better options, CSPI betrays an important fact about our would-be Carrie Nations and Mrs. Doubtfires of the table.

The goal of these activists isn’t to expand access to healthy food or increase better-for-you options. If that were the goal, CSPI would praise restaurants for doing exactly that. CSPI also would acknowledge soda companies’ efforts to reduce beverage calories rather than savaging them for daring to exist.

But that isn’t the goal. A CSPI nutritionist spelled it out: “Restaurants need to slim down their menus.” Goodbye choices, hello compulsion. Can bathtub alfredo be far behind?