April 25, 2022

The End of Craving with Mark Schatzker

A few months ago I spoke with Mark Schatzker on Instagram Live  about his fabulous book The End of Craving. He argues that obesity in our country is largely due to the mismatch of what we taste in our food and the nutrition it delivers. We have taken the transcript of the fascinating conversation and released it here on my blog! This will really explain why so many people struggle with their weight in America. And not in Italy!

Dan Buettner: I’m coming to you live from Miami. And as many of you know, I am Dan Buettner. I’m the author of several Blue Zones books and made mostly my mark in identifying the areas around the world where people live statistically longest, and then trying to discern what exactly they’re doing that explains this extraordinary longevity. And, I’m now writing another book called the Blue Zone American Kitchen. I’m doing my research and I probably sit through a couple thousand pages of different reports and books and so forth. And, I came across a book about a month ago and it absolutely blew me away. It’s called The End of Craving by an author named Mark Schatzker. He is also the author of the Dorito effect. He is a writer in residence at modern diet and the physiology research center affiliated with Yale university. He’s written for the New York Times. This book has an ingenious argument for why America is obese and unhealthy. You know, from those of you who follow Blue Zones, you know, that I believe the obesity rate has risen by a factor of three since 1980, largely because our food environment and politicians like to wag their fingers at you and say, “you need more discipline or you need more self control,” but in 1980, people at about the same amount of self-control as we have today, and the same amount of discipline. A third as many people had obesity, about a seventh as many people suffered from diabetes and now something has happened. And I don’t believe Americans have become worse people. I don’t believe we’ve undergone some moral degeneration. Something else has happened. I’ve largely argued that the fact that the number of fast food restaurants has jumped by a factor of about 25% since 1970. Over 50% of all retail outlets sell junk food, which explains most of it. But, Mark has come up with what I believe is an absolutely ingenious argument in his The End of Craving. And I coldly reached out to him, emailed him and I asked him if I could interview him. Most of the times, writers interviewing other writers is a very private matter and he agreed to allow me to share. This is the first time we’re meeting to share our conversation with you guys. And I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled, not only to be with Mark here, but also be here with all of you.

Mark Schatzker: Hello, Dan, thank you so much for having me.

DB: Where are you coming from today?

MS: Well, today I’m in San Clemente, California, which is not my normal place of residence. I’m visiting a friend, you know, enjoying some warm weather. I’m from Toronto and there’s a bit of a cold snap happening. So this is a good place.

DB: Mama didn’t raise no fool, did she?

MS: That’s right. Although I know enemy of cold winter is a wonderful season. And, so, sometimes you need to recharge the batteries, right?

DB: Yeah. Cold helps increase your appreciation for warmth.

MS: I find cold is also better in the countryside than in the cities. When you see the trees draped and snow and so forth, that that can really nourish the soul. The traffic jams on the slush is a different.

DB: I totally agree with you. I see Angela Deegan girl has already started following you on Instagram. I encourage you guys to look at Mark’s deep body work. I know you’re associated with Yale. You’ve written some amazing books. I read the story about your Dorito Effect, but do you want to just tell us a little bit about your background, where you’ve come from and how you arrived at your current.

MS: Yeah, we I will give you a very, very quick story. I studied philosophy at the University of Toronto. Shortly after I graduated, I went to visit my brother who was living in Chile at the time. We took a trip out to the beach and we cooked some steak over coals. And, you know, Chileans, don’t like Argentines, but they say the best steak comes from Argentina. So that tells you something if they’re able to come to that conclusion. We grilled this Tenderloin. And I put a little bit in my mouth and was absolutely floored by the flavor. I mean, just one of those experiences where food stops you cold in your tracks and you go, what’s going on? And I asked what I thought was a simple question, which was “why does this steak tastes so good?” And, that led me down a long path, talking to the USDA, talking to the National Cattleman’s Association, essentially getting this very simple story that fat equals flavor, fat, fat, fat, none of it made any sense. I started to dig in deeper, essentially powered by curiosity, looking into things like flavor, nutrition, and my first book was called Steak and it was sort of a simple trouble story, just traveling the world, but got me into some deeper questions. Why do we like what we like? What should we eat? Is the food that we like healthy for us? How do animals know what to eat? And that’s a really interesting question because we talk endlessly about nutrition and somehow we’re surrounded by animals who don’t possess language. They don’t have any knowledge of nutrition. They don’t read Self Magazine or Men’s Journal. And yet somehow they maintain, nutritional balance. And that led to my second book, which was called The Dorito Effect, which looked at essentially how food has changed through the lens of flavor. We’re all very concerned with nutrients. We argue with carbs and fat and talk about vitamins. It’s like we’re wearing a white lab coat, but when it comes to eating, what we look forward to, it was the experience of a meal and that is experienced through flavor, something we never talk about in a scientific sense. And we tend to think it’s bad. We think food is kind of dangerous. So, on the most superficial level, the Dorito effect, just looks at how our food has changed through the lens of flavor and very simply the wholesome food that we grow, the plants and the animals that we raise are getting blander and losing nutritional density as well, because we’ve just gotten very good at producing a lot of food at the lowest possible price. Meanwhile, the very flavor chemicals that we’re losing, those flavor compounds that are diminishing and our food we’re putting into what we would call junk food. We identified them and we produced them in flavor factories and put them in foods like Doritos. But, they’re in everything now. They’re in things, like a young chicken will have flavoring in it because it is so bland. So The Dorito Effect, isn’t just the story of Doritos. It’s the story that all food is really following this model. Kind of calorie dense vehicle under which we impose flavor and create a very superficial, and I would say harmful experience of food that has divorced us from how the brain really ought to interact with food. And that led me to The End of Craving, which was looking at a deeper level

DB: Mark, before we go on The End of Craving, you identify this bliss point, you actually found the engineer that identified the bliss point. Can you talk a little bit about that?

MS: So that’s a guy named Howard Moscowitz and somebody will recognize his name. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about his work for Prego, they are the ones that make tomato sauce. Howard recognized that there was a big chunk of the marketplace that likes chunky tomato sauce. And they brought out chunky tomato sauce and made however many billions of dollars. But, Howard is a psychophysicist. He graduated from Harvard and he has a real skill in identifying essentially how the brain interfaces with the outside world. Somehow the physical world is understood by the brain and that’s Howard’s specialty. He did work with things like soft drinks in terms of finding the point at which they’re the most, let’s say rewarding, but this is a very slippery term. And I think it’s important because, and I spoke to Howard about this recently and this sort of gets us into some of The End of Craving territory. The term “bliss” I find very interesting because that connotes kind of euphoria, an elevated sense. And I don’t think in fact that’s the bliss point, that that’s not the feeling these junk food companies were going for. They were going for a more motivated reason to take another bite. I want to take another sip. So, he said at the time, listen, we weren’t thinking on a deep level of a pleasure. We were just coming up with a word. And I think that’s important because I think as this discussion evolves, we have to develop the more nuanced language about how we experience food. Cause there’s different pleasures. You know, putting a Dorito in your mouth is a different experience than bucketing into a wonderful peach. A psychologist might say they’re both rewarding experiences, but they’re, they feel very differently. And I think we’ll get into that, but I think these are important subjects.

DB: Aren’t these food scientists, these flavor engineers sort of manipulating foods to really trick us? I mean, they find the exact elements that make us love food. And they transfer this fantastic taste and flavor on the food that’s not all that good for us and indeed in a way that tricks us.

MS: Exactly. So if you look at flavor, and this was the key insight, and the Dorito effect, the question we never ask is why does food have flavor? It seems kind of obvious like, it’s a strange question now. But why is it that a peach tastes like a peach, apple tastes like an apple, chicken tastes like chicken. The reason is that this is how the brain understands food. And it’s an incredibly important sense. If you look at your genome, the thickest chapter is on your food sense and equipment, your nose and mouth. So, obviously it’s extremely important from an evolutionary sense. Why would you have all this DNA baggage for no reason? It’s extremely important. And what flavor is the brain’s roadmap to nutrition. So, I spoke in the book about the work of a scientist named Fred Provenza, who showed how animals use flavor to seek out the nutrients they need. He did a great study where he made sheep deficient in phosphorus, and phosphorus is a mineral it’s essential to life. If you don’t have phosphorus, you’re going to die. What he found, very interestingly, immediately they would start to react. They would start to paw the earth, they would start to eat dirt. He actually had difficulty inducing the deficiency because they would actually start to consume the urine and feces of sheep in neighboring pens who were consuming phosphorus. It sounds disgusting, but their brains were that kind of on the ball that they immediately started to say, I need to fix this problem. So then of course he had to remove them so they had no access to any kind of phosphorous. And what he would do is he would give them a feed that had no nutrition, but was flavored like coconut. And when they would taste that coconut, he would put an infusion of phosphorus into their belly. So over time, their brains started to understand there’s a relationship between coconut and phosphorus. On alternate days, he’d give them a maple flavored feed, but then he would just put water into their belly. And what he found is that they learned that coconut equals phosphorus. So, when he would then induce this deficiency, They would go searching for the flavor of coconut. There’s no physical relationship between coconut and phosphorus. It’s just an association, but that’s how the brain learns where the nutrients are because nutrients are very stable. They’re very hard to detect on their own. So, evolution gave us this ability to detect detectable things which are kind of aromas that point us in that direction. Now you might say, well, maybe just sheep like coconut. I mean, who doesn’t love coconut? Well, in another pen, he reversed it and this time he paired maple flavor to phosphorus. And in that case, that was the preference that said it.The sheep have this plasticity in their brains where they can learn where the nutrients are. And that’s how we are. That’s why foods have different flavors because they all have different nutritional makeups. And that’s the brain uses flavor as the roadmap to nutrition. This is a system that worked brilliantly well for millions of years. And this is something that’s changed only very recently. It was only in the 1950s that we invented the gas chromatograph, which let us identify flavors. And that’s when this flavor industry started. And, you know, what’s so interesting is that if you look at Doritos, the very first ones were just tortilla chips and they bombed. They didn’t sell well and Frito-Lay had to do something. And that’s when they decided to make them taste like tacos. And what’s so interesting about this is that this dusting of flavoring turned a chip that no one was particularly interested in eating into a chip that we all know people have difficulty to stop eating. So I think this tells us that, you know, our relationship with food is so much more, it’s so much bigger than just nutrients. It’s understanding how the brain relates to food. And when you start to manipulate these buttons, you push certain buttons, you can really change people’s behavior.

DB: Mark, what is it in a Dorito that makes us want to eat it ad nauseam?

MS: It’s I think it’s a combination of certain what they call volatile, aromatic compounds, which are just essentially aromas. And this strikes people as weird, like aromas, cause don’t use sniff those. You do. But when you eat the aromas also go up in the back of your throat and into your nasal cavity and that’s called retro nasal smell. So you sniff food as you smell food as you eat it. And this is what gives food it’s an incredible dimension of flavor. That’s why, when you have a cold, you’re not smelling things, food tastes so bland. This is what people in COVID are discovering that when you lose your sense of smell, food becomes incredibly bland. So it’s a combination of those aromatic compounds, as well as what I would call the umami taste. It’s things like MSG to yeast. Tomatoes are a real source of them, but these are additives they use to trigger this taste receptor on our tongue.

DB: Someone was saying that our bodies crave nutrition. That we will keep trying different foods until we find that the nutrition we need to set up.

MS: Yes. I mean, that’s how it looks with animals that they become what’s called neophilic, which is to say they want to find new things like love new neophilic and then when they find them, they settle on that. So we have this in-built mechanism to kind of open the door to new experiences to find foods that we need. And that’s why we’re often curious about foods. Um, but when we’re getting what we need, we’re not often that curious. So, so it’s very interesting how a deficiency can, can make an animal really start to explore its environment, to find that.

DM: So, as I was saying, just before you came on that I’ve argued in Blue Zones, these people who live the longest around the world, they don’t seem to have any genetic advantage to the rest of us. They don’t have any outside sense of discipline or self-control or individual responsibility. Which is something that we’re told to draw upon to make the right food decisions on a day-to-day, almost moment to moment, basis in our food environment. I argue the reason they live a long time is because their choices are limited to healthy choices for the most part. Meanwhile, there’s almost nowhere, it’s almost impossible, to find a healthy choice in America. If I could sum up, The End of Craving a little bit, or at least the part that most resonated with me, you build a very elegant argument, that essentially says that food has been so manipulated to taste so good that we want to eat it all the time. It’s nutritionally deficient, but it leaves us craving. So, we’re eating all the time and never satisfied. A. did I get that right? And, B. could you unpack a little bit more about what you did and in this wonderful book?

MS: Yeah, I would say broadly speaking, that’s a good summation. I think what’s really important is the idea of pleasure. Cause it gets really complicated because when you look at junk food, there is something rewarding going on. You know, when you start to get those Doritos or Big Mac or whatever, there’s this kind of reinforcement thing happens that you want to keep eating, but I’m someone who’s really interested in the experience of food.
I started as a travel writer. And a lot of people say that we live in a hyper palatable environment and that food is like drugs, drugs of addiction. And we tend to think that they’re too pleasurable. And I think this is in fact wrong because I would say that the cultures in the world that have the healthiest relationship with food have incredibly delicious food. I think great examples are Japan and South Korea. I talk a lot about Italy in the book. Italy has the lowest rate of obesity in Western Europe, and they have the best food that, you know, however you want to measure that they have the most tourism and so forth. They also have a food culture. That’s almost maniacally obsessed with the quality of food.
So if it’s really deliciousness that’s our enemy, you would expect the Italians to be the plumpist. And in fact, they’re the thinnest. So that’s telling us something really important, but there’s actually hope here that that’s not it. We weren’t born cursed to enjoy food that is in fact deadly. Really our internal wiring is in fact right and that we should derive pleasure from real food. So the Dorito effect forced me to ask this question – how is this going wrong? And I think one of the problems is that these additives make you eat. You put your hand back in the bag, but there’s a deeper problem, which is how does this affect the brain’s wiring? So one of the most important things we see when we look at obesity is that people think people with obesity indulge in pleasure too much. The knock on them is that they don’t have self control and that they don’t know when to say enough is enough. They lose themselves in the bliss of food. And when we look at the neuroscience, that’s not what we see. What we see is if you compare the brain of somebody with obesity, with somebody who’s trim, let’s say they’re consuming a milkshake. When you look at that actual sip of a milkshake and the effect on the brain, everyone thinks the person with obesity, their brain will light up like a Christmas tree. And as that enjoyment of the milkshake, that doesn’t mean it’s what happens. In fact, if anything, they enjoy the milkshake less. They have a blunted pleasure response – where we see the difference is when they see the milk. The picture of it, that Pavlovian cue that’s when the different sets in that’s when we see this huge spike in dopamine and they crave the milkshake. So obesity, this is where it is similar to drug addiction, not drug use, cause drug use is about pleasure. Drug addiction is about being a slave to the cravings for drugs. And that’s how our problem with food is similar. We see that there’s this absolute spike in desire to eat, which is never followed up by actual pleasure. So it’s an incredibly miserable state of affairs. I mean, what an awful, awful way to relate to food, to crave it and never be satisfied by it. So, then the question becomes, how did this happen? I talk about the work of a scientist at Yale University named Dana Small, who does work in an area called nutritive mismatch. And that has to do with our faculty of taste and its relation to the nutrition that’s in food. So I’m going to talk about an experiment which started with what I think is a simple, but important question is can we create beverages that are as equally rewarding, but deliver fewer calories. We think on the surface, this would be a good thing because we tend to think we’re sort of wired to want to have calories. And if we can fulfill that, that desire, but deliver for your calories, this will be a win. We’ll get to have that enjoyment, but fewer calories. How do you test them? It’s a real interesting question. So what she did is she created five drinks. They all had a distinctive flavor, but they were all equally sweet. She used the artificial sweetener called sucralose to make them all taste as though they had about 75 calories worth of sugar. Then she actually put calories in using a tasteless starch, Maltodextrin. So one drink had no calories and one drink got 148 and there were all these gradations in between 0, 35 75, 128, 140. And she let her subjects drink these drinks over a period of time so their brains could learn what was in each drink. And then she put them in the brain scanner to measure the brain response to each drink. And she thought the 140 calorie drink is going to generate the biggest brain response because the brain likes calories. But it turned out that wasn’t the case. For some reason, the 75 calorie drinks just had this nice little spike in brain response. And the other drinks were just sort of not doing much. She thought I clearly messed this up, that’s not right. She did it again, and it happened again. Then she put her subjects in what’s called an indirect calorimeter and this measures what’s called the thermic effect of food. So when you consume calories, your body starts to process them. And that creates heat. Same way that your car does when it’s running, it creates heat. And the textbooks will tell you the more calories, the greater the thermic effect. So one day she had a woman come in, who could consume the 75 calorie drink, and there’s this nice little plume of heat everything’s going as you’d expect. Few days later, she comes in and has the 140 calories. Nothing happens. The metabolic response is flat. This is bizarre because physiology tells you when you consume calories, there’s a thermic response. What on earth is going on? And then it strikes her. It’s the number 75. The drinks were all created to taste as though they had 75 calories worth of. And the drink that generated the brain response and the metabolic response actually had 75 calories. So we see a match that your taste is telling you what’s coming. What we also see is that when your taste tells you X is coming and Y is delivered things go wonky. So this tells us that this faculty of taste is not some superficial, frivolous quality that has nothing to do with nutrition of vitamins and minerals. It is absolutely essential to the way the brain and the body interact with food. And when you start to change these signals, things go wonky. The food literally doesn’t get metabolized properly. So, she did more studies. She found that this can lead to insulin resistance because internally all these signals are going wrong and the brain doesn’t know how much insulin to secrete when it’s expecting these sweet carbohydrates.

DB: So, this is like in the case of drinking a diet Coke, right?

MS: Yes, that’s the famous example. These artificial sweeteners are being put in so many foods now because we’re so frightened of calories that companies are just doing anything they can to bring down that caloric number. She did an experiment with adolescents, and this is really important because adolescents are in a growth period where the brain is expanding. So is their body and that’s why a lot of them drink sugary drinks. They’re looking for calories. And when they were given these mismatched drinks early on in the experiment, they drew blood from three subjects, two of them had already gone pre-diabetic. Then, a bioethical council said, you gotta stop this, you can’t even continue. So this will tell if there’s something going really wrong on a metabolic level when we interfere with the relationship between the signals that the brain perceives from food, we think what we enjoyed tastes good. But, what your brain is doing is getting an early reading on the nutrients coming into the body because your body is a hot dynamo, constantly working. You can’t just dump food in like you do with your car and know what’s coming. That’s why you get different secretions based on if you’re consuming carbs or fat or protein. But then you can ask a deeper question. Because what we see from this is that the brain is not this kind of stone age moron on this kind of eternal quest for calories. I don’t believe that we’re wired to get fat and that we’re wired to endlessly consume calories. There’s all sorts of reasons from an evolutionary basis. That that would be a very bad idea. So let’s think about everything we’ve done. So much of what we’ve done to the food that we eat is premised on this idea that we have this sort of ogre like appetite that will do whatever it can to get calories. And we should fool that ogre, so we use artificial sweeteners and/or fat replacers, which no one knows about it, but this is an enormous family of food additives that evoke the experience of rich fatty calories and deliver no calories. Well, if it turns out your brain is that ogre stone-age idiot that just wants to eat calories, then this is a great idea because you can fool it and you can lower the amount of calories you consume. But what if it turns out your brain actually measures what comes in and then measures what it got? Because that’s what the brain does. It tastes food and if it starts to get a prediction of what’s coming in, and then it does a post ingestive analysis. That’s how those sheep learned about the phosphorus, because it analyzes what’s in the gut. So when that happens, the brain starts to say, I didn’t get what I wanted. Psychologists call that uncertainty. There’s a more technical term for it called reward prediction error, which means it’s predicting a reward that it is going to get, and then it got an error signal. It didn’t get what I wanted. How does the brain respond to that? There’s a very standard response – elevated motivation. This is baked in by evolution because if you don’t get what you wanted, there’s the prospect of a loss. If these losses starts to pile up, you die, which means you don’t reproduce. So, evolution has baked in this response that when we experience uncertainty in something that we need, there’s elevated motivation to make sure..

DB: Just for clarity, you’re talking about something unconscious.

MS: Yes. We don’t brood an uncertainty, we feel motivated. I’ll give you an example. You know, the button you press when you cross the road. It says press this button for the walk signal. And you’re like, is this thing even connected because you press it and nothing happens. So what do you do to that button? You press it like 20 times, right? You just, boom, boom, boom. That is reward prediction error. That’s your brain going, I don’t know if this is working, so I’m just going to hammer it. Now let’s think of when you step onto an elevator and you need to go to the 11th floor. How many times do you press that button? Once, because it works, it lights up, and you know, I’m going to the 11th floor. So you can just see how this works unconsciously. Another example is if the fuel gauge in your car, if you didn’t know if it was working, that it might say full might say half, you have no idea how much fuel is in there. What would your response be? Gas the car. I don’t want to run out of gas, right? So you’re going to have this urge, this fear that if I run out of gas, you got call the tow truck that will cost you about 300 bucks. So, you just fill it instead more often. If I told you that you got a plane to catch in two hours and your watch is either an hour fast or an hour slump, or you got a plane to catch at three o’clock. I would go to the airport early. You’re going to overcompensate to make sure disaster doesn’t hit you. So this is a response that when the brain is faced with uncertainty, it responds with elevated motivation. This is why we gamble when we get a scratch card or when we see a slot machine, because it is uncertain. It lures us in. This is why we bet on sports because the outcome is uncertain. It draws us in, it just has this motivation, it just lights us up. So this is what we’ve done with food. And I think this is so interesting because this is what we see in the brain scans. It’s elevated motivation. People want food too much. And, that I think is very important because the example of Italy tells us is that we can get this relationship right. But with the example of USA’s food environment, it tells us that we’ve gotten things drastically wrong. We have to understand how the brain perceives food.

DB: Can I ask, besides diet Coke, what are the other big offenders? What are the other things that we routinely consume that create this nutrition mismatch?

MS: I talk about a number of them in the books. So, a lot of soft drinks now have a mixture. Diet Coke may not be that bad because it tastes so artificial that I think maybe the brain actually keys on to the fact that there’s not much going on here. Coke knows that they’ve created Coke Zero, which is a more convincing Coke. It’s very interesting. If you look at England, they’re now mixing artificial sweeteners with sugar because that makes it taste even better. Dana Small’s research suggests that that’s actually the worst thing of all to actually mix them. It’s not just artificial sweeteners. It’s also sugar alcohols.

DB: What about the Beyond Burger or the Impossible Burger? We bite into that and it’s said to taste just like meat

MS: Well, exactly. What’s so interesting to me is that this represents so much of what’s wrong with our culture because when those products hit the stands, there was this standing ovation, we’ve done it. We figured it out. These are foods that are the very essence of being designed to fool the senses. They use words like beyond or impossible to imply that we’ve broken the shackles of nature and now we can really get down to business. This is a great idea if your brain is just a complete idiot has no idea what is going on. This is a terrible idea if your brain in fact has an intelligence about eating that we’re only beginning to understand. I think of something like Soylent as well. If you look at the ingredients there are compounds that have only existed for a handful of years. And somehow this is the universal nectar like beverage that can power the human body. I’m very skeptical about that. It treats us all like machines for one thing is that we’re all identical. Like we’re all the same model of car and we all need exactly the same thing. Some of us are male, some are female. Some of us are elderly. Some of us are young. Some of us are going through puberty. Some of us are pregnant. We all have wildly different needs. And our brain is designed to understand those needs and accommodate the food. So I find these foods are premised on an absolutely false and dangerous assumption.

DB: But, I found Italy and correct me if I have your statistics wrong, but 30 years ago, we had about a 1/3 the rate of obesity in USA than we do right now, which is at 45% now. Italy had and still has about 8%. They seem to be eating pasta, drinking wine, lard on and, salami, all these things. Well how is it that they’re getting by? They are eating to their heart’s content or their stomach’s content and not getting fat.

MS: That’s a great question. I kind of rip my hair up over for a long time. Cause they’re eating the foods, especially Northern Italy, where they don’t really eat much of a Mediterranean diet. They’re eating foods that we’ve been telling ourselves or are on some level poisonous. They eat carbs, they eat fat. They’re not afraid of butter. They like to use cream. They celebrate it in a way that is at times hilarious in Velonia. That’s the city that gave us bologna. They call it mortadella there and you can see these cubes of white fat in it. They have a repository in their Chamber of Commerce where they have these official recipes. If you’re going to make tortellini, their famous Ragu, you have to make it this way. They have a golden noodle cast in their Chamber of Commerce. Yet they are so astonishingly thin and the food is so good. They also enjoy sugar. They have some wonderful desserts. They have gelato. Their gelato tastes better than any ice cream. You can get here, much smaller servings, but that’s not because they’re all on a diet. It’s because it’s so delicious that you don’t actually need to eat that much. It’s very interesting. What is the difference? Well, I traced it back and this is a long answer. I traced it back to an epidemic we’re suffering through two epidemics right now. COVID and obesity. Well, over a hundred years ago, there was an epidemic raging, both in Northern Italy and the American south called Pellagra. It meant rough skin and that’s what it means in a sort of an old dialect of Italian. It would start with sort of these skin scales and it would progress and people got terribly sick. They would have horrible diarrhea and nausea. They start to get demented, act strangely, attack children, wander about, and they’d eventually die. Nobody knew what Pellagra was. And an epidemiologist named Joseph Goldberger, once it suddenly appeared in the United States, he thought it had something to do with food and everyone thought he was nuts and he went to a sanitorium. He said don’t clean the bedsheets and don’t worry about the flies buzzing around. And he started to feed the inmates, different things like beans and cheese and milk and meat, and he cured it. And this was very important. This led to a deeper understanding of food, which is to say it contains essential nutrients. We call them vitamins. We call them minerals. The vitamin missing in the case of Pellagra was niacin or vitamin B3. Here’s where the story gets so interesting though, is how do these two cultures respond? America did what you think would be sensible with our new scientific knowledge and said Niacin is clearly important. If you don’t get it, you die. We just learning about these B vitamins and let’s put them in food. So they pass laws that encouraged, but essentially made a law that we had to add niacin, riboflavin, and thiamin, as well as the mineral, iron first to white bread, but then to flour and then start to creep in some pasta, it’s in rice. It’s in grits. It’s basically in all our processed carbs. But we also have voluntary fortification, which means companies can put this stuff in and, boy, they love to do that, especially energy drinks. They make you think it’s healthy because there’s all these vitamins. Well, it worked fantastically well, Pellagra just disappeared overnight. It was such a wonderful marriage of public policy. And then the new nutrition, the science of nutrition. What do they do over in Italy? These medieval Italians, they said oh, poor people should eat rabbit meat because rabbits are cheap to raise. They said we should bake bread in communal ovens, like we’re going to have a big bread party or something. And some of them even said, these people with Pellagra should drink wine. And you’re like, idiocy! Like people have a nutritional deficiency and you should drink wine? Well, it actually wasn’t that dumb because the wines back then were unfiltered. They had a lot of yeast floating around – tons of niacin. But, no one knew that they didn’t know the connection. Kind of like folklore, it also worked. Italy, literally ate its way out of a nutritional deficiency. Now it took longer, but it worked. Now, let’s push the clock forward because America remains a nutritional disaster. What was once the Pellagra belt is now the diabetes belt, which is now also the obesity belt. Northern Italy is this upside down world of people indulging in foods that we think on the surface must be incredibly unhealthy and they remain astonishingly trim. So there’s a literal difference, which is to say, I do believe these B vitamins play a role in obesity. We can talk about that, but there’s a more kind of a metaphorical difference, which is how the two cultures looked at food. North America looked at food and they said food is by its nature incomplete. This is because some foods don’t have what we need. And the human appetite is by its nature unintelligent, because here are these people who don’t know what to eat and they’re dying of nutritional deficiency. So we are going to impose our knowledge and fix what’s wrong with food.
And it began with enrichment and fortification. They’re the same thing. It’s called enrichment when the government does it, but it’s just basically adding vitamins to food, but it didn’t end with that. There’s been all these technologies that we think will work because our appetites are stupid and food is flawed. So artificial sweeteners are a great example of that, where we think we have this irrational desire for sweetness, let’s create fake sweetness. I mentioned fat replacers. This is a huge multi-billion dollar industry. Anytime you buy something that’s light, fat-free that started in the 1980s. Well, now we’re putting in everything because we just want to bring his calorie counts.

DB: I was fascinated in The End of Craving, your great book here, you actually assert at one point that the fact that we’re enriching foods with these vitamins is actually contributing to the obesity epidemic and you cite specifically African-Americans.

MS: Yes, so this is interesting because vitamins are kind of sacred ground. And when I even started to think about this, is this nuts saying vitamins and obesity? I mean are you going to say rain or sunshine causes obesity, but let’s look at B vitamins in particular because vitamins all do different things. And the B vitamins are all involved in energy metabolism. Well, that’s important because energy you’re getting into calories. And where we start to see the effect of this is if we look at livestock. If we look at how we raise animals and let’s look specifically in the 1950s. Starting with pigs, because pigs are the most like us of all the animals, we raised their monogastric. They have one stomach and they’re omnivores. They are much more like us than chickens and cows, although they’re also instructive in a similar way. Well, in the 1950s, what farmers want to do is they want to get their pig big and fat real quick. Cause that’s how you get the most money for it. That the shorter you have, the more money you will make. Well, they knew that you could get pigs big and fat by feeding them corn with some soybeans. But they knew if that’s all you give them, they get something like pellagra in a pig version of a nutritional deficiency. This is because that food is incredibly rich in calories but is not complete. So what did they do? They sent the pigs out to pasture where they would eat things like alfalfa and this helped balance the diet. They didn’t really know exactly what was going on on a vitamin to vitamin level, but they knew that you better give them their green feed or they’re going to die. Well, the discovery of vitamins changed livestock forever. We talk about things like confinement, farming, and feed lots and so forth. That was all made possible by the discovery of B vitamins. Cause now you could take this incredibly richly, densely caloric, feed corn with soy, dust in some vitamins, and now you don’t need alfalfa. Now you can keep the pigs penned in and you look at the growth curve and it just changed forever. And I found pamphlets that released by these agricultural schools in the late 1950s saying they would say things like the pig has a reasonable ability to balance its diet, but now there’s a better way to what they would call optimal nutrition, which is getting them big and fat real quick. How did they do that? Processed carbs plus B vitamins. What did we do? We started adding B vitamins to our processed carbs. So, in the book, I’m asking a very simple question. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Maybe what works to eradicate a nutritional deficiency over a century ago has an unforeseen consequence so many years later.

DB: That’s so fascinating.

MS: Oh, by the way, they don’t enrich their flour in Italy.

DB: And we’ve been doing that since we’ve been doing it for a hundred years.

MS: And now it’s in breakfast cereals. It’s in energy drinks. It’s in so many things. So, it’s so interesting. We saw food as being incomplete and in need of fixing. The Italians, when they saw Pellagra, they said, there’s nothing wrong with food. We saw food as the cause. They see food as the cure. Over a century or more later, we’re constantly trying to repress our urges. We’re constantly trying to change food. Like you said, the Impossible Burger, all this stuff. What are old timers do? They have food parties.

DB: They make recipes in Blue Zones zones by the way.

MS: Yeah, absolutely. They love food. They believe that the experience of enjoying the products of the land and the sea tell us something important. Whereas we think this is dangerous and must be controlled. And I think that’s the fundamental differences that we’re afraid of food, and we think we can control it. Whereas I think the truth is we don’t even understand how it all works and there’s a deeper part of our brain that enjoys food that we have to kind of unlock.

DB: When the policy ramifications here are huge. I’ve gotten a number of questions from listeners. How much did GMOs confuse our systems and to craving?

MS: I don’t know if there’s a flavor difference with GMOs. I mean, when people think of GMOs, they think of things like wheat, corn or soy. What’s interesting is if you look at flavor technologies, if we actually have genetically modified yeasts that produce particular flavors, these are often called natural flavors. So it really goes on a deep level. The thing I’m most concerned about is this manipulation of the sensed quality of food at this point in things like GMO corn or soy. I guess what I’d be concerned with is that they’re losing their flavor. Corn doesn’t really have a rich corn flavor. So, I also found a guy who goes around collecting old species, old varieties of corn that are near dead, so they can make their beloved polenta, which is kind of like grits. And it tastes completely different when you make it from these old varieties. So that’s just another way that high up agriculture has hurt us, we’ve gotten lots of calories, but we’re missing so much of what makes food important, which is the flavor and that nutritional density.

DB: Mark, what was it about, I believe it’s about the 1970s where the food, I’m just extrapolating from your book, there seemed to be a real explosion of artificial flavors and fake fats and proteins. What was going on in the 1970s that triggered this whole burst of innovation, which is now perhaps a root of a lot of our food problems?

MS: Well, I think part of it was the McGovern report saying that, basically fat is what makes people fat. And there was this growing sense of alarm that the traditional diet, meat and potatoes and so forth was terrible. And there was new technologies coming online, I mean flavor technology didn’t exist really until the mid 1960s. That’s going to take a while to get going. I talked about a fat replacer called Simplex, that was discovered I think it was in 1979. There was a scientist working at a brewery who tried to turn away, which is what’s left over when you make cheese into a gel. I don’t know why you do that, but they said let’s try that. And they got this kind of crumbly stuff. It sort of tastes like cottage cheese or cream cheese, and it had very few calories. So this became a fat replacer called Simplex. And what it is is a micro particulated protein, tiny little balls of protein that stimulate the touch receptors in your mouth and make you think your eating something rich and creamy and your brain is expressing calories, but you don’t get the calories. But, here’s, what’s really interesting about Simplex. You will never see that on the ingredient panel, you will also never see the words, micro particulated protein. You will see the words like milk protein or whey protein, which makes it sound to me pretty innocuous. I’m thinking that’s like cheese or something that came off a farm. The last thing you’d think is micro particulated proteins. The fat industry has been very different than the artificial sweetener industry. They really keep in the shadows and they love what they call these clean labels, where they can kind of disguise what they’re doing by using something that sounds friendly and inviting.

DB: And it’s not. So if you were magically the emperor of food policy in America. Based on what you’ve learned, writing The End of Craving and The Dorito Effect, what sorts of policies might you reverse and try out if you want it to make for a healthier North America?

MS: Well, I would certainly look at are things like voluntary fortification and enrichment. I would ask something that was necessary more than a hundred years ago because of tremendous poverty we had…is that still necessary now? Is there an unforeseen consequence? I will take a good hard look at fortification, I don’t think it works. I think that the fact that France and Italy don’t do it, they’re not dying of Pellagra and that tells us something pretty important. I would also change the way we look at food. We all have this nutritionist hat on. We talk about fat and carbs and vitamins and protein. Like we have PhDs, and we don’t. We can’t track our calories. Even when we think we’re tracking, we then consciously eat more. I would really take a good, hard look at all these additives that change the way the brain senses food. But, what I would really try to do, and this would be tricky when you’re the emperor, is change our cultural approach to food – to actually value our cultural traditions. To value, not just local food, but like terroir, not in the wine sense, but in the sense that we can produce foods that reflect the land and also local traditions, and we can have parties and we can celebrate them and we can create recipes and really enjoy them, you know? And I don’t know how you do this, but here’s the most interesting thing. I had this epiphany, right. Because they went to a bean festival and there’s several towns in Italy that all claim to have the best bean. So I went to one of them which was called Lamon and they have either affordable varieties. It’s in the Dolomites. And of course I get there and I asked somebody who’s this old guy, not that old, but tall guy with a handlebar mustache selling beans. And I say, how should I prepare these? And he is such a purist that he says, just boil them and dress them in a neutral vegetable oil. He didn’t even want the taste of olive oil to corrupt them. Well, then a woman says you should actually add an onion when you boil them. And someone else says you should also put in some rows and then other ones say do rosemary and another sage. And, all of a sudden this argument erupts, then they start to argue about which is the best variety. They’ve got four, and they all have their very strong opinions on which is the best variety. And I go to myself, everywhere I go we argue about food. It doesn’t matter where, everywhere food turns into an argument. But, here’s the deal. In North America, the argument is about fat. It’s about carbs, ketosis, insulin. Like as though we are all working in a science lab. In Italy, they’re arguing about recipes. What are you talking about? Don’t use rosemary. Use sage. They’re kind of like living on some kind of folkloric level of food, but guess whose system works better? Not ours.

DB: Oh, that is so fascinating. By the way, that’s very Blue Zones. You know, I found these parts of the world where people live statistically longest and they’ve been eating peasant food for much of the last millennia. And it’s simple foods like beans, whole grains, greens. They find literally dozens of varieties of greens. Nuts, tubers. And, I wrote an entire book called the Blue Zones Kitchen, which is basically 500 years of genius unleashed on peasant foods. And the result is astounding. You know, we put all this culinary effort into meat. You go to an average American restaurant and all you find is the meat, the seafood. In the Blue Zones, they put their genius on. In beans, for example, which as your research found, you can make them taste absolutely delicious. It just occurs to me that we arrive at very similar conclusions that have taken very different paths.

MS: I agree with you and what’s also so interesting is that often the versions of these vegetables and legumes they’re cooking with are different. We’ve lost so much flavor. One of the things I find interesting about modern cookery is the tremendous effort you have to put in to get something to taste good. Because things are become so bland that our recipes are just getting more elaborate. This is one of the reasons people are eating out more because it’s harder to treat good food at home. And as the question of meat, that’s also interesting because I like meat. I wrote a book about steak, but that’s not to say I only eat steak. And one of the things I find when you’re using what I would call real meat, you know, animals raised properly. You need just a tiny, tiny bit to add to like a vegetable stew, just to give it some body for people whose pallet goes in that direction. It just delivers so much more power and food is so much more satisfying when it actually tastes like what would it ought to be. I know that sounds bizarre, but we have so many things like carrots that don’t taste like carrots, tomatoes that tastes bland when food really tastes powerful, just what it is, it’s so fun and easy to cook with, and it’s so delicious to eat. Cooking’s not supposed to be hard. When you look at Italians, they use three ingredients and I’m blown away by it because its the food actually. Three ingredients in a pressure cooker, you have the best fast food in the world.

DB: Three ingredients in a pressure cooker, you have the best fast food in the world.

MS: That’s right.

DB: So while we’re rounding out an hour, I want to respect your time, but please tell us how we can follow you.

MS: Well, I’m on Instagram and Twitter. I’m maybe not as active on social media is ought to be. And I’ve also written books. I think people interested this discussion will be interested in The End of Craving and also The Dorito Effect. And there’ll be more. My goal is to really get us to value food and put our efforts into, not just technologies that make more food or cheaper food, but make food better. To undo so much of the damage that we’ve done to it. And I would also say that people – enjoy real food. Everyone says, eat real food. That’s important. You should enjoy it. Food, eating food. We get to do it three times a day, and it’s such a wonderful experience. You can’t expect to have a healthy relationship with food if you’re constantly suppressing the pleasure of eating it.

DB: And if you want to learn more, Mark offers a great explanation in The End of Craving. It’s one of the best books I’ve read on diet and nutrition over the last 10 years. I can’t recommend it enough. I think it is absolutely illuminating. And explains why so many of us, 71% of Americans are obese or overweight. It tells a great story. He begins in Italy and takes us back through history and to our modern food culture. Where’s the best place for them to buy this?

MS: Well, you know, it’s available online, Amazon or the other online booksellers. It’s also in bookshops. So I would say wherever you buy books, they should have it in stock. And if they don’t, ask them to get it.

DB: I read the great piece and review in The Wall Street Journal, which always wets my appetite. So anyways, Mark, I hope that we actually get to meet in person one of these days. And I hope we get to meet all the other people who joined us for this conversation, you absolutely enlightened me. I can’t thank you enough for your time, your research and mostly your wisdom.

MS: Well, thanks. I hope we get to meet and eat. That would be even better.

DB: There we go. And in Italy.

MS: That’s right. Okay. I’ll see you there. I hope we do this again sometime. I enjoyed it tremendously. Thanks for all your hard work. It’s been great to be here. Take care.

100 Recipes to Live to 100 THE BLUE ZONES KITCHEN

The Blue Zones Kitchen fuses scientific reporting, National Geographic photography and 100 recipes that may help you live to 100. The Blue Zones’ food tradition is going the way of the dodo bird, thanks to the encroachment of the American Food Culture.

The Blue Zones Kitchen

From #1 New York Times Bestselling Author, National Geographic Fellow & Founder of Blue Zones, Dan Buettner

The Blue Zones American Kitchen

100 Recipes to Live to 100