Maintenance Phase

The Great Protein Fiasco

August 31, 2021 Aubrey Gordon & Michael Hobbes
Maintenance Phase
The Great Protein Fiasco
Show Notes Transcript

How Nestlé executives, global health institutions and a very racist white lady seeded a series of nutritional misconceptions we're still living with today. 

Special thanks to John Nott for helping us out with this episode! Here's his papers on the history of protein and the British Empire.

Support us:


Support the show

Mike: It's your tagline time, lady. 

Aubrey: Oh, shit. This is absolutely the first time it's occurring. [laughs] I need to do a tagline. 


Mike: This is your first time doing the show. [laughs]

Aubrey: Okay. Welcome to Maintenance Phase, the podcast that is all about gains, bro. 

Mike: [laughs] 

Aubrey: No? Does that--

Mike: You truly have no idea. I'm so excited. 

Aubrey: I have no idea. I'm just talking about protein. There's like a weird pocket of YouTube that I found a few years ago when I was researching for the book that was a bunch of gym bro dudes focused on building muscle mass and whatever, who were also super into fat ladies. I was like, “This is a really fascinating little pocket of the internet." 

Mike: And that's how you met your husband. 


Aubrey: I'm straight now and I'm married. Surprise.


Mike: I'm Michael Hobbes.

Aubrey: I'm Aubrey Gordon. If you would like to support the podcast, you can do that on Patreon. Fun bonus for Patreon supporters, this month we watched Shallow Hal

Mike: It was not fun, but it was bonus. 

Aubrey: It was not fun for us, but hopefully it will be for you, so you can get that episode on Patreon at You can also get shirts and tote bags and mugs and masks and all kinds of things at TeePublic. Both of those links are linked for you in the show notes and are at And today we're talking about protein?

Mike: Yes. This is a Michael Hobbes joint. This is a lot of my weird obsessions in my previous career. Also, I've been keeping you in the dark because this is a story that goes back quite a ways.

Aubrey: Oh.

Mike: And I know that you love our deep hardcore history episodes. 

Aubrey: It begins in Mesopotamia.

Mike: Kind of. 


Mike: We're basically going to talk about the rise and fall of protein as a tool for international development. 

Aubrey: What?

Mike: Yes. Okay. We are going to set the scene a little bit. The first thing that we need to know to understand this story is that nutrition science is surprisingly young. The first vitamin wasn't chemically isolated and understood until 1926. They only discovered fiber in the 1960s.

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: We're new to all of this stuff.

Aubrey: Yeah, it's like learning about old methods of contraception, where you're like, “Oh, it's dung and honey?” 


Aubrey: It's really wild shit. 

Mike: Alongside the discovery that there were these weird, invisible nutrients in food was this huge era of optimism around, we finally understand all of these previously mysterious diseases. When you think of something like scurvy, sailors and a bunch of indigenous societies as well actually had known that lemons slices or other sort of citrus-ish foods would prevent you from getting scurvy but they didn't understand why. All of a sudden, in the 1920s, in the 1930s, they start to actually understand what's going on. All of a sudden, they start saying, “Well, we can eradicate all diseases like this.”

Aubrey: Which makes sense if you're talking about it through the lens of something like scurvy, which is a straight line from diet to disease, right? 

Mike: Yes.

Aubrey: It does not work so well in the ways that we are sort of applying it now. Which is like cancer. People are like, “Just eat the right foods.” You're like, “No, that's real grifty.” It feels like they found a pocket of disease where that has really meaningful impacts, and then extrapolated it maybe too much.

Mike: Yes, exactly. I think that every major new technology ends up sparking a 20- to 30-year period of unearned optimism. And then things get much more realistic afterwards. I feel they were very much in this way. They were like, “This is going to change everything.”

Aubrey: Then, they're like, “It did sort of,” but then a lot of things also got worse.

Mike: It's a time of great optimism. It's also a time of great colonialism because Britain has this massive empire. A lot of it is in Africa, and a lot of it is among poor populations. So for years, Britain had actually been really interested in nutrition. At the time, they justified this through humanitarian reasons, like "Malnutrition in Africa is like such a humanitarian concern for us." But it was actually because they wanted more workers, and that they could potentially be soldiers in case Britain needed them for the war effort.

This is from an article called Protein and the Politics of Nutrition Between Britain and Africa by a researcher named John Nott. He says, “During the 1920s next visit to the Gold Coast, which we now call Ghana, William Ormsby-Gore, then Undersecretary of State for the colonies, explained that the capacity of labor is bound up with the question of food. There are few parts of the world where the study of dietetics are more important than Africa.”

Aubrey: Yeah. This is the history of immigration and colonialism almost everywhere, is like, “Ooh, free labor. Imagine if these hundreds of thousands/millions of people could produce capital and also conflict for us?" 

Mike: Exactly. How great would that be?

Aubrey: Incredible. 

Mike: Everybody wins, except for the people who we're talking about, but still. 

Aubrey: [laughs] Sure. 

Mike: Alongside this need for more labor, they were also just really condescending. He has this quote from a colonial administrator who's talking about the diets of the local populations in Ghana. He says, “The ignorance and indifference to fruits is astonishing.” 

Aubrey: Already fuck off. 

Mike: Already fuck off, I know. 

Aubrey: [laughs] Already fuck off.

Mike: "There are oranges, bananas, pineapples, mango and guava. Yet no Gold Coast housewife would think of making a banana fritter. And they have never even heard of a pineapple souffle."

Aubrey: Ah, yes. The healthiest versions of fruits and vegetables. A banana fritter and a pineapple souffle. Listen, a pineapple souffle would be a pain in the fucking ass because think about how much moisture is in pineapples. That would fuck your souffle right up.

Mike: Also, they don't have servants who can like whip a souffle for two and a half hours. This to me is the perfect encapsulation of the attitudes toward colonial subjects at the time. It's like, "They're not even doing the stupid bullshit that we do." 

Aubrey: "They're not even frying their bananas." Come on. [laughs] 

Mike: That is a context for the sort of early 1930s colonial situation. We are now going to meet our protagonist for this episode. Her name is Cicely Williams. She is a white lady who was born to British parents in Jamaica in 1893. She is one of the first women to graduate from Oxford with a medical degree-

Aubrey: Whoa.

Mike: -in 1916. The only reason that she gets in is that all of the men are off fighting World War I, and they're so desperate for doctors that they're like, “I guess we'll take some women.” This is the opening of one of the obituaries of her that I've read. It says, “I had to go to Ghana to learn that sick babies thrive best on their mother's laps. Those were the first words I heard from Cicely Williams speaking from the floor in a packed meeting in Oxford. They exemplify the open, unconventional approach that made her a tremendous force in maternal and child health. A real pioneer of primary healthcare. Williams went to Ghana, then the Gold Coast in 1929, at a time when sick babies in British hospitals were separated from their mothers. And she found African mothers generally insisted on being with their babies, and that they recovered more quickly. A cuddle is worth a lot of medicine.”

Aubrey: I love-- what did they say? Open and unconventional approach or something? 

Mike: Yes.

Aubrey: She listened to the people that she's talking to, instead of just shouting at them about banana fritters and pineapple souffles.

Mike: This is what we're going to come across with Cicely so much is that she's actually quite progressive for her time, but her time is so fucking regressive, the bar is below the floor. You have to dig to get to the bar. She spoke to people. 

Aubrey: Can you imagine?

Mike: What a humanitarian.

Aubrey: She learned the most radical thing, which is mothers should spend time with their children. 

Mike: She goes to Ghana in 1929, she gets a job as-- this is the actual job title, Woman Medical Officer, which is different from medical officer because they're paid less. That's the only actual difference in the job. She actually is very well known for being a really good administrator. She basically restructures the entire health service in Ghana and ends up actually making it much more receptive to patients. She also takes the local culture seriously. She learns Ga, which is the local language, and goes to people's homes for dinners and gets to know them and their families. She's someone who's actually is showing a basic human interest in the cultures where she is residing, which again, is pretty progressive for the time.

Aubrey: Right. She's not being a dick actively and loudly all the time and people are like, “Oh, look at this lady. And she knows how to do a job? Forget about it. Let's write news articles.”

Mike: [laughs] She also is one of the only people at the time to actually talk about poverty as one of the underlying reasons for all of these medical conditions. In her dissertation, she says, “The function of a medical department conducted by any government is to raise the standard of living rather than to provide orthodox medical attention for the individual.” She's basically saying we can't just treat people when they come in with problems. We have to think about the overall context that they're living in.

Aubrey: Yeah, totally. She's talking about prevention and she's talking about the social determinants of health both.

Mike: Exactly, before those terms existed. 

Aubrey: Yeah, that are just now taking center stage.

Mike: Also, one of the reasons she's such a giant in the field is because after she does her fieldwork in Ghana, she ends up moving to Malaysia. She is living there at the outbreak of World War II.

Aubrey: Holy shit. 

Mike: Eventually, she makes it to Singapore, and the Japanese invade and she's taken as a prisoner of war-

Aubrey: What?

Mike: -for the rest of the war, either two or three years depending on which account you read. And this is not like Enron, Martha Stewart prisoner of war camp. She's put in a cell with 24 other women. She's pulled out by the Japanese equivalent of the KGB and tortured. 

Aubrey: Oh, shit.

Mike: She's deliberately starved. 

Aubrey: So, this is like John McCain prisoner of war. 

Mike: Yes.

Aubrey: The gnarly shit. 

Mike: Her hair goes gray. She has numbness in her toes for the rest of her life from the vitamin deficiency. She basically gets beriberi while she's there. And when the war finally end, she's in a hospital on death's door, basically. If the war had kept going for another couple months, she probably wouldn't made it. 

Aubrey: Good Lord.

Mike: She eventually becomes the head of maternal health for the World Health Organization. She ends up leaving that job, because she hates being at a desk and she wants to be doing field work.

Aubrey: That is incredible, and it shouldn't be.

Mike: Slight pause here, as we're building up the figure of Cicely Williams, I also want to be crystal clear that we are not doing a Girlboss retelling of colonialism. I just want to be explicit about this. There was a biography of Cicely Williams written in 1983, which I could not get my hands on, because it's out of print. The only hardback edition of it that I could find to buy was $413. 

Aubrey: Yeah, no, thanks. 

Mike: But I did read a bunch of reviews of it and I read a bunch of interviews with the author. And one thing the author said was, "I looked through her old papers, and I looked for evidence that she had the kind of negative colonial views that were characteristic of the time. I didn't find anything. She's an uncomplicated, good person, she did this great field work." I left my Cicely Williams primary documents for toward the end of the research because I was like, “Okay, I obviously need to read her papers, but they're just going to be boring stuff. They're going to be really technical.” So, I waited on them. And then, I finally got her dissertation from 1938. It's one of the most racist fucking things I've ever read.

Aubrey: [laughs] She's a white woman involved in aggressively colonialist projects. No matter how you slice that, even if she's the best white woman involved in an aggressively colonials project, she's still doing what she's doing.

Mike: Okay, I have a long paragraph that we should read. I think it's really important to stare this stuff in the face. It's long, and I was going to have you read it, but then I also was like, “Do I want Aubrey to say the racist shit on the podcast?” 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: When they come for us, do we want Aubrey on tape saying horrible colonial shit?

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: So, if you don’t want to read it, that’s also totally fine.

Aubrey: [laughs] No, I'm happy to read it. Also, resident white lady. It's like in character. I'm doing a dramatic reenactment. I will happily read it, and I appreciate your consideration.

Mike: This is an excerpt from her dissertation written in 1938, published in The Lancet.

Aubrey: “Compared with the white races, the African seems to lack initiative and constructive ideas,” Jesus Christ, Mike. “He is almost invariably dishonest. He wishes to attain wealth without expending too much energy. He does not consider that there is any obligation to honesty beyond the members of his own family.” 

Mike: It's bad. 

Aubrey: This is like Song of the South shit.

Mike: Also, one of my favorite sentences in this whole thing is, “he wishes to obtain wealth without expending too much energy.” It's like, “Yeah, that's humans,” Cicely, that's me. That's you. 

Aubrey: That's what happens when you do a capitalism. 

Mike: We all want to make money and not have to do that much work. It's weird to be like these lazy Africans want to be rich but don't want to work. It's like, “Have you met rich people?” What do they do?

Aubrey: Cicely, have you seen daytime TV ads in the 90s? No, you have not, but you know where I'm going with this. Also, are you familiar with exactly what you're doing right now? Part of a massive worldwide project to build wealth without having to do shit. “Some of the intellectual qualities of the African that delay his progress, lack of initiative, the servile acceptance of superstitions and customs, many of them fantastic and damaging, his propensity to prevaricate and to defraud may be ascribed in part to some dietetic imbalance, and some to imbalance of upbringing. Although the mothers are fond of their children, they're quite incredibly careless with them. Like all primitive people, they are lacking in imagination. I have seen enough of the excellent qualities of the Africans, their good nature and cheerfulness, their astuteness, their uncomplaining fidelity, their patience in very great trials, to know that they are worth educating.” Fuck off. 

Mike: I know.

Aubrey: “The quality is most in need of education are observation, imagination and judgment. There is much too that can be learned by those Europeans who are fortunate enough to spend much time with them.” 

Mike: What do you think?

Aubrey: In a lot of ways, it feels like a little prototype of the ways in which white women engage in colonialist projects, and then give them a kinder, gentler edge.

Mike: This, to me, is why it's important to confront this as an original text, because it's this expression of totally barbaric views, in a way that's like, “No, no, we must help them.” It allows you to cast yourself as the hero somehow because obviously, these people are totally inferior to us, but it is worth educating them.

Aubrey: This is a dynamic that shows up in lots and lots of forms of oppression and marginalization. People do this kind of thing with poor people that's like, “Hey, we've got to be really nice to poor people, because they don't know how terrible they are with food and we don't know what bad people they are.” This kind of condescension, not only is it not interrupting those systems of oppression, it's perpetuating them by giving them a softer edge and making them feel more welcoming to other people with privilege.

Mike: She was a pioneer in mentioning the effect of poverty, but she also includes in her dissertation, a straightforward defense of colonialism. She says, “Many claim that the simple savage is happier if his condition is left unchanged. This is very possibly true, but no force on earth can prevent civilization from spreading its tendrils. The most that colonial government can do is to prevent exploitation by pruning the predatory tendrils and by encouraging the growth of those that seem beneficial. There is nothing that civilization has to offer, which is better than the welfare of children.” This to me is why you should not look for heroes in history, and look for people that are palatable to you or recognizable to you as good people.

Aubrey: Yeah. I kind of feel that way about don't look for heroes now, either. 

Mike: Also, don't find them now. Yeah. 

Aubrey: Because also you're not going to find them, and because there will be a point at which you are disappointed or their views diverge from your views, or they haven't learned something yet, and then they learn it and you read or see or hear something from them from before they learned that thing. The urge to put folks up on a pedestal historically or now is not an especially helpful one.

Mike: Yes. Also, frankly, I think it's a more interesting story when you admit all of this complexity.

Aubrey: I feel there's a show within a show of Maintenance Phase that is white people who think they're helping. It's like a little string of episodes that we have and this really seems maybe one of the best examples we've got of that.

Mike: Do you want to hear about what she discovers in Ghana? 

Aubrey: I don't, but I do. 

Mike: She spent seven years in Ghana doing field work. She says over that time, she sees roughly 100,000 patients. What she notices is that there's this spike in mortality, a lot of sort of very newborn babies die for various reasons, and then, there's this other spike in mortality around two to four years old. She notices that a lot of kids are dying right after their younger sibling is born. A lot of these kids before they die, they start to exhibit these weird symptoms. You've seen these images on posters, of like a young child with like their ribs sticking out and the big belly. 

Aubrey: Yeah, the sort of distended malnourished, physical appearance of those things. Yes. 

Mike: The other symptoms that they have, a lot of them have swelling of the feet, edema. There's some sort of discoloration of the skin, a lot of them get reddish hair. And it's something different than malnourishment because she notices that the kids, she asked them about their eating, she talks to the parents, and they're getting enough food at home, and yet they're still suffering from what appears to be a disease of malnutrition. This is the fundamental mystery that she's trying to solve. She notices that most of these kids, they start to get these symptoms when they stop breastfeeding, and their parents switch them to this porridge that's made out of maize or cassava. She starts asking around. The local women tell them that they call it kwashiorkor, which is the Ga word for-- it's like the disease of the deposed child, which is, I think, a bad translation. A better one is the sickness the older child gets when the next baby is born.

Aubrey: Oh, interesting. 

Mike: It's a known enough issue that it has a local term. She publishes this in 1933, in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, which is a journal that's widely read in Britain. She basically proposes that this is a new thing. And very faithfully, she mentions in the paper, that because cassava and maize are relatively low in protein, as far as starchy staples go, she's like, “This might be a deficiency of protein.” Because she's a woman in STEM at the time, there's all of this debate over her paper. Immediately, people publish these counter articles saying that actually, what she's seeing is pellagra, which is a vitamin B deficiency. And then, she writes a paper in response, where she's like, “Um, the maize that they're feeding these kids is fermented. And when you ferment something, it has more vitamin B. I know what pellagra is, this isn't pellagra.” Another guy, he's actually praising her. He says this as a compliment. He says, “Williams being a lady, and a very gracious lady at that, she arrived by instinct at the correct answer.” or “I saw 100,000 patients, you prick.”

Aubrey: Oh, I hate it. It's so weird, because it's the extreme misogyny that this lady comes up against is really a cherry on the sundae, and the sundae is staggering levels of global racism and colonialism. 

Mike: Well, that's the thing. You're reading this and you're like, “Cicely, do you know anyone else who might feel irritated at people constantly condescending to them? Cicely, does anyone come to mind? Anyone at all, Cicely?” 

Aubrey: [laughs] Okay, Cicely. 

Mike: Okay, this is the faithful paragraph. In her article she talks about the various forms of treatment that she's tried for this kwashiorkor thing. This is from John Nott’s article. He says, “As for treatment, Williams tried varied diets without success. Combinations with butter, eggs, tomato, orange liver, marmite, yeast, [unintelligible 00:22:46], iron, and arsenic, all failed to reverse the symptoms.” 

Aubrey: Oh, arsenic didn't do the trick? 

Mike: I know, weirdly, [laughs] heavy metals, not the key. 

Aubrey: Interesting. 

Mike: The only food that seemed to work and then in only a few cases was tinned milk. Nestlé’s sweetened condensed milk with cod liver oil and malt seem to be the most successful line of treatment.

Aubrey: Man, I'll tell you what, they lost me with the cod liver oil, but then they got me back with the malt. 


Aubrey: I'd like to drink some malted milk, that sounds good.

Mike: She was so impressed with this Nestlé milk product, that she actually made a chart showing kids' recovery times, and she wanted to put it up in doctors’ offices. 

Aubrey: Oh, neat. Good. 

Mike: The only reason the colonial administrator wouldn't do it is because Nestlé isn't a British company. They're like, “Yeah, it seems like you're saving kids’ lives, but it's not a British way of saving kids’ lives." 

Aubrey: "Yeah, sorry, we don't make any money off of this one? Cut it out." 

Mike: So, basically, this will be his article and this sort of a follow up and the debate begins, this entire wave of putting protein at the center of developing world malnutrition. This is the main message that people take from her work, is we have to get protein to poor people. There's a couple other things happening at the time. After World War II, there's a lot more awareness of starvation and there's these millions of refugees moving across borders. And there's a lot more interest in what are the minimum requirements that will keep people alive nutritionally? This is actually how we get recommended daily allowances of various nutrients.

Aubrey: Really?

Mike: Yeah, this is the period right after World War II, when there's just a lot more interest in like, “Okay, how many like milligrams of vitamin B do people actually need?” This is also a time when we're setting up a lot of institutions. This is when we get the World Health Organization, this is when we get the UN. This is when we get the Food and Agriculture Organization. There's all of this international action, and solving malnutrition is one of the first things that these organizations set out to do.

Aubrey: Parallel to that, we're getting all these institutions set up, this is also when we get the Bretton Woods institutions. This is when we get the IMF. This is when we get the World Bank. We've got on the one hand, this global health infrastructure that is paralleled by a global wealth infrastructure that is designed to consolidate wealth within nations and nation states that are already wealthy. 

Mike: We need to feed the poor, but we also need to make sure that their countries owe us a lot of money. 

Aubrey: Great. Yeah.

Mike: We talk a lot on the show of a lot of scientific findings, or religious people not realizing that they're confirming their preexisting beliefs. Around this time, as there's more sort of panic building about protein deficiencies in the developing world, people are coming into this with a lot of preconceived notions about protein. At the time, the upper classes of throughout Europe, but especially in Britain, were eating a lot of meat. They're sort of like, “Well, obviously, a high protein diet is the best for you, and protein builds muscle." A lot of the preconceptions that we have about protein now, this is really when they were forming, was from basically a bunch of rich people who were already eating a lot of meat, and they had convinced themselves that was the best way to eat.

Aubrey: This is totally moon juice in a funny way all over again, which is just like, “Well, I eat like this. Therefore, it must be the best way to eat.” 

Mike: Exactly.

Aubrey: Where you're like, “Well, hang on a second.”

Mike: There's also a couple of, again, themes in our show, rat studies that come out in the 1920s. I guess these people are able to reproduce a version of kwashiorkor in rats by giving them enough calories, but super low protein calories, the rats come down with the same sorts of symptoms. In 1949, the UN assigns two dudes, of course, to do a bunch of fieldwork in Africa finding out what is the deal with this kwashiorkor thing.

Aubrey: Are those dudes white dudes? 

Mike: Obviously, Aubrey.

Aubrey: Yeah. Okay, just checking. Just making the implicit explicit over here. 

Mike: They spent two years doing this survey, their paper is published in 1952. In the conclusion, it says, “Kwashiorkor is the most serious and widespread nutritional disorder known to medical and nutrition science.” 

Aubrey: Whoa, bold claims. 

Mike: I am going to send you an excerpt from this paper.

Aubrey: Do I get to read more racist shit?

Mike: This is almost 30 years later, and it's still less racist than Cicely. It's still pretty bad. 

Aubrey: “While much kwashiorkor is due to poverty, much is also due to ignorance. With the best intentions, African mothers commit many grave faults in the feeding of their children. But though young mothers naturally tend to follow traditional routines, they are not unready to learn.”

Mike: It's not a great quote.

Aubrey: It's real rough that you're like, “Oh, much of it's due to poverty. But, oh, wait, what is this? Ignorance. Also, ignorance. It's not just that you're poor, it's also that you don't know anything.”

Mike: This is a very important component of this panic. Is it like, we can educate them out of this. This becomes the guiding fix for this problem. 

Aubrey: It's one of those moments where you can see actively the exact dynamic of racism making conditions materially worse for black and brown people, and also making white people feel better about ourselves where we're like, “Ooh, we know.” 

Mike: We're talking about dozens of people in rooms not aware that this is the dynamic at all. This is the other recommendation that they make from the report. Here, I'm sending another quote.

Aubrey: The header here says, "Immediate Action." “In most hospitals, outpatient departments, medical centers, etc., skim milk powder is not at present available to the medical staff for purposes of treatment although the provision of skim milk is the most valuable form of treatment, at present known for established cases of kwashiorkor.”

Mike: That's the other fix. We need to educate people and we need to give them these products that will cure this protein deficiency.

Aubrey: You mentioned a fetish for protein, and it feels to me just in the last, whatever, 30 years of my conscious memory and engagement with diets and that kind of thing, of the three macronutrients fat, carbohydrates, and protein, protein is the one that hasn't been blamed for people getting fat. It seems like this sort of safe zone where people can be like, “I just need to eat more protein. Protein's only good for you. It'll only build muscle and it'll only do all these things.” I'm like, “Man, this is what happens right before something gets canceled.” [crosstalk] cancel protein, aren't we?


Mike: Basically, this report comes out in 1952, and this is proof. We have it. Protein malnutrition is the issue throughout the developing world. And for the next 20 years, there's just an explosion of interest in this problem. I'm not going to go over it because it's really boring, but there's conferences and symposiums, and there's just more and more institutional momentum around this understanding of the problem. This is actually one of the reasons why UNICEF won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.

Aubrey: It wasn't the boxes of pennies? It wasn't the cardboard boxes of pocket change that we gathered trick or treating as kids, that didn't do it?

Mike: There's also an explosion in research and funding. So, there's something called the Protein Advisory Group that is set up at the UN, and that directs all of this research toward solving this. There's tons of laboratory research going on trying to get higher protein versions of these staple crops. This is an excerpt from an article called The History of Modern Nutrition Science by Dariush Mozaffarian, who does a lot of work related to food and history. I've interviewed him for various things over the years. He says that this is the beginning of what we've talked about in other episodes, nutritionism. This idea that sort of what nutrition is, and what food is, is just the delivery of individual vitamins that deal with individual health conditions. 

He says, “A nutritional model developed to address deficiency diseases, identify and isolate the single relevant nutrient, assess its isolated physiological effect, and quantify its optimal intake level to prevent disease.” This was becoming the paradigm of nutrition.

Aubrey: Two things. One, it feels like since then, that has been not debunked, but tempered, which is like, “Hey, man, you can take a bunch of vitamins, your body may or may not absorb them.” We've also spun it out into a whole industry that is rooted in this idea of optimization, and this is where you get Huel and Soylent. It's like, “We got everything you need into this one cup. All you have to do is drink this sludge, and then you'll have your nutrition.”

Mike: It's like, “Thank God, we're finally going to have food without all of the culture.”

Aubrey: Yeah. Hey, man, let's get rid of all that pesky flavor and enjoyment. 

Mike: [crosstalk] -pleasure in this.

Aubrey: [laughs] Yeah.

Mike: One thing that bugged me actually about Mozaffarian’s article is he ends it by saying, “Who knows what the future holds? We're still looking for the ideal balance of macro and micronutrients.” Why would we want that? We're going to find out that, whatever, 17% protein and 22% starch is ideal, how would anyone even fucking do that? There's still this strange obsession with quantification. Even in a field where people should absolutely know better. I don't know. I just think it's really weird.

Aubrey: Yeah, it's an obsession with quantification that then gets turned into mandates for individual behavior, which then get turned into opportunity to sell stuff to people, which is like, “We got your thing that's 22%, protein and 17%,” blah, blah, blah, and the whole bit. I feel very cynical about that cycle at this point.

Mike: Yeah. Also, one of the things that I came across researching this is that human requirements for protein are actually a bell curve. 

Aubrey: Oh, interesting. 

Mike: So, it's silly to say that you need X number of grams of protein, because you might need more than me, and I might need more than somebody else, and there aren't great ways to measure that right now. It's usually just how does it make you feel, which is generally a pretty good measure anyway. Even if we do come up with some sort of “ideal mix,” it's not going to be ideal for everyone. It's going to be an average ideal. So, we're all going to have to eat the food that makes us feel good anyway. We should all just do that.

Aubrey: Yeah. Unless and until we know a shit ton more than we do right now, just eat what you want, use your best instincts, all that kind of stuff.

Mike: Yes. There's this massive explosion in research. Most of the work that's actually being done at this time is weird Frankenfoods. This is from John Nott’s article about the history of this entire thing. He says, “In this environment and in the shadow of the impending protein crisis, international agencies and Western governments concentrated on the high-tech production of protein foods. British Petroleum, for instance, created single-cell proteins grown on oil.”

Aubrey: What?

Mike: I know. “Others created leaf protein concentrate, green jelly-like substances that were produced by putting in edible leaves through a centrifuge. Fish protein concentrate, offal left over from filleting or the whole of a junk fish proved fairly popular. Chlorella, a single-cell form of algae that was grown on sewage was less so. Nonetheless, as food grown entirely on waste, it did represent the crowning achievement of modernist nutrition and it's still available marketed as a health food."

Aubrey: They're really working overtime to make that sound as gross as humanly possible. We grew it on oil, we grew it on garbage. [laughs] 

Mike: Dude, the minute he said that, I heard an audible click in my head where I'm like, “Gwyneth is going to be [crosstalk] the poop protein in like a week.” You're like it's grown on poop, it has to be good for you. The first way that the world is solving his problem is with like the Frankenpoop foods. The second way is by spreading baby formula around the world. This is a long history that had kind of been running for a while. As part of this whole nutritionism wave in the 1920s and 1930s, one of the understandings, especially among the British upper classes, was this idea that breast milk isn't optimized, and that store-bought baby formula is actually better for kids than breast milk. 

Aubrey: Whoa.

Mike: In their defense, the colonialists were telling everybody not to breastfeed, not just poor women.

Aubrey: I will say I have a number of friends who have given birth in the last five years, and the uniform experience that all of them have had has been going to see lactation counselors and feeling massively ashamed and massively shamed about not being able to produce breast milk in the right way at the right times and the right volumes, all that kind of stuff. The pendulum has swung so far in the other direction now, that it feels wild to think about, anyway, there was a time when no one was supposed to be breastfeeding, because it is such an emphasis now.

Mike: I was so aware doing the research on this that there's such a culture of morality around, especially mothering in a way that they're conspicuously isn't with fathering, but also super-duper around breastfeeding. There's actually a huge you're wrong about story, of this entire field that we're going to get to, but there's plenty of people who can't breastfeed for whatever reason, and their kids are fine. There's lots of science saying that at the aggregate level, breastfeeding is good for kids, and the kids have advantages. There's weird enzymes in breast milk that help with immunity and all kinds of other things that we don't know how to synthesize. But also, people seem to have taken that science as like, “If your kid breastfeeds, he's going to go to Harvard. And if he doesn't breastfeed, he's going to die.” These are very overlapping circles.

Aubrey: This is the thing that is like a particular bee in my bonnet lately. This use of research that seems to indicate a population-level trend gets turned into research definitely found this rule for people. And then, that turns into an individual mandate for personal behavior in your life. All of that kind of stuff, just feeds into this bizarro machine that just produces anxious people.

Mike: This was one of my revelations reading this article too that I had always seen the shift away from breastfeeding, that happened in poor countries, that happened in rich countries over 50 years, people were breastfeeding much less than they had been before. I had blamed the marketing of the corporations. This has always been sold to me as a corporate greed story, where companies like Nestlé had marketed these products to women basically by lying to them. And that is true, but it is not the full story. 

A lot of women around this time and the reason why this happened so quickly around 1900 was industrialization. A lot of women had to work and you can't breastfeed when you're at work. And if you're working long hours, oftentimes you leave your kid with your sister or your mom, who oftentimes can't breastfeed. It's also really frustrating that there's this moralizing around breastfeeding at a time when the world was making it harder for women to breastfeed.

Aubrey: It's like a double capitalism. 

Mike: Yes, exactly. 

Aubrey: It was capitalism all along in that companies like Nestlé were doing this predatory, shitty advertising. Also, it was capitalism all along in that people had to fucking be at work. What are you going to do?

Mike: I found a really interesting 1981 New York Times article about this entire controversy and it has this paragraph with two sentences that perfectly encapsulate the dichotomy of the different explanations. It says, “Infant formula is popular with some low-income women because they see it as a kind of status symbol,” says Judith Gordon, formerly a researcher at the city's bureau of maternity services. But doctors believe that a more significant contributing factor is the need for many of these women to return to work soon after giving birth, which makes formula the simplest feeding method." 

Aubrey: Yeah, I wonder which one of those really carried the day? Was it the idea of a status symbol? Or was it, “I have to be at fucking work and I have a baby that needs to eat”? There is some classism baked into that narrative as well, which is just, "We're smart and we would never fall for that. That's why we drink moon juice." Okay.


Mike: The reason women buy sex dust is because they think it's a high status. 


Mike: It's important to stress that the existence of formula is not the problem. The issue is when this happens in poor countries where women cannot afford enough formula. One of the things they mentioned in Ghana is that baby formula tends to cost roughly half a day's labor for the average worker.

Aubrey: Good God.

Mike: In Seattle, the minimum wage is $15 an hour. So, that would be 60 bucks for one bottle of baby formula, which lasts one day.

Aubrey: Jesus Christ.

Mike: In that context, what do people do? They buy one can of baby formula and they stretch it out. There's a study in Indonesia that finds that only a quarter of people are diluting the baby formula with water, which you have to do anyway, only a quarter of people are diluting it at the recommended amounts. Everybody else is stretching one day a formula to two, three, four or five days. There's also this the ethical question of selling a product where it's basically impossible to administer it safely. One of the things that says on all of the packaging for the baby formula is after you open it, after you put it in the bottle, refrigerate it after that. Well, a lot of people in West Africa don't have refrigerators. They're leaving it out, which is a completely predictable outcome. And then, they're getting bacteria on it, and then they give it to their kids and their kids get infections.

Aubrey: The fundamental problem isn't even just refrigeration. It's just people need to make more money or this thing needs to cost less. That's the central tension here.

Mike: Exactly. Just in case, anybody thinks that I'm like letting Nestlé off the hook, there's a congressional hearing in 1978, where they interrogate the, I believe, CEO of Nestlé, who is a fucking weasel personified. 

Aubrey: Really?

Mike: The only reason we are watching this clip is just because the dude is so gross.

Aubrey: You know I love to judge a CEO. This sounds great.

Mike: [laughs] Exactly. I don’t mean his physical appearance. I just mean his entire demeanor is just slime.

Aubrey: All right, I'm all queued up and ready to hit play when you are.

[video starts]

Senator: Would you agree with me that your products should not be used where there is impure water? Yes or no?

Oswaldo: We give all these--

Senator: Just answer. What is your position--? [crosstalk] 

Oswaldo: Of course not, but we cannot [crosstalk] with that? 

Senator: Well, as I understand what you say is where there's impure water, it should not be used.

Oswaldo: Yes. 

Senator: Where the people are so poor, that they're not going to realistically be able to continue to purchase it, which is going to mean that they're going to dilute it to a point, which is going to endanger the health that it should not be used?

Oswaldo: Yes.

Senator: And then, my final question is, what do you do, or what do you feel is your corporate responsibility to find out the extent of the use of your product in those circumstances in the developing part of the world? Do you feel that you have any responsibility? 

Oswaldo: We can't have that responsibility, sir. May I make a reference to--

Senator: You can't have that responsibility? 

Oswaldo: No.

[video ends] 

Mike: [laughs] 

Aubrey: No, no. 

Mike: What do you think?

Aubrey: Two things before we get into the actual content of this. One, Ted Kennedy is a young buck of, I don't know, 48.

Mike: I know. I guess.

Aubrey: Two, this clip is made so clearly in 1978, not because of anything but the glasses frames.

Mike: Although you can barely make them out past all the sideburns, you can hardly see the glasses behind the bushes.

Aubrey: [laughs] He seems-- this guy, the Nestlé CEO. What's his name? Do we know? 

Mike: I have no idea. I don't care. 

Aubrey: I don't really care either. 

Mike: Fuck that guy. 


Aubrey: He just seems so equivocating. Like, “Well, just let me get a word in, let me do [gibberish]” like that trying to brush everything off, like, “We can't do that. We can't do this.” Dude, just give an answer, just give an answer.

Mike: This is their entire strategy for this whole thing is just like, “Baby formula is good but we had no idea that people wouldn't have refrigerators.” It's the typical like, how could we a giant multinational corporation possibly understand the market that we're operating in.

Aubrey: It's a strategy that seems likelier to have been advised by risk averse attorneys [crosstalk] to be advised by optics-aware communications people.

Mike: I know. Also, they were blanketing these products across Africa. There's a study in 1960 that showed one in eight radio advertisements in Kenya was for Nestlé Lactogen, which is their baby formula.

Aubrey: Holy shit.

Mike: In Brazil, it's the third most advertised product after cigarettes and soap.

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: It's not great.

Aubrey: Wow. Using the lens of the company you keep, I now feel suspicious about soap.

Mike: [laughs] There's also the big story that goes around from this case, as well, it should, is the fact that they had what were called “milk nurses” who were women who were dressed like nurses who would hang out in hospitals and give mothers free samples of baby formula. 

Aubrey: Whoa.

Mike: It's like you've got to hook them on this, you give them a sample and they'll stay with our brand, and oftentimes telling them that formula is healthier than breast milk.

Aubrey: It reminds me of the Fen Phen episode when they put a bunch of their pharmaceutical sales reps in lab coats. 

Mike: Yeah, exactly. The power of like a white uniform. 

Aubrey: Yes, totally. Like, “I'm going to make myself look like I'm part of a power structure.” It's like a medical stolen valor, or something. [laughs] This is so aggressively shitty to be like, “I'm a cosplay as a health care provider, and then actually just be selling you shit.”

Mike: And then be like, “I never said I was a healthcare provider. I was just in a nurse's uniform in a hospital.” 

Aubrey: Hey, man, that's on you. If you drew that conclusion, that's on you. 

Mike: [laughs] 

Aubrey: Okay. 

Mike: This is from the infamous report that comes out about this later in the 1970s, that's the big expos day that makes this an international issue. It says, “In many Third World hospitals, the staff routinely separates the mother and baby at birth and feeds formula to the baby during its entire state in the pediatrics ward. On discharge, the mother receives a free tin of formula and a feeding bottle. By the time the mother has finished her free tin of formula, she may be a confirmed bottle feeder and her baby, accustomed to the easy sucking on an artificial nipple may rebel at the more demanding task of drawing milk from a breast.” Dr. Carl Taylor, chairman of the Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins, “The mother's milk can dry up and then the baby is hooked on formula.” Part of this is women who can't breastfeed, but there's also they're preventing women from being able to breastfeed. Come on, totally indefensible.

Aubrey: Again, this is one of those things where it's like, maybe they didn't mean to, maybe they did mean to, and ultimately, that doesn't matter. 

Mike: Yes, you did the thing. 

Aubrey: You did the thing, and you made this a whole lot harder for a whole lot of people, who are in an extremely vulnerable period of their lives, which is right after giving birth to a tiny person.

Mike: The other thing that I think has been underplayed in this entire Nestlé versus Africa story is the fact that there are women who could not breastfeed throughout human history, and there are other fixes for this. Baby formula is just cow's milk with a lot of the fat removed, and then they put in some sugar and some vitamins. It's not actually super technologically advanced as a substance. You can make versions of it relatively easily. This is an excerpt from the New York Times article from 1981. “In 1971, a team of international health workers began distributing supplies of powdered milk and corn soy milk mixtures to mothers of undernourished children in Nepal. But because many mothers prepared it under unsanitary conditions, the food caused diarrhea. Medical workers then discovered that even the poorest homes had an ample supply of grains. The nutritionist concocted a flour from local corn, wheat, and soybean supplies, and then taught Nepalese women how to prepare it. Malnourished children were usually well on the way to recovery within five weeks of starting on the mixture.” 

At the same time that all of these institutions are pouring millions of dollars into poop-grown proteins, a lot of indigenous cultures had ways of dealing with this problem and those projects were not getting funded.

Aubrey: Seems like our white lady public health official was listening, but not listening hard enough. Part of what sort of feeds into this is this concept from folks in the West that there couldn't possibly be any knowledge amongst any indigenous culture. They need me to find the solution because they can't possibly know.

Mike: A friend of mine has a metaphor that I use a lot of, Wonder Bread. That to make Wonder Bread, you do all of this processing to remove the fiber from the wheat, you bleach it, you take out all of these vitamins, you take away everything makes it food. And then once you make it, then you refortify it with all this stuff you took out.

Aubrey: Yeah, you enrich it. 

Mike: I feel like a little bit the process of colonialism, you're trying to wipe the slate clean and take away, discard all of these indigenous customs. You should probably breastfeed if you're able to do that. You're sweeping all of that away. And then, you're like, “No, no, we're going to give you something that's better than breastfeeding. We're going to optimize all of this." You're putting back in all of this knowledge but in this way that is completely inefficient, and a lot of the knowledge that you're putting back in is garbage. I don't want to say that Cicely Williams and the sort of the protein deficiency is the only reason for this, because there's a lot of other historical trends are happening at the same time. But this idea of baby formula instead of breastfeeding is intimately wrapped up with this protein deficiency, because the entire idea is that people are getting enough calories, but they're not getting enough protein. That is essential to the reason why these formulas are being pushed on mothers, because otherwise they would just be eating the local food. 

This entire understanding of protein is, well, if you eat the local food, your kid is going to get kwashiorkor. So, it's really important that you buy this Nestlé stuff instead of the food that you already have access to and doesn't cost 60 bucks. This is where we're getting into the slightly better news part of the episode. 

Aubrey: Ooh, okay. 

Mike: There's a huge backlash to this that starts forming, and do you want to guess who began the backlash to bottle feeding? 

Aubrey: Oh, who began the backlash to bottle feeding? 

Mike: Cicely Williams.

Aubrey: What?

Mike: She gets kicked out of Ghana after seven years, because she has a big fight with her boss, because Cicely is trying to admit an infant to the hospital with a form of tuberculosis that's in your tummy and so it's not contagious, and her boss is like, “We don't allow patients with tuberculosis because it's so contagious.” Cicely is like, “Right, but this kid isn't contagious, we should admit him.” They get into a huge fight over this. Cicely either leaves or she's fired or whatever, but she storms out of Ghana in a huff. She ends up going to Malaysia. 

In Malaysia, she looks around and she's seeing all of these infant problems like infections, bacteria, kids having all kinds of malnutrition problems. She notices that it's mostly in mothers who were using bottle feeding. She starts asking around and she finds out that a lot of these women have been visited by these nurse people who were selling them sweetened condensed milk to use as baby formula. 

Aubrey: Oh, whoa.

Mike: And telling them that it's better than breastfeeding. Cicely, again, not trying to do some Girlboss shit, but she is incensed by this. Even Cicely can be like, “That's fucked up. You should not be telling these moms this.”

Aubrey: I would say being a healthcare provider for a child and not wanting that child to die is not a moral triumph. That is a moral baseline.

Mike: Yeah, babies dying, bad. In 1939, she gives a speech in Singapore, where she says, “If your lives were as embittered as mine by seeing day after day, this massacre of the innocents by unsuitable feeding, then I believe you would feel as I do, that misguided propaganda on infant feeding should be punished as the most criminal form of sedition and those deaths should be regarded as murder.” 

Aubrey: Whoa. 

Mike: And the talk is called Milk and Murder. 

Aubrey: Holy shit, bold choices. 

Mike: She's like, “Fuck Nestlé, fuck [crosstalk]. Don't give this shit to kids.” Again, nobody was saying this at the time. This was still this scientific paradigm. People weren't even really questioning that formula is better than breast milk yet. This backlash gets taken up, you will not believe this, by conservative Christians.

Aubrey: What?

Mike: In the 1960s and in the 1970s, there's these massive campaigns against Nestlé. It's one of the longest consumer boycotts in history. It's led by people who want to have conservative families and they want to bring back breastfeeding. 

Aubrey: Whoa.

Mike: Isn't that weird? We are so used to the Christian movement being totally aligned with the political right, but this was not the case then. The only actions against corporations that I've only seen Christians do in my lifetime is when Disney has a gay pride parade or something. But taking action on behalf of African kids against a giant corporation? Way to, go Christians.

Aubrey: Totally. Also, makes sense in terms of the history of missionary work amongst white Western Christians. Once you find out that this is the position they took, you can get there in your brain to like, “Oh, right, here's how they would have gotten there.” But it is so different than our current faith-based anti-breastfeeding, like, “Don't breastfeed in public, don't breastfeed at work.” It's just fascinating. What a strange turn.

Mike: Cicely is pushing back against bottle feeding. There's this movement against Nestlé and the other companies that are selling these products in the developing world. Meanwhile, nobody is questioning this protein stuff. Everything is just moving under its own momentum around protein deficiency as the most important issue in global hunger.

But then, it's actually amazing to me how quickly this all comes crashing down. In 1974, a guy named Donald McLaren, who's also a field worker, he's doing work around Beirut in Lebanon. He publishes an article called The Great Protein Fiasco. He basically tears down this entire field. He just sets the whole thing on fire. It's one of the best debunking articles I've ever read, because the whole thing just has this air of bafflement of, like, “Hang on. What is the evidence that protein deficiency is a problem?” He goes over all of the available evidence. He's like, okay, Cicely Williams, 1933. She didn't even say that it was protein deficiency. All she said was that kids have these symptoms and they get better when we give them this Nestlé milk. Literally, the wording from her article is, we cannot rule out protein deficiency as an explanation. 

He also says there's all these studies from all over the world that people with kwashiorkor don't get better when you give them higher protein diets. There's a really comprehensive study in India, where they find there's certain populations there with very low protein diets and certain populations with normal protein diets. They have exactly the same incidence of kwashiorkor. 

Aubrey: Whoa. So, this research is like they didn't even pour the foundation, but they started building the house anyway?

Mike: This is the thing. And then, what's amazing is, I went back and I read the 1952 paper. It was like the final nail in the coffin, like, it's protein. It doesn't even say that in the paper. In the actual text of their article, they don't actually really find a pattern. And there's like, yeah, it's in some places, and it's not. But then in the conclusion, it's like, “This is the biggest issue facing world nutrition.” You're like, “What?”

Aubrey: This was the thing that came up a bunch in the obesity epidemic stuff too. The data around rising body weights is way more complicated and goes up in some demographics and goes down in others.

Mike: That’s the thing.

Aubrey: Not saying it's not a thing, but there's way more complexity to it than that. I'm so fascinated by these moments and it seems they're coming up more and more on the topics that we talk about here, where even the researchers themselves are developing these narratives that may or may not actually fit the data that's in front of them.

Mike: I think a huge part of it is just bias, confirmation bias and other forms of bias. Not only are they finding it in some places, and not others in Africa, but they're also applying this to the entire world. They're saying like, “This is a global problem.” Well, all you've surveyed is Africa, and you didn't even find it that much in Africa. 

The major thing that again, they had found in 1952, but didn't do anything with was that what Cicely Williams described in 1933 was extremely specific. These people are eating enough, but they are still showing signs of a malnutrition disorder. What the investigators find in 1952 is that people are not eating enough. In the paper, they say the diets of Africans and especially African children are never deficient in only one nutrient. In addition to the very marked deficiency in animal protein, there is a deficiency in vegetable proteins and minerals and vitamins. 

Aubrey: It's like people need food. 

Mike: That's the thing. It's like they don't have enough food. You can't talk about a deficiency of protein if people are not eating enough of anything.

Aubrey: Jesus Christ. 

Mike: Again, this is in the paper in 1952. All Donald McLaren in his super big old fiasco debunking is, like, “Excuse me. This is all right in front of us. I'm not sure why we're all talking about protein all the time.”

Aubrey: Unless we're also saying it's protein and calories and fat and carbohydrates, and B vitamins. If you're going to start listing things, just list everything or just be clear, like, “Hey, man, it turns out the problem here is hunger and food access.”

Mike: This article causes a firestorm. Within one year, there's an article called The Protein Gap in Nature, super prestigious. It says, “The concept of a worldwide protein gap is no longer tenable. The problem is mainly one of quantity rather than quality.” That's it. Within two more years, the Protein Advisory Group doesn't exist anymore. Apparently, there's some big food summit something, something, and they're just not invited. 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: I think we don't exist anymore, you guys. It's gone.

Aubrey: Snubs and flubs, the Protein Advisory Group. My God.

Mike: The last nail in the coffin in this is, in 1975, Cicely Williams writes a paper where she's like, “This is on you. I never said it was protein, punk. All I did was describe my medical interactions with some patients. You did all of this. Don't put this on me.” She says, “Nutritional disorders cannot simply be met by supplying the missing foodstuff for although primary nutrition is due to a deficiency in the food, we must always find out why this deficiency exists.” I interviewed John Nott, the guy that wrote these two really good papers about the impact of colonialism on this whole protein panic rise and fall. He said that going back through all of the literature on this, it's actually really striking how much the field work people on the ground, people who know these populations and who see patients clinically were actually getting it right the entire time. 

Aubrey: Oh, interesting. 

Mike: Cicely Williams was actually right. The area of Southern Ghana where she was working was actually relatively affluent at the time, and people really did have enough food, and they were showing these symptoms of this potentially protein deficiency. It's actually we don't totally understand what causes this condition, but some sort of deficiency in a context of not starvation. But that's a very specific context, applying that to the rest of Africa is absurd, and the rest of the world is double absurd. Most of the people who are doing this kind of work were actually fine. It's just when this work got translated into like international institutions, and into guidelines and recommendations that the break happened.

Aubrey: It's so tricky, because ostensibly at this point, the purpose of nutrition research is to come up with guidelines and recommendations. Also, it feels the more that you and I get into this stuff, the more it's like, “Anyway, the place it really fell apart was the guidelines and the recommendations.” 


Aubrey: Putting this car together was going great until the car was put together, and then it was a bad car. It feels so challenging and frustrating, and understandable and human how all of this happened. We're looking for making sense out of a big scary thing, which is both our health and our mortality, and we're not very good at it, as it turns out.

Mike: Also, this is what John Nott's articles emphasize, that the main reason why it got taken up by these institutions, the original 1952 report is 200 something pages long, they could have taken all kinds of things from that report. They could have emphasized all kinds of things. The reason why colonial administrators and the international institutions emphasized protein was because it doesn't implicate poverty. He quotes somebody as saying, like, “No one is starving in the British Empire.” 

Aubrey: Oh, no.

Mike: If people are starving, you have to look at the way that your policies contributed to that starvation, or you're not fixing that starvation, there's an implication of you. Whereas if you're saying, “Oh, these people are eating enough. It's just they don't know that they're eating this cassava that happens to be low in protein." That completely lets you off the hook. I don't think anyone was doing this consciously but it's they're reading through these reports. There were all kinds of other academic articles that they could have made a big deal out of, but they plucked Cicely Williams work out of relative obscurity, and called that the center of nutrition problems in the world, because it was like, “Ah, here's one that doesn't make us look like the bad guys.” 

Aubrey: Yeah. Again, if it's all research that's being produced by and interpreted by white people, it's also going to be like, “Ah, I don't want to lean into this stuff that makes me feel bad about myself as a white person as well. I don't want to feel like I'm part of this machine that has created all of these health disparities and deaths of children.” That's horrible, you don't want to feel you're part of that. So, of course, of course, of course, people gravitate toward the narratives that provide them with comfort, whether or not that's the thing that they feel like they're doing or intending to do. And also, it makes sense that state entities would also lift up the research that makes them look altruistic in some way. 

Mike: Exactly. It's also important of-- I think some of this was operating at a subconscious level, but some of this was also operating at a cartoon evil level. John Nott mentions in his history of this episode, that people were actually telling the colonial administrators that it's poverty and they were being actively censored. He says, “Over the course of the year, representative preliminary reports were depoliticized by the Colonial Office to remove any suggestion that low wages, inadequate returns from cash crops, and declines in food production were complicit in the pervasive pattern of malnutrition.” 

Aubrey: Oh, it's so gross, and in retrospect, so predictable. That's what power does, is preserve itself.

Mike: Also, this whole thing of education does the same thing, because if you have to educate these populations like, “Oh, apparently the cassava is too low and protein,” it allows you to save these populations, fortifying the cassava that they eat. This this kind of research continues now of crops like basic rice, basic yams, whatever, that are higher and vitamin A, higher in beta carotene, kind of supercharged staple foods. What John Nott point out to me when we spoke, was it's like people who have more money generally feed themselves a more varied diet. In that 1952 report, where they did this big survey, they found that beans and fish and a wide array of vegetables were pretty widely available in the places where people were starving. If they had money, they would just be eating beans and fish. They don't need Frankencassava that has a two-gram higher protein count. 

If they just had money, they would feed themselves a more varied diet because if there's one thing that's, I think, probably universal to 100% of humans is people don't like to eat the same thing all the time. One of the first thing that happens as people start to move up the income ladder is they eat more very diets, and especially more protein. We don't need weird fish scale concentrate and stuff. It's like just give people money and they'll buy fish. 

Aubrey: Yeah, they don't need some like magic new engineered thing. And they certainly don't need it to be like Nestlé branded. Talk about learning the words, but not the music. You've missed the biggest part, which is no one has any money, which means no one has any food. And also, we as nations, are the ones withholding the money and therefore the food. So, what if we stopped doing that?

Mike: Also, just because I'm obsessed with Elon Musk in a way that is deeply unhealthy, there's also a parable here about using technology to solve political problems. People not having enough to eat is about as political a problem as it gets. Amartya Sen won a Nobel Prize for showing that a famine has never taken place in a functioning democracy. The idea that people were not getting enough protein, and we were going to solve that with poop algae or BP was going to do some crude oil peanut butter, that's not how we solve problems typically.

Aubrey: I feel you're making up a new fad diet right now. 

Mike: [laughs] Don't tell Gwyneth.

Aubrey: Poop algae, crude oil peanut butter. 


Mike: I just want to end with a quote from John Nott’s paper. I think this is the opening sentence of the paper actually. He says, “Eating has always been political. In dietetics, the implementation of a certain dietary regime has always reflected the ideals of a given political economy.” Anytime we're talking about the food of populations that we don't know that much about, anytime we're giving food recommendations, we're making political statements and we're making value statements, and we're not always aware that that's what we're doing.

Aubrey: Yeah, we're acting on implicit bias. 

Mike: Yes. 

Aubrey: If we don't check those implicit biases and if we don't acknowledge them, and if we don't structure research and policy decisions around the idea that that exists and is something we need to account for, then we're just going to keep replicating. This is just a cartoonish example of a lot of that. You know what I mean?

Mike: I know.

Aubrey: Well, so intense, so over the top. 

Mike: This episode had everything. We had some poop, we had some boobs. 

Aubrey: If only there were a real racist white lady who could like call bullshit on it.

Mike: Yeah, the only racist white lady I know is Aubrey Gordon who I have on tape. 

Aubrey: Oh, no.

Mike: [laughs] 

Aubrey: Mike, you promised.

Mike: I'm going to blackmail you with that for months.