On Governments, Industries and Nutritional Science


 This post will probably repeat some things I've said before.  But in light of recent events, and with controversy over the US 2015 Dietary Guidelines reaching fever pitch, I wanted to collect them in a semi-coherent summarized fashion.   Mostly I want to discuss the role of governments and industries in the evolution of what we know today as a science.  In many ways, a look back at the early Twentieth Century demonstrates how the more things change the more they stay the same.   Are we doomed to repeat past mistakes in the Twenty-First?

Dietary Guidelines ~ Should we even have them?

I have been asked many times here and on social media where I stand on having government issued dietary guidelines at all.  My idealistic side would respond with a hearty NO!  What business does a government have in suggesting -- some might say dictating -- how and what I, or anyone else, should eat.    My realistic side, however, recognizes that government involvement in this area is here to stay, so it's better to try to limit and/or improve than to seek total reversal.    

Governments have always been a part of nutrition science.  It wouldn't be too big a stretch to even say that the field of nutrition science was created by governments.  Has anyone ever wondered why we know so much about the Masai?  Surely folks are not so short sighted as to believe this is because a few diet faddists repeat some trivial report about these peoples over and over.  It goes well past the curiosity of explorers or reporters for the likes of National Geographic too. Rather there's quite a substantial record from which we are made aware of very little, such as this from Chapter 6:  How Women and Children Fare on a Low-Fat Diet in The Big Fat Surprise  

Since we now live in a time when the vegetarian (or near-vegetarian) diet is so heavily favored by health authorities as well as the popular press, these researcher findings are probably a surprise, but they would not have been to nutrition experts in the 1920s. Remember those Masai warriors in Kenya who ate little other than milk, blood, and meat? Decades before George Mann arrived in Kenya, the British government commissioned scientists in 1926 to compare the Masai to a neighboring tribe, the Akikuyu. They had lived side by side for many generations, in “very similar” conditions, according to the researchers. However, whereas the Masai ate mainly animal foods, the Akikuyu subsisted on a near-vegetarian diet that was very low in fat, with the “great bulk” of their food consisting of “cereals, tubers, plantains, legumes, and green leaves.”
Investigators spent several years in detailed examination of 6,349 Akikuyu and 1,546 Masai adults, and in the end, found that the health of the two groups differed dramatically, though not in ways one might expect. The vegetarian Akikuyu men were found to be far more likely to suffer from bone deformities, dental caries, anemia, lung disease, ulcers, and blood disorders; the Masai were more likely to contract rheumatoid arthritis. The Masai men were on average 5 inches taller than the Akikuyu and 23 pounds heavier, and much of that extra weight was apparently muscle, since the Masai had narrower waists and broader shoulders and possessed far more muscular strength than the Akikuyu, who were generally less fit and had little capacity for manual labor.VIII    red highlight = Teicholz speculation
VIII. Muscular strength of the hands was assessed with a dynamometer, which measures mechanical force. With this test, the Masai were found to be 50 percent stronger than the Akikuyu. Another sign of physical weakness among the Akikuyu men was that 65 percent were “immediately rejected on medical grounds” when turning up for army reserve service in 1917. The women of the two tribes, by contrast, had more similar diets and did not have such dramatic differences in health (Orr and Gilks 1931, 9 and 17 “immediately rejected”).
These studies were not conducted by the British government to discover some health secrets of the Masai, they were conducted to improve the size and health of the labor and fighting forces which were largely comprised of the considerably larger Kikuyu tribe  (Note, this tribe is commonly referred to as Akikuyu or Kikuyu in much of the literature.  I have arbitrarily chosen Kikuyu though may at times use the other spelling).   I know that a reading of the works of Weston A. Price or various and sundry paleo diet "experts"  almost universally describes the Masai a healthy tribe, but:
  • The disparities in health of the tribes overall are different amongst certain age groups and the genders.  The Kikuyu women appear to be the healthiest of all by many measures.      
  • Price also describes the Kikuyu tribe overall as healthy, and describes them as practicing special fertility rituals (no mention of animal products involved).
  • Orr & Gilks, and others describe far more rampant disease and maladies, especially tropical skin ulcers, amongst both tribes.
I had initially gone down this trail by fact checking BFS.  As is commonplace in this book, in her attempts to relate how modern nutrition science has "gotten everything wrong" and try to convince her readers that women suffered the most from these errors, Teicholz instead leads the reference-checking reader down the path to the opposite *truth*.  This truth is often an uncomfortable one for those hailing "traditional cultures" as supreme keepers of nutritional wisdom.   Dairy, is an especially interesting food stuff to the tribes of Kenya.  Which brings me back to Orr of "Orr and Gilks", who was Lord Boyd Orr (1880-1971):
Lord Boyd Orr of Brechin Mearns in the county of Angus, C.H., F.R.S., Nobel Peace Laureate, chancellor of Glasgow University, first director-general of the United Nations Food and Agricultural OrganizaTion (FAO), first director of the Rowett Research Institute, originator and elder statesman of the World Food Council, the first president of the British Nutrition Society, and one of the most famous Scotsmen of the century, died at his home, Newton of Stracathro, Angus, Scotland, on June 25, 1971, in his 91st year

Governments!  Another excerpt, bullet pointed for ease of reading:

Orr's professional concern was with animals of agricultural importance. He brought about great improvements in the production of meat, wool, and milk, and undoubtedly brought prosperity to the livestock industry.   
  • He gave the farmer more precise knowledge in the selection of food mixtures as a substitute for growing pastures particularly in the wintering of stock.  
  • He also gave some definition to the biochemical and immunological changes that precede and accompany general symptoms and signs of disordered metabolism through nutritional deficiency or imbalance.
He found that whereas he had no difficulty in persuading farmers on the value to their stock, and pockets, of the application of sound nutritional principles, he could not convince more than a few that the same was true of children.
Read the last paragraph again, and realize how far *mainstream* thought, focus and practices have come since the early 1900's.
At this time the nutrition of man was an art rather than science, empiricism rather than experimentation, and general impressions rather than controlled observation.
How many of these folks clamoring for the heads of DGAC members realize this was the case, and "this time" is only a century ago?
But now, the newer knowledge of nutrition was growing.   Requirements could approximately be defined and dietary and clinical surveys, of which he had initiated a number, such as the large-scale Carnegie U.K. Dietary Survey, could expose the gap between assessed requirement and that actually consumed.  
Interesting, no?
By providing the protective foods that were lacking, the effect of a balanced diet could be demonstrated in terms of improved growth and health.  
So your "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" folks had a forefather in Lord Boyd Orr.  This part about protective foods relates to a studies performed in the 1920s and early 30s on school boys.
This and an earlier large-scale demonstration supported by the Empire Marketing Board on the value of milk for school children, but which was primarily done to promote the increased consumption of milk, was of great benefit to the dairy industry and largely led to the adoption later of the milk-and-meals-in-school plan.

Governments and industry!!!  A century and more of partnerships in nutrition science.   Two final excerpts (in no particular order):
... Orr's researches and enthusiasm paved the way for the Hot Springs Conference that F. D. Roosevelt summoned in 1943 to give effect to the 'Third Freedom', the 'Freedom from Want'. Out of it came the Interim Commission which planned what eventually became the Quebec Conference to bring the FAO of the United Nations into being. In 1945, at the time of the Quebec Conference, Orr was in the House of Commons as an independent M.P. for the Scottish Universities (1945-1946) but had not been included in the U.K. delegation. How ever, he went at the last minute as a technical advisor. He made only one speech and then left. This speech and his obvious precise knowledge of how to apply the resources of modern science to the elimination of poverty, hunger, and preventable disease so impressed the United Nations that Sir John Boyd Orr, as he then was, having been knighted in 1935, was appointed at the Quebec Conference the first Director-General of the FAO, a post he held until 1948. This appointment coincided with his retirement from the Rowett Institute in the autumn of 1945.
... With government support, the application of this newer knowledge of nutrition to such dietary surveys led Sir John Boyd Orr to write and to publish his report on "Food, Health and Income," which has become a classic.  It was published in 1936 and had worldwide repercussions.  It caused a sensation in Britain and helped the introduction of public health and unemployment benefit measures designed to improve the plight of the poorer sections of the community.

Nutrition Science, Government, and Industry: 

The preceding section can be summarized by stating unequivocally that -- for better or worse -- nutrition science has always been inextricably linked to both  government bodies and "the food industry".    It is therefore unfathomable that the three could ever hope to be separated.  Moreover, in this global economy, it is unfathomable what would happen if the United States -- or even some much smaller producers/consumers of various food staples -- were to unilaterally cut all ties between scientist-and-government, scientist-and-industry, and industry-and-government.  

And therein lies the problem.  If you have an interconnected triangle, you cannot sever just one side.  

Twentieth Century Nutrition vs. Twenty-First Century Nutrition

One doesn't need to look very deeply into the history of nutrition research to see the biggest issue we face today is one of mission flip or at least of mission identity crisis.    The scientists of the Twentieth Century were concerned with identifying needs and requirements.  They were concerned with identifying and preventing the causal deficiencies of certain maladies.   In Biochemical Studies of Nutritional Problems (1934), J.C. Drummond writes:
The seriousness of the situation that had developed by 1900 is graphically portrayed in Seebohm Rowntree's Poverty, a Study of Town Life.  Undernutrition, particularly qualitative, was widespread in the large towns of Great Britain when the twentieth century opened. Rowntree found that boys of thirteen years belonging to the well-fed classes of the population of York were, on the average, no less than 11 pounds heavier and 3½ inches taller than those belonging to the poorly nourished workers!
Elsewhere in Biochemical Studies, details of the schoolboy studies cite greater weight gains as a positive -- indicative of adequate nutrition.   Names like Atwater and Rubner are mentioned in the context of the research into the calories required and amounts of protein, fats and/or carbohydrates as well.   Food programs were all about getting enough.    Allow me to repeat just a short blurb from the Orr bio:
Orr's researches and enthusiasm paved the way for the Hot Springs Conference that F. D. Roosevelt summoned in 1943 to give effect to the 'Third Freedom', the 'Freedom from Want'.
Without getting too political, the real problem was that much of this arose from bifurcated societies -- the haves, the have-nots and not a whole lot in between.   Somewhere along the way, particularly in countries with more of a middle class the urgings of nutrition science got out of hand.  In our fervor to guard against malnutrition, we erred on the side of overnutrition.    Make sure you get enough fill-in-the-blank was rarely accompanied by caution against consuming too much.

And so as the Twentieth Century closed out, with post World War II circumstances and mindsets being as they were, the so-called First World careened out of control.  Meanwhile in the so-called Third World -- including many former colonies -- many of these *apparent* paradoxes sprung up:  poverty and obesity existing side by side.    The Twentieth Century food programs that focused on ensuring enough, exacerbated the Twenty-first Century dilemma of too much.

It is difficult to summarize and put into words what I've learned about the history of nutritional science this past couple of years.  So many sources are not freely available online or in electronic format (yes, I've had to read a few words on actual paper!)  There is so, so, SO much more to be learned.  What the various modern day nutritional scientists generally take from all of it is both saddening and maddening at times, depending on who it is we're talking about.    You won't learn most of this in any nutrition or history class, I'm afraid .... and you certainly won't learn a remotely accurate version from the supposed ancestral nutrition "experts".  NOT A ONE.   Most angering is that the same people referring to their select distorted snippets of history will simultaneously urge people to ignore the overall history and focus instead what 6 month randomized controlled trials tell us or don't about what makes for a healthful diet.  But let's ignore them for now because in the global scheme of things these people and their silly fads are wholly insignificant.

Nutritional Science History ~ Is It Correct?

In this article, I explore the significance of what this study of African diet and disease in Kenya discovered, how the findings were interpreted, and how they were used. The study found that both populations had sufficient calories but that they also had some difficult health problems.  Investigators concluded that Maasai, with a diet of milk and meat, were better off than were Kikuyu with a vegetarian diet.  But Orr and Gilks' study was constrained from the beginning by contemporary assumptions regarding African diet and health, including the existence of discrete "tribal" diets of longstanding.[7]   By taking the position that there were "tribal diets," this study encouraged that belief to become fact. Its design reflected the key colonial need for able-bodied laborers, so the major focus kept turning to the particular problems of Kikuyu men, who provided the potential pool of workers.  It also suffered from faulty assumptions about the nature of African diet and the impact of colonialism on various aspects of African diet.   And finally, when investigators could not identify a particular technical problem and thus could not administer a technical solution, they failed to recognize the socio-economic possibilities which would have overcome certain gender biases and the power imbalance between the colonizers and the colonized.   I argue that some major discoveries were ignored and that the findings were used and misused in such a way that they were misleading.
The above is a passage from an extremely illuminating article by an actual historian:  Kikuyu-Maasai Nutrition and Colonial Science: The Orr and Gilks Study in Late 1920s Kenya Revisited,  Cynthia Brantley (who appears to have retired from UC Davis, but no doubt some in the community may well be familiar with her work if they are truly interested in what the diet and lifestyles of Kenya consumed).

I will be turning my attention shortly to Tim Noakes and his crusade to experiment on the children of South Africa and the world by promoting #LCHF diets from infanthood.   Brantley's discussion is of the fall-out from contemporaneous errors in judgment and interpretation of studies like that of Orr and Gilks.  Now we are poised to compound those by the uncritical acceptance of "facts" about cultures that don't even coincide with the original works in looking to solutions for the new problems of today.  As many still grapple with poverty and adequate nutrition, obesity has shifted the focus somewhat and it is all the more important to properly apply the lessons of the past.

The Kikuyu women and children, not all that far north and east of South Africa,  did NOT traditionally suffer malnutrition and problems relating to their true "native diet".  Indeed these diets were already displaced by non-indigenous crops such as maize.  The tribe did consume more animal food before colonial powers limited these resources, but women consumed no dairy from puberty on the belief that it interfered with fertility.  They did not wean their babies onto liver and butter with the occasional celery stick dunked in coconut oil.   They did not consume these foods themselves to promote good milk supply -- to the contrary, they consumed lablab beans:
Dry or green beans are cooked and eaten (Kikuyu, Kamba, Maasai, Meru, Embu, Nandi), often being soaked before cooking. Beans cooked for 2-3 hours, water used to boil seeds may or may not be poured out. The beans can be cooked with vegetables or maize (Kamba, Kikuyu) or mashed with potatoes (Kikuyu). Seeds may also be boiled, fried and used as mboga (relish) with ugali. An important traditional food among the Kikuyu, almost always served to recuperating mothers after childbirth (said to increase mother's milk), important visitors (such as in-laws visiting a child named after them) and during important ceremonies. Leaves occasionally used as a vegetable in Central and Coast Provinces but a good knowledge of preparation is needed.
Don't look now but Masai ...  Anyway, the story of these women is fascinating.  I first happened across this two years ago researching legumes for my proposed talk at the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium.    You may also be interested in the following book (Amazon link):  Trouble Showed the Way: Women, Men, and Trade in the Nairobi Area, 1890 - 1990 by Claire Cone Robertson.

I think we do a great disservice to these cultures if we repeat the worst parts of history and mangle it once again in furtherance of an agenda.  Won't you join me in ensuring that we don't?