Robert B. Choate dies at 84; consumer advocate pushed for healthier cereals

Robert B. Choate dies at 84; consumer advocate pushed for healthier cereals
Robert B. Choate tells a U.S. Senate subcommittee in Washington in 1970 that in a ranking of 60 breakfast cereals, 40 were found to be woefully lacking in health value. The cereal industry attacked his findings, but within a year the nutritional content of the majority of the products on his list had been boosted to respectable levels. (United Press International)
Robert B. Choate, an engineer-turned-consumer advocate whose campaign against sugary breakfast cereals led manufacturers to bolster the nutritional value of their products, died May 3 at a retirement community in Lemon Grove in San Diego County. He was 84.

The cause was complications of dementia, according to his son, Christopher.

In 1970, Choate, who had been involved in campaigns against poverty and hunger, made headlines when he testified on nutrition information for consumers at a Senate subcommittee hearing in Washington. Using data provided by the manufacturers, he ranked Sugar Smacks, Froot Loops, Lucky Charms and 57 other popular cereals by their nutritive value and found that 40 offered such poor nourishment that they were essentially empty calories.

The cereal industry attacked his findings as misguided and erroneous, but within a year the nutritional content of the majority of the products on his widely publicized list had been boosted to respectable levels.

Forty years ago, Choate was one of only a handful of activists focused on hunger and nutrition issues, and his crusade against unhealthy cereals led millions of people to change their eating habits, according to Ralph Nader, the frequent presidential candidate and consumer movement pioneer.

"He happened upon a major deficiency in the American economy, which was nutritious food," Nader said in an interview last week. "The more he studied it, the angrier he got. He was driven.

"He knew how to document a case, talk to the media, go to key members of Congress, get information from the USDA that they didn't want to give. In that sense," Nader added, "he was a consumer advocate all-star."

Choate was an unlikely crusader for the poor and malnourished. Born in Boston on Nov. 6, 1924, he was from a blueblood New England family: A relative founded the Choate School, the Connecticut preppy bastion now called Choate Rosemary Hall, and his father was publisher of the Boston Herald Traveler.

After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Choate served in the Navy during World War II. After the war, he went west to UC Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1949.

After college, he started a construction engineering company that prospered with projects in Arizona, New Mexico and California. He also ventured successfully into real estate.

He and his first wife, the former Audrey-Ann Evans, divorced in 1953. He later married and divorced Jean Emery and Jane Choate.

He is survived by four children, Karen Holland of Worton, Md., Katrinka Johnson of San Luis Obispo, Christopher of Arlington, Va., and Valerian Choate of Washington; and three grandchildren.

An extended illness led Choate to a new career. During a yearlong recovery from hepatitis in the late 1950s, he read extensively about racial issues and was profoundly affected by an autobiography of Walter White, an early leader of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

Choate decided to dedicate himself to social justice; he founded a club for disadvantaged youths in Phoenix and drew attention to the need for better schools.

A bit of a scalawag, the reform-minded Republican tried to win the support of the John Birch Society, which was gaining power in Arizona. When he was barred from a society meeting in a public building, he planted himself by the door and took photographs of everyone who was admitted.

"He liked to fight," Christopher Choate said in an interview last week.

By the mid-1960s Robert Choate had relocated to Washington, where he was swept up in President Johnson's war on poverty. As a consultant to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, he helped produce a national study on malnutrition. In 1969, he was a senior staff member for the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health.

The following year, he emerged from behind the scenes to testify in a hearing on cereals held by the consumer subcommittee of the Senate commerce committee. With the assistance of nutritionists from the Academy of Food Marketing in Philadelphia, he had examined how well 60 leading cereals fulfilled minimum daily requirements through an analysis of common nutrients listed on the boxes.

The resulting rankings found Kellogg's Product 19 in the No. 1 spot and Nabisco's Shredded Wheat in last place. "The nutrient content of 40 of the 60 [is] so low as to remind this observer of the term 'empty calories,' a term thus far applied to alcohol and sugar," Choate told the subcommittee. "In short, they fatten, but do little to prevent malnutrition."

His ratings launched a national debate, evident in newspaper cartoons such as one that depicted a worried father telling his child: "I want to talk to you, son. It's about the cereal we have insisted that you eat. . . ."

Choate was denounced by the cereal industry and many nutritionists, who said it was unfair of him to evaluate the cereals without milk, a significant source of protein. Undeterred by their attacks, he went on -- as president of the Council on Children, Media and Merchandising -- to criticize television commercials that pitched the unhealthy cereals to children.

As a parent, he practiced what he preached. "I was always on oat flakes," Christopher Choate recalled. "Pop-Tarts, those kinds of things, didn't get into our house."

In the late 1980s, Choate earned a master's degree in education at Harvard University and taught at Harvard's Institute of Politics. He later moved to California, where he was involved in youth programs and founded Operation Civic Serve, a nonprofit organization that encouraged college students to become volunteers.