The End of the Calorie

For most of us, the calorie is just a number on the back of the packet or on the display at the gym. But what is it, exactly? And how did we end up with this one unit with which to measure our food? Is a calorie the same no matter what type of food it comes from? And is one calorie for you exactly the same as one calorie for me? To find out, we visit the special rooms scientists use to measure how many calories we burn, and the labs where researchers are discovering that the calorie is broken. And we pose the question: If not the calorie, then what?


TRANSCRIPT Sweet and Low (Calorie): The Story of Artificial Sweeteners

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Sweet and Low (Calorie): The Story of Artificial Sweeteners, first released on January 15, 2019. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

MATT LAUER: A lot of people opt for diet drinks thinking they’re doing something better for them, it’s a better option—well a new study is now calling into question.

DR. OZ: Very provocative. Big study, thousands of people followed over years. Let me break it down for you. Specifically, what they looked at was often they had strokes: 3 times more likely than normal.

DR. MARK HYMAN: There’s been mounds of research that artificial sweeteners—both in human studies, animal studies, experimental studies, population studies—is bad news. So let me share with you what’s going on. First, they are linked to obesity. So, number one, it makes you fat. Number two, it does it by rewiring and screwing up your brain chemistry and your metabolism.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Wow, this sounds pretty bad—they’re making it seem like artificial sweeteners are just the worst thing ever.

NICOLA TWILLEY: Well, Cynthia, that is the question. First of all, I take everything that comes out of Dr. Oz’s mouth with a wheelbarrow full of salt. But there are a lot of headlines out there saying that artificial sweeteners will give us everything from cancer to heart disease.

GRABER: But for decades, we’ve also been hearing that Sweet’N Low, Splenda, NutraSweet, they all promise guilt-free pleasure. Is that true?

TWILLEY: And on top of all the health scares—where do these curious substances that taste like sugar but have no calories actually come from anyway?

GRABER: And do they deliver on their promise—can they actually help us lose weight? You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber.

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode is the first episode of our new season. And it’s all about artificial sweeteners—the science, the history, and Donald Rumsfeld. Yes, that Donald Rumsfeld.


GRABER: So the earliest artificial sweetener we know about was discovered in ancient Rome.

RICHARD MATTES: So what they discovered was that if you boiled grape juice in leaded pots it would produce a sweet substance.

GRABER: Richard Mattes studies artificial sweeteners at Purdue University.

TWILLEY: Boiled grape juice is sweet already. You knew that. But this substance was even sweeter.

GRABER: Basically the lead ended up concentrated in the grape juice and made it extra sweet—without adding any more calories. You might have heard that lead is sweet—it’s one of the reasons children are particularly at risk in areas that have lead paint. They want to put paint chips in their mouth, because the lead paint is actually sweet. And super dangerous. But the Romans didn’t know that.

MATTES: So once they got it boiled down they would add it to foods and beverages and so on as a sweetener. Of course there are theories about lead toxicity, lead poisoning having some role in the decline of the Roman Empire. Whether it had really anything to do with the use of these concoctions, I don’t know. But it was arguably the first low calorie sweetener.

TWILLEY: Not necessarily a good start for artificial sweeteners. But that was pretty much that … until a chemist licked his finger.

CAROLYN THOMAS: In the 1870s, there was chemist Constantin Fahlberg who was working at Johns Hopkins University. They were trying to find new food preservatives.

GRABER: Carolyn Thomas is a professor of American studies at UC Davis and she’s the author of the book, Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda.

THOMAS: And is this kind of this odd little story that repeats in the history of artificial sweetener—he apparently licked his finger by accident after a day of working in the lab, noticed that it was sweet, and instead of working on a food preservative he decided to work on a substitute for sugar.

GRABER: Constantin was doing this food preservative-slash-sweetener research on coal tar. Because that’s what people were really into at the time.

TWILLEY: It was the late 1800s, and petrochemicals were the shiny new kids on the science block. People were figuring out you could use these ancient dead plants to make plastics and rubber and synthetic dyes. So why not a synthetic spice, sweeter than the sweetest sugar?

GRABER: That’s actually what Constantin called it, he called his discovery a perfectly harmless spice. Made from coal tar.

TWILLEY: And he took it to market under the brand name saccharin, because it was so, so, so sweet. One gram of saccharin was five hundred times sweeter than a gram of sugar.

GRABER: At the time, when you invented or discovered a new food, you introduced it at the World’s Fair to convince people to eat it. That was the palace of all things new and fabulous in America.

THOMAS: But saccharin is one of these things that even when it first started showing up at say the World’s Fair in 1893, or other food expos, it was likely already something that people were tasting in their carbonated beverages.

TWILLEY: At the time, when you wanted a soda you would go down to the local soda fountain and get the soda jerk to pour you one. And many of those soda jerks had already started using saccharin instead of sugar

THOMAS: Because it was cheaper and it was easy to work with. So consumers were actually tasting it before they even knew what it was.

GRABER: The folks who were adding saccharin so gleefully into soda, they were doing it because it made good business sense.

TWILLEY: A lot of the countries that produced sugar were, let’s say, volatile. Cuba was a big source, and they were fighting a war of independence in the 1870s.

THOMAS: And then there were also efforts in the US to create a sugar industry here at home. And that meant tariffs.

GRABER: So the price of sugar was all over the place. And then on top of that, saccharin was, as you’ve heard, a lot sweeter than sugar, gram for gram. So you didn’t have to use very much of it. Saccharin just made good business sense.

TWILLEY: So a little company you might have heard of called Monsanto, they were the ones making all this saccharin, the soda fountain companies were using lots of saccharin, and people were drinking lots of saccharin, in blissful ignorance. Until.

GRABER: Until our old friend Harvey Washington Wiley came into the picture. As you might remember from our episode Keeping it Fresh, he was a crusader for what he called pure food, and he was the force behind the Pure Food and Drug act of the early 1900s.

TWILLEY: Harvey published lists of adulterants that were in your food—chemicals that the average American consumer had no idea were there. And saccharin was one of those adulterants—this fake substance posing as sugar.

THOMAS: So the soda companies that had never switched to saccharin saw an opportunity to grab some market share. And they didn’t waste any time in putting out like full page ads, even in The New York Times, telling consumers you’ve been feeding these impurities to your children, including saccharin! It’s terrible! You know, make sure that your soda just has sugar!

GRABER: This might sound kind of funny to you all today but weirdly, at the time, sugar was considered a health food, because it had a lot of calories.

TWILLEY: Back then a lot of people were doing more physical labor.

THOMAS: So for a lot of Americans, the thought was that sugar was a really important part of the diet. So to find out that it had been taken out of your food and replaced with some chemical adulterants was really disturbing to a lot of consumers.

TWILLEY: Harvey came this close to getting saccharin banned. It took a Presidential pardon to save it. Teddy Roosevelt was President at the time, and he was a diabetic, and he loved saccharin.

THOMAS: Roosevelt was like, you know, anybody who would ban saccharin is an idiot.

GRABER: Roosevelt basically single-handedly kept saccharin from being banned.

TWILLEY: Saccharin was still on the shelves, yes, but it wasn’t in with foods. It was in with medicines. You bought it as a pill, to dissolve in drinks instead of sugar, if you were diabetic.

GRABER: This sets the scene. Sugar was a health food, and saccharin was a medicine. And then there were two world wars, and sugar was rationed.

TWILLEY: So this was obviously a challenge. You want to be a good mother and feed your ruddy-cheeked children all the healthy sugar they supposedly need to grow big and strong, but there’s not enough to go around.

THOMAS: And that was actually what I think the first real opening for saccharin was.

GRABER: What happened was: Women ended up sacrificing their own sugar for their families. They saved the good stuff, the sugar, for the desserts for their kids. But instead of depriving themselves of sweetness, they turned to saccharin.

TWILLEY: This was how saccharin broke back out of the medical world, and got into regular food again—with these housewives who were saving sugar but not giving up sweetness. And what that meant is that saccharin became feminized—it was a treat just for women. Women bought these pills, women put them in their coffee and tea.

GRABER: And there’s a cool story here that we saved for our special supporters newsletter—that’s for those of you who give $5 an episode on Patreon or $9 a month at—women had special saccharin jewelry!

TWILLEY: So saccharin has gone from a cheap, almost fraudulent ingredient in soda fountain drinks, to a diabetic medication, to a light and dainty special treat for women. And then the Second World War ends, rationing eventually ends, and the opposite of rationing begins.

GRABER: You’ve heard this same basic story before on Gastropod. After World War 2, there was all this machinery and workers and production capacity and nitrogen for bombs. And instead of the war effort, that nitrogen became fertilizer and the machines became tractors and food processors. Big processed food was born.

TWILLEY: And in order for the economy to keep growing so that everyone could have some of that lovely American abundance they’d been fighting for—well, people had to consume all that processed food. All the food they could fit in their growing bodies—and some.

GRABER: Really, Americans were kind of essential receptacles for all this new processed food. To keep the booming food market growing, we literally had to eat more than we needed, more than we even could. And we needed artificial sweeteners to give us a good excuse to do just that.

THOMAS: So suddenly artificial sweetener, instead of being the thing you’re finding in the medicinal aisle, now it’s being promoted as a way that you can basically have your cake and eat it too. We’ll make food with artificial sweetener in it, and then there won’t be very many calories in it, and that way you can continue to eat all this great food around you without actually, you know, gaining weight or having to decide to have less.

TWILLEY: This is the part that kind of blew my mind. What Carolyn is saying is that artificial sweeteners—they are like a trick, a magic wand the food industry waved to convince us that we can consume even more. More than we did, more than we should. More and more, so that the industry could continue to grow.

GRABER: This trick, these artificial sweeteners, they led us to think we were making good choices. But instead we just ate more of everything, more of the fake sweeteners, and more calories, too.

TWILLEY: And the result was, the food industry grew, and American bodies grew too.

GRABER: But there was one stumbling block for the food industry and for home cooks. Saccharin tastes like crap if you cook with it. That’s why people used it to sweeten drinks. But they couldn’t make cookies with it.

TWILLEY: It took another chemist basically licking his finger to make artificial sweeteners into the food industry saviors they were to become.

THOMAS: In the 1930s, another artificial sweetener is developed and ultimately Abbott Pharmaceuticals markets it as something called cyclamate, or what they call Sucaryl—it’s kind of their brand name .

GRABER: Sucaryl was discovered by accident in 1939, by a chemistry graduate student at the University of Illinois. He was looking for a way to mask the bitter tastes of medicines. Apparently he rested his cigarette on the table and then put it back in his mouth and noticed that the chemical was sweet. Sounds like great lab protocol.

TWILLEY: Again with the sloppy science. But the point is, Sucaryl—this new chemical—had something very important going for it. It still tasted great when you heated it.

THOMAS: So, okay—now an artificial sweetener is on the market that can be heated. You can bake with it. You can cook with it. You can put it in sauces.

GRABER: So artificial sweeteners were helping Americans be the super consumers the food industry wanted us to be. And cyclamates meant that these sweeteners could be used in nearly all foods. But there’s one missing piece, one more thing going on in the second half of the twentieth century that really set the stage for their takeover.

THOMAS: Tillie Lewis is amazing. And I’m waiting for the movie called “Tillie.”

TWILLEY: Tillie Lewis is that missing piece—she is the final part of the story of how artificial sweeteners went mainstream.

GRABER: Tillie grew up in Brooklyn. Her parents were Jewish immigrants, they were grocers.

THOMAS: Her story is that she was sitting and putting canned goods on the shelf at the grocery store and she saw a can of pomodoro tomatoes. And she just thought to herself, I’m going to bring this pomodoro tomato to America. Because they were imported from from Italy.

GRABER: And she did—Tillie went to Italy to learn both tomato growing and canning, and she moved to California and she became really successful. Tillie wasn’t just canning tomatoes, but fruit, too. And then she saw another market opportunity: diet canned foods.

THOMAS: Tillie was really the first to create a line of diet foods, right? She was a tomato grower and canner, but she branched out into canning fruit and canning syrup and canning different kinds of desserts—all with the artificial sweetener.

TWILLEY: These cans of Diet Delite sold like hot cakes—artificially sweetened hot cakes.

GRABER: Tillie wasn’t the only person in America to spot this opportunity of course.

THOMAS: But what she was really good at doing was self promoting. And so Tillie went from newspaper to newspaper, kind of starting around her in California and then branching out across the country. And she paired her line of diet foods with these 21-day Tillie diet plans.

GRABER: And these diet plans, this is where Tillie was really successful. And where she helped change American diet culture.

THOMAS: She said, I personally was told by my doctor that I needed to lose weight. And I said no way, I’m not going to do without the sweet foods that I love. So I went back and I created a whole line of foods that mean you don’t have to do without sweets. We will make your sweets skinny, and you can have them.

TWILLEY: Before Tillie and her artificially sweetened diet plans, losing weight pretty much meant cutting back. It meant you had to skip dessert. Post Tillie, that sort of self control was no longer necessary.

GRABER: Weight Watchers took this philosophy to the ultimate extreme. They had all sorts of ads showing women who couldn’t control their cravings, but with artificially-sweetened Weight Watchers desserts, they didn’t have to. Dessert became legal, to use one of Weight Watchers’ favorite words.

TWILLEY: And so you have this new diet culture and you have the spread of cyclamates into all kinds of desserts and baked goods, and you have regular Americans doing their best to step up to the plate and consume more. And the whole thing adds up to artificial sweeteners becoming totally integrated into our every-day consumption.

THOMAS: By 1970, 75% of the U.S. population was using artificial sweetener in one way or another on a regular basis.

GRABER: But there had been a slight hiccup. Cyclamates were banned in the U.S. in 1969, because huge doses caused increased levels of bladder cancer in rats. The animals were ingesting the equivalent of 550 cans of diet soda a day. Again, a huge—and unrealistic—amount. But the word cancer scared consumers and the federal agencies.

TWILLEY: Cyclamates are actually still allowed in a lot of other places, including the European Union, and they’re currently being re-evaluated in the US. But at the time, this was a problem. Cyclamates are off the market, and then, horror, scientists discover that giving rats a bathtub full of saccharin turns out to also maybe give them cancer.

GRABER: So is saccharin bad for us? What about all these other new sweeteners that are on the table today—Equal and Splenda and Stevia? Are those okay for us? Where do they come from?


GRABER: As we said, cyclamates were banned because of cancer. And saccharin looked like it caused cancer in megadoses in rats, too. So saccharin was threatened with the exact same thing. A ban.

THOMAS: And what happened, in 1977, was a massive public revolt. And it’s interesting, if you look, you can see these folks in Congress making comments like, they had never seen such an outcry from the public over any issue in office. And keep in mind it’s 1977, and these are people who’ve been in office for decades. So we’ve been through quite a few political upheavals that didn’t generate the same number of letters.

TWILLEY: Carolyn was intrigued. There was so much to protest in the 70s. You could have written to your Congressperson about civil rights. Or about the Vietnam War. But, no. The thing that persuaded more Americans to pick up their pens was the idea that big government was going to take their beloved saccharin away.

GRABER: These protests worked. The letter writers convinced the government not to take away their saccharin. Basically, Congress kept pushing off a decision about banning it until the issue just kind of went away.

TWILLEY: We are going to come back to this question of whether saccharin and even cyclamates are actually bad for your health. But in fact, it turns out that even though in the late 1970s, Americans were so committed to saccharin that Congress would have had to pry it out of their cold dead hands, a few years later, saccharin was old news.

NUTRASWEET JINGLE: Would you like to have something sweet?

THOMAS: NutraSweet!

NUTRASWEET JINGLE: It’ll be my treat!

THOMAS: Aspartame took its place. and for our listeners that would be the blue packet on the table. So, Equal.

NUTRASWEET JINGLE: Would you like to have something sweet?

TWILLEY: By this point, the artificial sweetener market was huge, and so a lot of pharmaceutical companies were looking for the next big sugar alternative. And the winner was a company called G. D. Searle—it’s now owned by Pfizer.

GRABER: James Schlatter was working at Searle. And apparently he also licked his finger.

TWILLEY: What is with these chemists and their poor lab hygiene?

GRABER: I know. James was trying to develop a chemical that would help test an anti-ulcer drug candidate. And it turned out to be incredibly sweet.

TWILLEY: This was artificial sweetener number three. And you are not going to believe who was in charge of launching it.

THOMAS: In fact, they brought Donald Rumsfeld in to lead the effort.

GRABER: Yes, that Donald Rumsfeld. So Carolyn was a kid at the time.

THOMAS: It was so exciting. I have this very strong memory of coming home and—I guess it was 1984—and opening up the mailbox and finding a little clear packet of gumballs attached to, I don’t know, it must have been an advertisement. But all I paid attention to were the gumballs. And, you know, I opened them up and I was probably 12 or 13 years old. I opened up the gumballs and I ate them.

TWILLEY: This gumball launch—this was some of that Rumsfeldian manipulation at its finest.

THOMAS: You know, it was no accident that the gum ball came in the mail and that the child ate the gumballs, right? Because that’s what kids do. it looked playful. It looked like something brand new.

GRABER: This was important. Because after World War II, artificial sweeteners had been seen as awesome because they had science behind them. But the marketing for NutraSweet took an entirely different approach. Because artificial had turned into a dirty word.

THOMAS: And trying to create the first artificial sweetener that wouldn’t be artificial—that we would kind of get rid of that word all together, and then we would just call it something new. we would call it just NutraSweet—sort of nutritious or maybe natural. And they combined these gumballs with a fairly simple message that basically said NutraSweet isn’t like any other sweetener that’s existed.

TWILLEY: NutraSweet was amazing. It had no calories, no bitter aftertaste like saccharin. And it was made from two amino acids, simply joined together.

GRABER: And amino acids are the building blocks of protein. But of course you can’t find NutraSweet in nature. Those two amino acids could only be combined together in a lab. But that was just a matter of semantics to the NutraSweet marketing folks.

THOMAS: Now that there finally was a sweetener—you could heat it, you could eat it. It was like what sugar always wanted to be and it was just as natural as a banana.

NUTRASWEET AD: Banana plants don’t make NutraSweet. Neither do cows. But they might as well—if you’ve had bananas and milk, you’ve eaten what’s in NutraSweet.

THOMAS: Which is really not true. It’s phenylalanine and it’s different in how your body interacts with it.

TWILLEY: No matter—with Rumsfeld at the helm and gumballs in American mailboxes, NutraSweet stormed the shelves. It’s still one of the most popular artificial sweeteners on the market—it’s the sweetness in your Diet Coke. But in the past couple of decades, it’s been joined by some competitors. There’s Splenda—that’s a chemical called sucralose that came out in the 90s.

GRABER: And today, Sweet”N Low and Equal and Splenda have all been joined by the latest new trendy low-cal sweetener. This one is marketed as truly natural. It’s called Stevia, it’s a super sweet extract from a plant native to South America.

TWILLEY: So for a while back there, in the late 1970s, it looked as though we would have no artificial sweeteners. And now we have a whole bunch to choose from. But still, there’s this aura of doubt that surrounds them.

THOMAS: When I give talks on this research, even though for me the thing that I’m so interested in is just, you know, how we develop and manufacture foods and find new meanings for them—I’m not an expert in health—I am always asked the question by people: is that bad for me? Should I—should I not have that? Does that cause cancer?

GRABER: These are questions nearly everyone has because, frankly, the news has been filled with stories about rats getting sick when they OD on sweeteners. So, what does the science say? We asked Rick Mattes, he studies artificial sweeteners at Purdue University.

MATTES: Every governmental body from the U.S. to the European Union to Australia to Japan to Canada—they have all scrutinized each of the sweeteners that are commercially available and they have unanimously agreed that when consumed within reasonable boundaries they are safe. So I take that literature on face value myself.

TWILLEY: Sorry Internet conspiracy theorists, but the scientific evidence is pretty clear and conclusive on this. The Roman lead grape syrup—that was toxic. But today’s artificial sweeteners are not carcinogenic at the doses that we consume them. They’re just not. But that’s not the only question people have.

GRABER: Right, the fact that they won’t cause cancer, that’s not the only question about artificial sweeteners. There are two other big ones: one, there’s some research linking them to heart attacks and strokes. What’s the deal with that? And two: Do they actually help people lose weight? That’s the big one, because, after all, that’s people are using them for.

VASANTI MALIK: And that’s the issue because there’s not consensus in the literature yet. And so this is a really hot area for research. There’s a lot of researchers trying to get at that question. And part of the confusion is coming from the research.

TWILLEY: This is Vasanti Malik, you heard her in our recent soda wars episodes. She’s a research scientist in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

GRABER: Vasanti told us that previous studies showed that using artificial sweeteners might strangely actually make you gain weight. But other studies showed that they could help you lose weight.

TWILLEY: Similarly, there are studies that seem to show that artificial sweeteners can lead to more heart attacks and strokes. And other studies that say they have no effect or even reduce your risk of heart disease.

GRABER: So why is this so confusing? Why don’t these studies all come to the same conclusion?

TWILLEY: So we need to unpack this. Vasanti told us there are a couple of major problems. The first one is called a confounding effect. And it is less confusing than it sounds. It’s basically everything else you eat alongside those diet sodas.

MALIK: You know, maybe some people always you know go out for fast food and have a diet soda with it. And then it’s the French fries that also have a relationship with increased risk of the cardiometabolic diseases.

GRABER: In this example, all those French fries are leading to a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes. They’re the confounding factor, if people always have French fries with their diet soda. Also, if people always eat French fries with their diet soda, maybe this is why they’re gaining weight.

TWILLEY: This was me: Diet Coke and a slice of cake. The afternoon pick-me-up of champions. At least in my teens and twenties.

GRABER: I’m sure that Diet Coke totally canceled out the calories from the cake.

TWILLEY: You know I can’t add up, Cynthia. You do our accounting.

GRABER: True. But so scientists have statistical tools and other methods to try to take into account these confounding factors like French fries and chocolate cake, so that they don’t confound the result.

TWILLEY: There’s another issue—this one is called reverse causation by the scientists, and it has to do with what risk factors you have before you start drinking diet soda.

GRABER: So in this example, maybe a group of people is already at a high risk for heart attack and strokes, and so they drink diet soda to try to manage their weight. And then they still end up with more heart attacks and strokes than everyone else, but it has nothing to do with the soda.

TWILLEY: So Vasanti did a study to try to tease this out. She used statistics to account for reverse causation and for confounding factors, and she found there was no connection between diet sodas and heart disease

GRABER: But what about weight gain? When she and her colleagues actually took out any confounding factors, well, it looked like diet sodas helped.

MALIK: And so yeah, so non-nutritive sweetened beverages were associated with less weight gain.

TWILLEY: This was not a dramatic difference we’re talking about.

MALIK: We’re talking small numbers. We’re talking about like a quarter of a pound over four years.

TWILLEY: Barry Popkin—you might remember him as the star of our soda wars episodes—he’s the guy that the governments of Mexico and Chile call when they want to have a soda tax or a new label scheme. So he has also studied the impact of replacing sugary sodas with diet sodas, and, like Vasanti, he made sure to take into account what else his study participants were eating.

GRABER: And he found the same thing—that the best studies we have show that artificial sweeteners can potentially help—a little—with weight loss, if you’re generally eating a healthy diet, and if you replace a daily sweetened soda with a diet one. So maybe that aura of mistrust that surrounds artificial sweeteners—maybe it’s not justified by the science at all.

TWILLEY: But both Vasanti and Barry agree that there’s just not very much science—just a handful of studies that really tease out these confounding effects and reverse causation. So we can’t really say for sure.

GRABER: And there’s another possible issue with artificial sweeteners. And a possible explanation for why studies might be showing that people gain weight from drinking diet sodas.

TWILLEY: Remember, these artificial sweeteners are a lot sweeter than sugar—hundreds, even thousands of times sweeter.

MALIK: And so for that reason there’s concern, particularly among children, that repeat consumption of these beverages might habituate a person towards sweets.

GRABER: In this scenario, you get so used to things being super sweet that you just crave more and more sweets. But Rick Mattes says that’s not the only way these calorie-free sweeteners might be tricking our bodies.

MATTES: So, for example, we have throughout evolutionary time associated sweetness with the ingestion of carbohydrate. And we have learned that an appropriate response to eating something sweet is to secrete insulin.

TWILLEY: The theory here is that you drink your diet soda or eat your NutraSweet gumball and your body is like, whoa baby, here comes the sugary goodness! Hey pancreas, you better pump out some insulin to keep the old blood sugar levels steady.

GRABER: But wait. There’s no sugar in your blood. That insulin has nothing to do. Your hormone and blood sugar levels get all out of whack. And so maybe one response would be—you’re still hungry, you still crave actual calories, so you go and eat more.

TWILLEY: Either way, whether it’s just that you get used to sweet and crave it more, or whether the diet soda actually makes you hungry physically, this is how people think that possibly artificial sweeteners might contribute to weight gain and heart disease

GRABER: Barry Popkin studied whether artificial sweeteners make you eat more sweets. He found that people who drank diet sodas actually ate slightly fewer sweet treats than people who drank water.

TWILLEY: And that is pretty much the best evidence we have right now—but it’s one study.

BARRY POPKIN: We don’t have these kind of research on these studies on children. And the fear still is, the big unknown, will diet beverage consumption or diet foods enhance the sweetness preference of young children? And we do not have an answer to that question.

TWILLEY: And as for the question of whether artificial sweeteners make you hungry by messing with your metabolism and raising your insulin—that is even more of a mystery right now. Scientists are studying it, sure, but there’s not enough research to say one way or other.

GRABER: But then Rick told us something that complicates the matter even more. Throughout this episode, all the scientists we’ve spoken to talked about all these sweeteners, Equal and Splenda and Saccharin, they’ve talked about them as if they’re all basically the same thing.

MATTES: From a consumer use and clinical prescription and policy practice we tend to just lump all of them together and say, oh yes, the low calorie sweeteners. And we assume that they all work by a common mechanism. But, you know, if you think about it kind of carefully, one could start to question that. So, for example, they are all very distinct chemical structures.

TWILLEY: This is one of those insights that is completely obvious and also hadn’t occurred to me at all. But of course—they are all different chemical structures. And Rick has actually spent a lot of time showing exactly how these structural differences create different effects in our bodies. So the first thing is—they all taste slightly different. They taste sweet because they bind to the sweet receptor—but they all bind to it in slightly different places and in slightly different ways.

MATTES: So some have a very abrupt rise in sweetness and an abrupt fall. So the duration of the sensation is short. Others, like Neotame, for example, has a very long persistent sweet taste, which is why it’s a good sweetener to use for example in chewing gum where you’d like to keep the sweetness level high for an extended period of time.

GRABER: Saccharin has a bitter aftertaste, as we’ve already discussed. One called glycorisin has a slight licorice flavor. But another thing—these sweet chemicals all affect the brain differently. They light up regions of the brain’s reward center in different ways.

MATTES: But how that translates into actual sensation or behavior is still very much up in the air. We really don’t know that. All we can say at this point is that with exposure to these compounds we get a different signal.

TWILLEY: This is kind of amazing. Your brain looks different on Diet Coke than on sugarfree gum.

GRABER: On top of this—if you heard our episode Hacking Taste, you might remember that we have sweet receptors throughout our body, not just on our tongues.

MATTES: It’s in our intestines, it’s in our bones. It’s all over the body. And so we used to think that low-calorie sweeteners would elicit a sweet taste when they were in the oral cavity, but once we swallowed them they were basically inert. We would just excrete them.

TWILLEY: But we were wrong. Artificial sweeteners trigger those sweet receptors wherever they find them—in the intestines, in the bones, in the liver—wherever.

GRABER: So, for instance, if the sweet receptor is on a particular type of cell in the pancreas called a beta cell, if it’s triggered, the beta cell doesn’t send a sweet taste to your brain—but instead, that sweet chemical spurs the beta cell to release insulin.

TWILLEY: And so here is where things get really interesting. Because all these artificial sweeteners are different chemical structures, they reach different places in our body. So that means they’re all switching on a slightly different set of cells.

MATTES: So some sweeteners enter the blood supply and so would have access, for example, to the brain and to the beta cell. Others are not. Aspartame will never get into the bloodstream, for example. So each of these sweet compounds can be expected to have a different effect throughout the body based on how they’re digested, absorbed, and excreted.

GRABER: This is shocking. Artificial sweeteners are different at every level—how we taste them, how they affect our brains, how we digest them, what our body does in response to the sweetener.

MATTES: So one might fully well expect that they have a different outcome on body weight. So we did a trial.

TWILLEY: Rick got a bunch of volunteers and divided them into five different groups. And each of the groups had to drink a daily fruity drink sweetened with a different sweetener.

MATTES: So the sweeteners were sucrose, aspartame, saccharin, stevioside, and sucralose.

TWILLEY: If you were in the sucrose group—that’s the control, because sucrose is sugar—you drank a sugar-sweetened fruit drink every day for 12 weeks. If you were in the sucralose group—that’s Splenda—you drank that every day. And so on.

GRABER: Rick and his colleagues measured everything they could measure about the participants in the study. They measured how many calories the volunteers were burning. They measured their body composition and their blood sugar levels. The volunteers had to record their food intake. They had to rate their appetite.

MATTES: And what we found—and really very much to our surprise—was that sucrose consumption led to an increase in body weight. That actually was not a surprise to us—that is what we would have predicted. But saccharin behaved very similarly to the sucrose.

TWILLEY: And that’s the surprise. Saccharin contains no calories. And yet in Rick’s trial, the people drinking sugary fruit juice and the people drinking saccharin fruit juice ended up gaining pretty much the same amount of weight.

GRABER: People who drank the Splenda-sweetened drinks lost the most weight. People whose drinks were sweetened with Stevia and NutraSweet basically stayed the same. No change.

TWILLEY: Rick said that he checked—the change wasn’t due to people eating differently—so it wasn’t like a situation where the saccharin folks got more hungry or craved more sweet foods. So what did cause this difference?

MATTES: What that suggests is that there is another mechanism at play.

GRABER: And Rick thinks that mechanism might just be the microbes living in our guts. The gut microbiome.

TWILLEY: Microbes! Drink!

MATTES: I hate to default to that but given the evidence, which I think is very sound, that selected low-calorie sweeteners will make it to the colon and very likely do alter the relative proportions of different gut bacteria.

TWILLEY: Given those changes—is it possible that some sweeteners—like say, maybe, saccharin—are boosting the kind of gut microbes that are especially good at getting calories out of food? And might that explain why the saccharin fruity drink drinkers gained weight? Maybe?.

GRABER: Conveniently for us, there is actually a researcher in Israel at the Weizmann Institute named Eran Elinav. And he is studying this very thing.

TWILLEY: Eran didn’t start out looking at the effect of artificial sweeteners on the microbiome—he was actually doing a personalized nutrition study. But he sort of came across artificial sweeteners by accident, when he looked at his results.

GRABER: Eran and his team were studying how different foods affected blood sugar in people. And they noticed something weird—it looked like some people would get a blood sugar spike after a diet soda, and some people didn’t. And that didn’t make any sense.

ERAN ELINAV: Yes, this result was very surprising and at first I didn’t believe it in fact, not only because I was a heavy consumer of these compounds, but because, you know, the logic was exactly the opposite.

GRABER: Nobody should have gotten a blood sugar spike, because there was no sugar in these drinks!

TWILLEY: So Eran started up a side project, trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

GRABER: Eran did a bunch of different studies with mice. And he’s been able to show that—at least in mice—some artificial sweeteners changed the populations of gut microbes and favored ones that grab more calories from the food passing through.

TWILLEY: Just like Rick speculated.

GRABER: This sounds pretty convincing—but a lot of studies in mice don’t necessarily translate to us humans. So now of course Eran is studying this in people.

ELINAV: I cannot tell you the answers because I don’t know them yet. This is work in progress.

TWILLEY: This research is super interesting, but we have to point out—it is not yet news you can really use. One day, we might know whether different people have the kind of microbes that respond to certain sweeteners with a blood sugar spike

GRABER: Or which artificial sweeteners are the ones that change your gut microbes to make them better at harvesting calories, and which ones don’t do that.

TWILLEY: But really, right now, Eran is the first to say we don’t fully understand what’s going on.

GRABER: Barry Popkin agrees it is far too early to say anything definitive.

POPKIN: The initial work that Eran presented is very, very preliminary. He right now has a study that will be completed in about a year where he is actually following a thousand people with the diet sweeteners and a thousand without. That study will give us some meaningful results.

TWILLEY: This is something we kept hearing. We just don’t know enough—yet—about what these artificial sweeteners are really doing in our bodies.

MATTES: We have almost all of it yet to learn.

GRABER: But, as we discussed with Carolyn, there are already a lot of these sweeteners in the food supply.

TWILLEY: So much so that Eran has really struggled finding people for his trials that haven’t already eaten artificial sweeteners.

ELINAV: It is super difficult. I didn’t think it would be that difficult but, you know, when you start questioning people, artificial sweeteners are so well-integrated into into our diet in many different food products—you know, 0% yogurt and so on and so forth—that it was really hard to find these individuals.

GRABER: And in fact there will soon be even fewer people who are artificial sweetener virgins. We talked about this in our soda wars episode—with the tiered tax in the UK, companies are using more artificial sweeteners so that they don’t have to pay as high a sugar tax. And this is happening in Chile, too, because of their warning labels.

TWILLEY: All this reformulation—it’s making some scientists kind of nervous. Even Barry, who is all about doing whatever it takes to lower sugar consumption.

POPKIN: It’s a huge global experiment that’s going on and I fear these when we don’t have the kind of research to go behind them. It’s not all that different than when everybody came out against total fat long ago and they added tons of sugar to the diet and we found we had very adverse effects to that.

GRABER: The scientists all do think there’s a place for diet sodas today. If you’re someone who drinks a lot of regular soda, and if you’re someone who’s trying to manage your weight.

MATTES: I think that they can be used effectively. Now, they are not necessarily magic bullets. You can’t just add them to your diet and expect weight to disappear.

TWILLEY: Here’s the thing. To channel Donald Rumsfeld, since he’s already popped up this episode—the known knowns about obesity and diabetes are much more significant than the semi-known unknowns of what artificial sweeteners might be doing to your personal gut microbe community.

GRABER: This is where most scientists seem to fall on this question: they’re not huge fans of artificial sweeteners, they’re a little wary, they’d rather we just switch to unsweetened drinks—but they think artificial sweeteners can be a useful tool for people who need them to cut down on sugar.

TWILLEY: So when we started making this episode, I thought we were going to find all this science that showed that artificial sweeteners were bad for you—physically speaking.

GRABER: Right. I thought we’d get to the bottom of whether or not they were unsafe. And we kind of did.

TWILLEY: Which is that they’re not, really. They might not be helpful—we’re not sure, the research is still being done.

GRABER: But they don’t seem to be particularly harmful for you. They don’t seem to cause cancer or heart attacks or strokes. They might mess with our gut microbiome, and even our metabolism, scientists are still trying to figure that out. But that’s just on an individual level—

TWILLEY: Because it turns out that where artificial sweeteners are definitely bad for us is in a bigger picture way, as a society—in how we eat and how we think about eating.

GRABER: This is the conclusion that Carolyn Thomas came to.

THOMAS: I grew up in a house where my mom was always on a diet. you know Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig. NutraSweet was all around me, when I was growing up. We had Crystal Light in the fridge and Diet Pepsi. And, as I became older, I just was so curious. You know, how did we have all of these NutraSweet sweetened foods, but yet my mom was still always on a diet? It never really led to a time when she felt good about her weight or in control of what she was eating. She was always sort of up and down and back and forth. So I think it’s, for me, these products are ways that people could consume more and feel good about consuming more. So it didn’t decrease the amount of sugar people consumed. it just added a new category of sweet.

TWILLEY: Thanks so much this episode to Carolyn Thomas, her book is called Empty Pleasures and you can find a link at gastropod dot com.

GRABER: Thanks also to Rick Mattes, Vasanti Malik, Barry Popkin, and Eran Elinav. We have links to their work as well at at

TWILLEY: And, of course, thanks to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of science, technology, and economics, as well as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, for supporting this episode.

GRABER: Finally, thanks to listener Elizabeth Preston, who suggested we do an episode on artificial sweeteners. Apparently her husband’s cousin said that aspartame was the fecal matter of bacteria. As it happens, today aspartame is indeed excreted by special bacteria that were genetically modified to do so. So, kind of?

Sweet and Low (Calorie): The Story of Artificial Sweeteners

For decades, ads for treats sweetened with substances like Sweet'N Low, NutraSweet, and Splenda have promised what seems like a miracle of modern science: that you can enjoy all the dessert you want, calorie-free. No need to deprive yourself—with artificial sweeteners, you can literally have your cake and eat it, too. But are these substances safe? Don't they give cancer to rats and mess up your metabolism? Listen in now for answers to all these questions, plus the tale of a sugar-free gumball marketing blitz, courtesy of none other than Donald Rumsfeld. …More

Cannibalism: From Calories to Kuru TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Cannibalism: From Calories to Kuru, first released on October 24, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.


TWILLEY: So if you know this famous clip from “The Silence of the Lambs,” you will know that this episode, we could be discussing one of three things. Chianti. Fava beans. Or…

GRABER: Oh how I wish we were discussing chianti or fava beans. But no, this episode, we’re all about cannibalism. Happy Halloween!

TWILLEY: But, honestly, although we began with Hannibal Lecter, this episode is really not a gore-fest. This is, after all, Gastropod, where we look at the science and history of food. And the science and history of cannibalism turns out to be fascinating. I’m Nicola Twilley, by the way, the one who is not in danger of fainting this episode.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, the one who has never seen “The Silence of the Lambs” because I am far too squeamish. But there’s interesting stuff here. We’ve all seen those nature documentaries where the spider consumes its mate after sex, but really, how common is cannibalism in the animal world? And why does it happen?

TWILLEY: And how common is it among humans, in the past and still today? All that, plus a caloric breakdown of the human body, for those of you who want to turn cannibal but are watching your weight.



GRABER: There’s one thing I wondered when we first decided to do this episode, and it’s the question I just asked. Really, how common is cannibalism in other species? It’s such a taboo among humans. Is there a biological reason eating each other would be disgusting for other animals, too?

TWILLEY: To find out, we called up Bill Schutt, who is the author of a new book called Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History.

BILL SCHUTT: Well, it’s really common. And that was a surprise to me. I’m a zoologist but I was not a cannibalism expert.

TWILLEY: Bill told us that up till quite recently, most zoologists, including him, thought that cannibalism was pretty rare, in all species.

SCHUTT: Except for a couple of strange creatures like praying mantises and black widow spiders, the party line was basically that if you saw cannibalism in nature it was because of a lack of nutrition or cramped captive conditions. If you took a bunch of animals and stuck them in a small tank or a cage then all bets were off, they would cannibalize each other. But over the last thirty years or so, scientists began to find out individually and then they—somebody finally put this together—that cannibalism takes place for tons of reasons that are quite natural and have nothing to do with with running out of food.

GRABER: So it’s common, or at least more common than scientists thought, but there are some really good biological reasons why you might not want to eat members of your own family.

SCHUTT: And one of them has to do with with something called inclusive fitness, which is pretty much a measure of how many genes you have in a population, and if you’re killing and consuming your own kin you are really decreasing your inclusive fitness. And the other is because there are species-specific parasites and diseases that can be transmitted.

TWILLEY: And yet, like Bill Schutt said, there’s a whole lot of cannibalism going on. Particularly at the squishier end of the spectrum.

SCHUTT: If you look across the entire animal kingdom, in the invertebrates, in insects and in spiders and in snails and things, cannibalism is quite common.


GRABER: Spider sex. You know it. The male approaches the female cautiously—after all, he doesn’t want to get eaten BEFORE he manages to get the act done.

TWILLEY: And she’s usually twice his size, total dominatrix.

GRABER: In the Australian redback…

TWILLEY: Where the guy is only a fifth of the size…

GRABER: The female rewards the male for having done his duty by vomiting her stomach juices onto the tiny creature hanging onto her to start pre-digesting him. Yum.

TWILLEY: Amazingly, he still comes back for round two at this point, even as he is being liquified. Praying mantis males keep going even after the lady mantis has eaten their head. But why? I mean, sex is great, but not that great, surely?

GRABER: It might seem like there there’s nothing in it for these poor guys other than those few moments of bliss. But scientists have found a number of reasons why sex cannibalism makes sense. The redback spider ladies will resist come-ons from other males if they’ve cannibalized their first suitor. So that cannibalized male’s sperm is the one that wins.

TWILLEY: Plus, counterintuitively, cannibalized males seem to go at it for longer and thus deposit more sperm and thus father more baby spiders. I suppose there’s a kind of desperation born out of being coated in stomach juices.

GRABER: Sexual cannibalism has been reported in 16 out of 109 spider families. So not all spider sex is deadly, but it’s definitely going on. Okay, that’s enough sex cannibalism for the moment. Now onto why parents would eat their babies.

TWILLEY: In this particular niche form of cannibalism, fish are the undisputed leaders. According to Bill, ichthyologists consider the absence of cannibalism in a fish species to be the anomaly.

GRABER: Picture the open ocean. In order to make babies, the female releases a cloud of eggs, maybe millions, and the males release clouds of sperm. Only some make it to become baby fish, but there’s all those calories available in the water. Bill says the eggs look to fish just like a handful of raisins might to us. Why not eat them? So they do.

TWILLEY: And finally—keeping it in the family here—oftentimes the kids eat other, too. This is a strategy Bill’s seen a lot in birds.

SCHUTT: Cannibalism as a lifeboat strategy where you’ve got say, a couple of nestlings and they’re born asynchronously. So one is going to be larger than the other. And if there’s enough food to go around then fine but if not then the smaller nestling will sometimes get cannibalized.

GRABER: Survival of the fittest. It’s bird-eat-bird out there. Sometimes this juvenile cannibalism is just training for the real world.

SCHUTT: Then there are these sand tiger sharks, where the eggs hatch internally. And there are eggs of different ages. So the oldest on each side of the reproductive tract, once they use up their yolk, will start to eat the eggs and once the eggs are gone they’ll eat their brethren. Smaller and and quite nutritious. So when they’re born, there are only two of them. And in a sense they’ve been trained to be predators while still inside their mothers.

TWILLEY: Natural-born killers indeed.

GRABER: By the time you get to mammals, scientists have only found cannibalism in 75 out of 5700 species. It’s much more rare.

TWILLEY: But it happens, and for much the same reasons: survival, basically. When animals are hungry, sometimes they’ll scavenge off their dead relatives. So they’re not killing them for food, but you know, if they’re dead already, why not?

GRABER: Sometimes if animals are living in a crowded and stressful environment, they start to see their neighbors as food. And then there’s protecting your own genetic line. You want your babies to be the ones that live.

SCHUTT: So, for example, if you are a lion and you take over a pride and there are females who have cubs from other males, you kill and sometimes eat those young. And so you are really terminating the maternal investment in those young so that the females come into estrus quicker and then you can mate with them if you’re the male who took over.

TWILLEY: So bugs are eating bugs, fish are eating fish, some mammals are eating other mammals. But surely among our close relatives, this sort of behavior isn’t going on?

GRABER: It’s rare, but it does exist. Bill says that in primates, cannibalism has been seen only in 11 out of 418 species. Not a lot. It’s usually stress related, or it’s about aggression, like when males patrolling their community come across neighboring male patrols. Like other soldiers.

TWILLEY: OK, that’s primates. Who’s next? That’s right, brace yourself, Cynthia. It’s time to talk about human cannibalism.

GRABER: I’m working on it. Okay, turns out, there’s quite a bit of archaeological evidence of cannibalism among early humans.

JAMES COLE: So the oldest is Gran Dolina, which is a site in Spain. And it’s dated to about 936,000 years ago, to a species called Homo antecessor. And what we see there is a small group of people, so two adults, three adolescents, and six children, that seem to have been butchered and eaten by another group of Homo antecessor who were living in that region.

TWILLEY: Meet James Cole, he’s principal lecturer in archaeology at the University of Brighton in England. And he’s studied cannibalism in prehistoric times, when there were a bunch of different human species, not just Homo sapiens.

COLE: And certainly if you look at human evolution, well, difficult to say really if all human species conducted cannibalism but certainly a lot of them did. So it seems to have been a regular part of our behavioral development for many millions of years.

GRABER: It might seem to be common, but how do we know for sure? What kind of evidence can you find from almost a million years ago?

SCHUTT: If you really want to prove that cannibalism took place you’d need to find a coprolite, a fossilized fecal pellet, and then be able to show that there was for example human DNA or human hemoglobin or myoglobin inside that—those feces.

TWILLEY: And we haven’t found that. But without the smoking gun of a fossilized turd, how exactly is James so sure that our prehistoric fellow men were eating each other?

GRABER: Well, archaeologists have found human bones that clearly had been cut.

COLE: So there’s two potential explanations for why you might have a cut mark on a human body. The first is that yes, you are—you’re cutting it, you’re butchering that carcass to extract the flesh. Or the second explanation is that you are cleaning the carcass of flesh for some kind of ritual purpose.

TWILLEY: James says both kinds of cutting went on, if you look at the fossil record. Some cuts are the kind of cuts you’d make if you were stripping flesh from bone for burial—not for eating. And some cuts are the kind of cut you make if you’re butchering a body for food.

COLE: The key thing here is that the actual signatures, so the types of mark on the bone, are very distinctive. So if you’re butchering, you’re generally getting cut marks at points where you get things like cartilage. Whereas if you are cleaning the body for secondary burial, you get lots of scrape marks along the length of the bone. And what it looks like from the archaeological record is that most of the cut marks tend to fall around the locations where you would expect butchery marks to be.

GRABER: Bill agrees.

SCHUTT: So if you treat human bones the same way that you treat the game animals that lived in that area then that’s a strong indication that cannibalism took place.

GRABER: This was happening among all Homo species. Homo antecessor, Homo Neandertal, Homo erectus, for example.

COLE: And then our own species also seem to have engaged in this. So we have a sparse fossil record and within that sparse fossil record we are still picking up signatures of cut marks on hominin bones. So what that potentially means is that it probably was a frequent behavior because we’re picking up the signature of this act in a very small record to begin with.

GRABER: So we know it was happening. And we know it wasn’t super rare. But then why was it happening?

COLE: Okay, so when I was looking at the nutritional value of the human body, what I wanted to try and understand or establish was whether the act of cannibalism was actually nutritional in in nature.

TWILLEY: Obviously, James and his archaeologist colleagues mostly look at bones. And bones can tell stories, for sure. They can tell us that humans likely ate other humans. But they can’t necessarily tell us why those humans did what they did.

COLE: So what that means is that when these acts are looked at from the archaeological record, they’re generally boiled down to two very broad interpretations. On one hand it’s nutritional, or it’s ritual.

GRABER: Until recently, most archaeologists believed that cannibalism among our prehistoric ancestors was for nutritional reasons—they were hungry, there wasn’t much food, so other humans ended up seeming pretty tasty. And archaeologists thought that ritualized cannibalism—like for religious purposes or burial or war—that only started about 15,000 years ago among Homo sapiens.

COLE: And I wanted to know, okay, if we’re calling these acts nutritional, how nutritional are they compared to other animals that we knew were eaten by these hominins in the same time? So that’s why I wanted to look at the calorie values of a human being and then compare them to that of something like a mammoth or an auroch or other Ice Age fauna.

TWILLEY: This is really a very reasonable sort of thing to want to know. Are humans good food compared to a mammoth? But then when you start to think about it, how exactly do you go about figuring that out?

COLE: Yeah, so thankfully I didn’t actually do any sort of uh—I didn’t have to do any practical elements for the study.

GRABER: What James did manage to do was find four studies from the 1950s. The researchers had dissected four males. And the point of that research was to understand the chemical composition of the human body.

COLE: So what those studies did is that they broke down the values of the human body into protein and fat values amongst others. But what’s interesting for calories is that if you know your protein value and you know your fat value and you know the weights then you can actually convert those into calories. And fortunately in those 1950s studies, they had also recorded the weights of all the body parts that they were examining and they gave the protein and fat values of them.

GRABER: James just had to do some basic math.

TWILLEY: So break it down for me. If I ate one raw male, how long would I have to spend on the treadmill?

COLE: Okay, so kind of the average weight that came through from those four studies was 65.9 kgs and that returned a full body value—so that includes all of the organs and the guts and you know things that you would never even think about eating—but that returned kind of a value of about 143,770 calories.

GRABER: James has an amazing table that lists the calorie count organ-by-organ.

TWILLEY: Skin is surprisingly high in calories, folks. OK, so now James knows the caloric value of a human. A human male that is. No one has established the precise chemical composition of woman, so we don’t know how many calories we’d bring to the table. James suspects a little more thanks to our higher body fat percentage.

GRABER: Just another way women are underrepresented in science.

TWILLEY: James’s next step was to compare humans to the animals we know our prehistoric forebears ate.

COLE: A mammoth for example comes out almost, you know, three million, six hundred calories and a woolly rhino at one million, two hundred and sixty.

GRABER: James says that a horse would be about 200,000 calories, and a boar is about 324,000 calories. A lot more than a dude.

TWILLEY: Like really a lot.

COLE: And for me, you know, you get a much higher calorie return by going after a single horse or a single deer than you do by going after a single person or a group of people. And so that makes me think that maybe there’s something else going on here that’s not just about calories.

GRABER: Hunting is in fact hard work, but killing another human for food isn’t necessarily so easy either. We fight back. We have family members who might avenge our death. A human male is not a free lunch.

COLE: So I kind of concluded that it’s likely that there are social motivations behind these acts all the way back into antiquity, you know almost a million years ago. And it’s not just about survival cannibalism or the fact that you know you don’t have any other food to eat, although they’re almost certainly also happened.

TWILLEY: In other words, James says, you shouldn’t think of early humans as just these brutal desperate creatures. Even though the cut marks on some bones show that humans were eating each other as food, James is saying that at least some of the time, that wasn’t out of hunger. Instead, ancient humans were likely eating each other for much more sophisticated reasons, to do with spiritual beliefs about life and death.

COLE: So these are a culturally complex and culturally diverse species. Just in the same way that modern humans are culturally diverse and complex where we have different practices around death and burial throughout the world.

GRABER: That said, like James pointed out, our early ancestors and their hominid cousins were also probably eating each other when there was no other option around. And we know that still happens today.

SCHUTT: Well when you are in that type of a condition, where there’s no food and you are starving. You’ve eaten your pets, you’ve eaten the shoe leather, you’re eating hides. This is the Donner Party.

TWILLEY: The Donner Party is one of the most famous cases of survival cannibalism in recent history. It took place in the 1840s and it’s a gruesome, gruesome story, but the short version is a group of westward bound settlers left it too late to cross the mountains into California before the winter hit. So they got snowed in. Lots of them died. And the survivors ate them. One guy, Louis Keseberg—when he got rescued he had eaten nothing but humans for two months.

SCHUTT: When you get to that point then all bets are off. If you’re presented with the fact that there are dead around then you are either going to consume them and probably try to feed them to your children or your relatives or you’re going to die. And that is a choice that is made in those incredibly difficult circumstances, whether your city is besieged or whether there’s a horrible famine or you’re stuck in the Andes like the Uruguayan rugby players.

TWILLEY: Bill’s referring to the famous plane crash in 1972, where the survivors also ended up eating their fellow dead passengers, in order to survive.

GRABER: There are other famous examples of this happening on a much more massive scale. In Russia, during World War II, Leningrad was under siege for almost a full three years. Thousands of people ended up eating other people to outlast the siege. Lots of those survivors were later prosecuted for cannibalism.

TWILLEY: Or take the largest famine in recorded history, in China. It began in 1958, after Chairman Mao launched his disastrous Great Leap Forward—an agricultural modernization plan based on complete BS. The harvest failed repeatedly, 30 million people died of starvation, and cannibalism became widespread.

GRABER: This wasn’t the first time starvation cannibalism was documented in China. One researcher found 177 incidents of it, dating back more than 2,500 years. In the oldest example, families apparently started exchanging children so they wouldn’t have to consume their own relatives. Amazingly, the emperor actually made that practice legal in 205 BCE.

SCHUTT: The thing with China is, you know, it makes it sound like China is—that this always happens in China. Well, the thing is, that’s not necessarily the case but they took such amazing records. Their historical records are really unsurpassed. So they documented everything. So we now get to read about these examples of famines and the practices that they undertook in order to survive.

TWILLEY: But it wasn’t all survival cannibalism in China. After the break, we get into the peculiar practice of medical cannibalism. Which turns out of have been popular in the West, as well. In fact, it still goes on today.


TWILLEY: So here’s my question. If—as the archaeological evidence seems to show—cannibalism happened on a relatively regular basis among our prehistoric ancestors, when did it become such a horrifying taboo?

GRABER: Bill traces it back to the ancient Greeks. In the Odyssey, the evil giants eat people. The Greek gods became cannibalistic when they were upset. And then Bill says in Judaism and Christianity and in Islam, burial practices became super important and eating people was absolutely vilified. And, think about it: the body is basically the spirit made flesh in these religions. Jews can’t even be cremated because the body has to be intact for when the messiah comes.

TWILLEY: Christians eat the body of Christ and drink his blood as part of communion. If you’re Catholic, you are supposed to literally believe that the wafer is his body and the wine is his blood.

GRABER: This sounds like a pretty major contradiction, right? Eating a human body is absolutely taboo in Christianity. And yet for Catholics, transubstantiation is meant to be literal. But it just shows how powerful the idea is, that consuming his flesh and blood creates a kind of union with Jesus.

TWILLEY: In fact, it’s precisely because it’s so powerful that eating people just casually for a weeknight dinner—or even as part of a very solemn ritual that was outside the Christian church—that became one of the ultimate taboos.  And this anti-cannibal message gets spread not only through organized religion but also through popular literature.

GRABER: But if you’re not part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, you won’t necessarily share these world views.

SCHUTT: Culture is king. If you don’t get spoonfed through, you know, the ancient Greeks through the Romans and then the Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm and Daniel Defoe that cannibalism is the worst thing that you can do to another person—if you don’t get that story, then you don’t have this knee jerk reaction that we all have now in the West about cannibalism and how horrible it is. In other cultures that did not get that as the party line, they developed their own rituals and medicines and practices and warfare and burial rites that sometimes involved cannibalism. And it wasn’t wrong to them, it was, you know, this was a ritual that they developed and and sometimes this is what they did to their loved ones or this is what they did in warfare. Or this is what they did when when they ran out of food or as a way to pay homage to their sick relatives.

GRABER: And this is exactly what happened in China. As we’ve said, the Chinese kept amazing records, so we have a better idea of what was going on there. It’s important to remember that these practices certainly weren’t limited to the Chinese.

TWILLEY: But there’s this Confucian concept in China to do with filial piety. Basically respect and care for your elders is really really important.

SCHUTT: In its extreme form, what would happen is that, if you had an elder or a relative who was very sick, that you would cut off a part of your own body, usually a part of your arm or a part of your thigh, and feed it to them as a sort of last resort medicinal treatment. And you know this was a fairly well accepted custom to the point where they had to make special laws so that people wouldn’t pluck out an eyeball or do something that extreme and feed it to grandma or grandpa.

GRABER: This is a form of what’s called medical cannibalism. And it’s not the only one in ancient China.

TWILLEY: Chinese scholars have documented the consumption of human organs and human flesh to cure diseases as far back as the Han dynasty, nearly 2000 years ago. Doctors would prescribe human bones and hair, but also toes and liver to their sick patients.

GRABER: But don’t let our Western taboo against cannibalism blind you here—Westerners also thought that consuming their fellow humans would help them get better.

TWILLEY: We called Shirley Lindenbaum about this, she’s a medical anthropologist. She’s Australian although she’s now based in New York.

SHIRLEY LINDENBAUM: That was also very old, as long ago as Pliny who thought drinking human blood was good for epilepsy. And then medicinal cannibalism was widely practiced, including not just blood but other body parts in Europe, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

SCHUTT: This surprised me, given the taboo that we have in the West—that medicinal cannibalism was very, very common in Europe. Starting in the middle ages throughout the Renaissance right up until the beginning of the twentieth century, just about every body part you can think of was used for you know to treat any type of disease that you can think of. Kings were doing it, people who were rich were doing it, the poor were doing it. Everyone. For example, they would grind up bones. People would line up at at executions to collect blood.

GRABER: Like Pliny, they thought it’d help them cure epilepsy. Epileptics would literally carry a cup along to executions. And parts of the prisoners’ bodies were cut off for medical use, sometimes when they still alive. And this next one might be my favorite weird example of all.

SCHUTT: Mummies were ground up. So there was a real run on Egyptian mummies and it was all because of a mis-translation. There was an Arabian word called mumia, and that was this kind of tarry bitumen substance that they would use to bind wounds and they were also used in mummy preparation. But the Europeans mistranslated it. They thought mumia meant mummy. So they’d bring mummies back from Egypt and grind them up into a powder. It was actually sold on the Merck index into the 20th century, which to me was amazing.

TWILLEY: Western medical cannibalism fizzled out mostly after the Enlightenment and the dawn of modern medical science. But like Bill says, ground up mummies were sold into the twentieth century.

GRABER: And then there’s an example I had heard of but had never thought of as cannibalism that went on until only a few decades ago.

LINDENBAUM: There’s a kind of medicinal cannibalism in cadaver-derived drugs. Taking out pituitary glands, for example, for body building and for hormone growth in stunted children. That came to an end—that went on from about the 1960s to the 1980s.

TWILLEY: But there’s one last form of medical cannibalism that still goes on today. The final frontier.

SCHUTT: Yeah, I think placentophagy is probably the last remnant in the West of medicinal cannibalism. The belief is that by consuming your placenta after you give birth that you are in some way obtaining a medicinal benefit. Generally speaking the person believes that they are replenishing hormones that are lost, estrogen and progesterone that are no longer being produced by the placenta, which goes from a miracle organ to after birth quite quickly. And so there’s this belief that it levels out the ups and downs of postpartum depression.

GRABER: I frankly had never heard of anyone doing this—I think maybe I heard of some celebrities but I probably tuned it out.

TWILLEY: Oh my god, Cynthia, only Kim Kardashian West just ate her placenta for crying out gently. Where were you?

GRABER: I missed that. Nicky, though, you had a more personal connection.

SARAH RICH: Yes. I got a note from Nicky asking if I knew anybody who had consumed their own placenta. And I said I know someone very well. In fact, I have done that twice.

TWILLEY: This is my friend Sarah Rich. You might remember her as the proud owner of gold-plated flatware from our very first episode. She’s also a talented writer and editor, we have a link to her awesome new book Leave Me Alone with the Recipes on our website. It is gorgeous.

GRABER: When Sarah was giving birth to both of her children, like a bunch of her friends in the East Bay, she used a doula not only to help her with the delivery, but also to help her with her placenta.

RICH: She brings a cooler to the hospital, and when you give birth in Berkeley, which is where I did, I think maybe the hospital staff isn’t totally stunned when the request comes along to take the placenta in a cooler home. So that’s what she did. She took it like I think you would transport any organ in a cooler. And yes, she has a set up at her home where she dehydrates it and then grinds it up and encapsulates it. And she brought it to me in a little glass jar a few days later when she came to check on me. And so yeah, I took a capsule once or twice a day.

TWILLEY: As Bill said, one of the things that motivates new mothers to eat their placenta is a belief that it will help ward off any postpartum depression. And that’s what motivated Sarah too.

RICH: I think for me the primary one was a curiosity to see whether it would have a positive effect and a fairly certain notion that it would probably not have a negative effect and that if anything it might have a placebo effect, which was fine with me.

GRABER: In fact, Bill thinks the placebo effect is probably what’s going on. But he says very, very little good research has been done on this practice.

SCHUTT: As a matter of fact some of the research that’s been done indicates that if anything at all it may have an analgesic effect. It may act as something that enhances the body’s own opioids. But if you’re not eating it till two weeks after your baby is born then there’s really no effect there. But if you’re looking at this thing as a way to replenish hormones, as soon as you cook it, you’re denaturing those hormones.

TWILLEY: Now cooking may not be rendering them completely inactive—some research shows that it’s possible to be exposed to hormones in meat after cooking.  It’s also possible that drying and grinding would have a less destructive effect.

GRABER: There really hasn’t been any good research on this, and, as of yet, none showing that eating your placenta affects hormone levels after birth.

TWILLEY: But you know what, the placebo effect is one of the strongest drugs out there. And, either way, eating her placenta seems to have worked for Sarah.

RICH: Well, I don’t think I experienced postpartum depression, and so, in as far as I could say it helped me avoid postpartum depression….maybe it did? I don’t know.

GRABER: A lot of doulas say that eating your placenta is a quote natural thing to do. And yes, some non-human animals do eat their placentas after giving birth.

SCHUTT: There are various hypotheses for why that might be so. For example, if you give birth and then you get rid of the after birth, it’s not going to attract predators. And it’s also a nutritional boost. You’ve just gone through this stressful period. The last thing you want to do is go out hunting and there’s this big slab of meat. And so it sort of makes sense in the animal kingdom. But it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in humans. And so it’s not surprising that you don’t really see a lot of it.

TWILLEY: Although Shirley has seen evidence of it in her anthropological work with remote tribes. But it’s not common.

GRABER: Bill says this practice really became slightly more popular among humans only in recent decades.

SCHUTT: And so what started out as sort of a rarely performed sort of hippie thing back in the 60s, relatively recently has turned into something a bit more as a facet of alternative medicine

TWILLEY: A lot of placenta eaters take the pill route, like Sarah did. And pills are relatively tame, honestly although Sarah said hers didn’t smell great. But some women choose to eat the placenta as a meat. Bill was curious, so he called a doula named Claire to find out more

SCHUTT: I gave her a call. And we got along really well, I figured OK, well, maybe we’ll Skype or Facetime or phone interview. And she said, well that’s too bad because I just gave birth to another child and if you came down here you could eat my placenta. My husband’s a chef. We could prepare it any way you want it. We could make, you know, we could make a taco out of it or you can have it osso bucco. And I’m going, what? I’m thinking to myself, you just invited me down to Texas to eat your placenta!

GRABER: I have to admit that at this point in the interview I was having a bit of a tough time listening. I honestly did not want to hear about Bill eating this woman’s placenta for dinner with her family. But he did, and he told us about it.

SCHUTT: He prepared it osso buco-style and I cleaned my plate. I would never do it again but it was certainly something that I’m glad I did.

TWILLEY: So of course I wanted to know, what did it taste like?

SCHUTT: It had the consistency of veal and it tasted—this is not the most popular food but what I thought of immediately was back when I was a college student, we used to get together on Sundays and everybody would  watch football and we’d throw a bunch of real garbage-y food together. And people would cook up chicken gizzards. And it reminded me of a chicken gizzard, the taste. Sort of an irony, organ meat-taste. It was kind of tender. It reminded me of veal that tasted like a chicken gizzard. That’s about as close as I can get to a description.

TWILLEY: So now you know. But you might be thinking, how is this cannibalism? Sarah certainly didn’t think of it that way.

RICH: It felt to me like eating a part of my own body. And I didn’t really frame that in my head as cannibalism.

GRABER: But in Bill’s definition of cannibalism, eating parts of your own body counts.

TWILLEY: What’s more, the placenta is part fetus. So that’s more like the parents-eating-the-kids version of cannibalism. Part of the kids anyway. Sorry Sarah.

GRABER: So placenta eating, and Chinese filial piety, the Europeans and mummies—these are all forms of medical cannibalism. Another common form of cannibalism, common at least where cannibalism is practiced, is ritual. Like James said, rituals around warfare and religion and burial.

TWILLEY: And that brings us back to Shirley Lindenbaum, the Australian medical anthropologist.

LINDENBAUM: So in 1957, a colonial government physician called Vincent Vegas noticed this new disease.

TWILLEY: And the disease is killing lots of indigenous Papua New Guineans called the Fore people.

SCHUTT: Once the press got a hold of it they started to call it the laughing death or the laughing sickness. And no one knew what it was from. Some people thought that it was from stress-related contact with Westerners. Other people thought it was toxins that they were getting into their system somehow.

GRABER: Another theory was that this laughing sickness—”laughing” because people basically just lost their minds—that it was a genetic disease. This is where Shirley comes into the story.

LINDENBAUM: So in 1961, the Department of Genetics asked me and my husband then, John— uh, Bob—to go to Papua New Guinea and collect data about Fore social life. And in particular they wanted kinship studies because they were interested in the genetics of the disease. I was in my 20s.

TWILLEY: So Shirley and Bob—yes, they have since divorced—they traveled around Papua New Guinea. And they quickly realized that the genetic theory just didn’t hold up. Because the people who were getting sick were not related in the biological sense. The Department of Genetics had got confused because the Fore had these elaborate non-biological kin structures.

GRABER: The people Shirley spoke to remembered some of the earliest cases of this disease, which by now was called kuru. They even remembered the names of the people in their communities who first died from kuru.

LINDENBAUM: So we said, what happened to them? And they said, well, we ate them. So we said, you ate them? We knew they were cannibals but we didn’t know that they’d eaten the kuru victims. So we thought, well, we had better change our study a little bit here.

TWILLEY: Shirley eventually learned that when a Fore woman died, the tradition was that her husband’s family had to hold a massive feast for her funeral. And as part of that feast, they would eat the dead person. The entire dead person. Including the brain, which was mixed with ferns and then cooked.

GRABER: There are a couple of reasons the Fore performed these funeral rites for their dead. One was to get rid of the dead person’s spirit.

LINDENBAUM: So the Fore thought that there was the spirit of the dead person still hovering over the body and if that person had been maltreated or had a grudge against any of the people it would bring problems to the husband’s lineage.

TWILLEY: Eating the person meant the spirit couldn’t do any harm. The women even thought it might make them more fertile. And the other reason was—well, the belief was that the dead woman had given children from her body to her husband’s family. She had enriched her husband’s lineage with new bodies. So her original family—the idea was that they should be paid back for that gift by at least having the chance to eat her body now that her husband’s family wasn’t using it anymore.

GRABER: Shirley figured out that the disease was caused by cannibalism because only women and children were getting the disease. And only women and children ate the dead bodies.

LINDENBAUM: We went to the Kuru conference in Adelaide, told everybody what we thought. Nobody believed us.

TWILLEY: But eventually medical science proved Shirley right. For one thing…

LINDENBAUM: We now see that nobody born since 1960 has ever come down with the disease. And 1960 was the time when the missionaries and the government officers went through on patrols and said, “You’ve all got to stop fighting, men and women should live in houses together, and you’ve got to give up cannibalism.”

GRABER: The reason this whole story is important is that this is how we learned about prion diseases, which are caused by eating brains of your own same species. There was a Nobel prize for this discovery. Turns out, kuru is basically the same disease as mad cow disease, which you might have heard of, which cows got from eating other cows’ brains in their feed.

TWILLEY: And which is the reason I can’t give blood in America, because I grew up in England eating these potentially contaminated hamburgers. What’s a little scary is no one knows how long mad cow disease takes to develop. So watch this space.

GRABER: Like Bill said at the beginning of the show, cannibalism definitely has some pretty serious risks associated with it.

TWILLEY: But for the Fore it was important. It was the right way to treat the dead.

SCHUTT: You know, there were examples of this happening back in the 1960s and 70s, anthropologists would go into South America, for example, and they would come across a group that had little contact with Westerners. And these people were just as freaked out to learn that that Europeans were burying their dead as the anthropologists were to learn that these people were eating theirs.

GRABER: Cannibalism is, as we said, a serious taboo in the west. And so when Westerners come across people who do practice cannibalism, those people are often labeled primitives or savages.

TWILLEY: In fact, this is the likely origin of the term cannibal exactly this sort of prejudice. The word cannibal only came into use in 1553. Before that, humans who ate humans were called anthropophagi.

SCHUTT: There are a couple of different possible origins for cannibal. And that it is a corruption of one of the indigenous groups of the Caribbean who were called the Caribs. There are certain researchers who believe that Canib is a sort of a distorted way of pronouncing Carib.

GRABER: There are other theories, but this one seems to be the most likely—that it’s what the Spaniards called the inhabitants of islands in the Caribbean.

SCHUTT: This was one of the most horrifying aspects of the book. When Columbus came over—he made four trips to the New World, and on his first trip, the people that he ran into in the Caribbean were described as kind, many of them, and they were fit to become good Christians. And he reported this back to Queen Isabella. And you’ve got to realize that what he was looking for was gold and when he didn’t find gold then in a sense the next best resource became humans—slaves. And so the third and fourth trips back to the New World were, in a sense, they were armed invasions. And all of these groups that had previously been described as you know kind and nice people, we got along with them, they were beautiful—all of a sudden, they were cannibals. And Queen Isabella had said to him, listen, you’ve got to treat these people well but if they’re cannibals then all bets are off. And lo and behold on the third and fourth trip: What a coincidence! No gold but plenty of cannibals.

TWILLEY: And if they were cannibals—well, Columbus had been told exactly how to treat them.

SCHUTT: And so that justified stealing your land, stealing your property, raping, killing, hunting you like you were a dog. And it’s because they were able to to justify this by saying well, these weren’t humans, they were cannibals.

GRABER: There’s debate about whether the native Caribbeans were even eating other people. Some say no. Others say it was a funerary practice, just like with the Fore.

TWILLEY: Either way, that didn’t stop colonial powers from using it to exploit and subjugate thousands of native people.

GRABER: But even if the locals were practicing funeral cannibalism, they certainly aren’t today. Almost no one is. Anywhere.

SCHUTT: I think because of the influence of Western culture that if it does take place that it’s done in private and it’s probably done a lot less often then than it ever was before. And I believe that this is because of the major influence that the West has had on many cultures. So if you found a culture someplace that was untouched by Western civilization—and how many of those are there?—then you probably, you may find people who haven’t heard from the guys who hand the T-shirts out that cannibalism is the worst thing you can do, that you need to stop doing that.

GRABER: Which—and I’m the squeamish one here—is not necessarily a sign of world improvement. Remember, some communities thought we were barbarians for putting our dead in the ground and burying them. It’s just a different mindset.

TWILLEY: But perhaps because actual cannibalism is rare today, the few cases we do see are the crazy gory sensational ones. You get the serial killers, you get Ed Gein—he’s the one Hannibal Lecter was based on. You get Jeffrey Dahmer, you get that German guy who advertised for a person to eat online. And then ate him.

SCHUTT: There’s a spectrum of criminality and mental illness that that winds up on occasion manifesting itself in murder and cannibalism.

TWILLEY: We are horrified by these people and yet, judging from the movies and the news coverage and the books, we are also kind of fascinated.

GRABER: Another thing we love? Zombies. Who also eat people. There’s the Walking Dead and the Santa Clarita Diet, and my personal favorite, the murder-solving brain eater in iZombie.

(iZombie theme music)

TWILLEY: See, Cynthia. You act all squeamish but you love cannibalism really.

GRABER: I close my eyes every time she eats brains. But she is really funny.

TWILLEY: We asked Bill why he thinks cannibalism has such a hold on our imaginations these days. He wasn’t sure, but he had a theory.

SCHUTT: When I think about that, I think of, take the number one Western taboo arguably and now add food. Right? And so you’ve got something that is fascinating.

TWILLEY: This episode was suggested by one of my favorite listeners, my husband Geoff. And to Geoff, the fascination with cannibalism is not just that you’re mixing a taboo with one of the most fundamental substances to our survival: food.

GEOFF MANAUGH: It’s that you are food.

TWILLEY: Geoff has been giving me cannibal books as a not-so-subtle hint for at least a year now. Seriously, I have quite the cannibal library. So I asked him why he wanted Gastropod to make a cannibalism episode.

MANAUGH: I think what’s interesting to me about cannibalism and its relationship to food is that we become the thing being hunted or we become the prey. And it’s such a powerful motif in horror, from movies like “Jaws” where human beings become food for animals or even “Jurassic Park” where we’re being hunted by these resurrected dinosaurs. When you have the figure of the cannibal, it’s this other human life form that wants to eat us, we become food and lose all of our power and I think that’s the origin of the horror of cannibalism.

GRABER: Happy Halloween!


TWILLEY: Thank you, Geoff!

GRABER: Yeah, thanks Geoff. Thanks to Bill Schutt, author of Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History.

TWILLEY: Thanks also to James Cole and Shirley Lindenbaum, we have links to their papers, books, and research online. And a particular thanks to my friend Sarah, we have a link to her new book on our website at It’s gorgeous and you should check it out!

GRABER: And thanks as always to our amazing volunteer, Ari Lebowitz. We promise that in two weeks we’ll be back with something much more appetizing.

TWILLEY: Meanwhile, we’ll let James have the last word this week.

GRABER: And is your calorie count for this average man raw or cooked.

COLE: Raw. The calorie values would change when cooked, but I really didn’t have any way—or much desire I have to admit to try and explore that option.

Cannibalism: From Calories to Kuru

For most of us, it's unthinkable: human is never what's for dinner. Sorry to burst any bubbles, but this episode, we discover that not only is cannibalism widespread throughout the natural world, but it's also much more common among our own kind than we like to think. Spiders and sharks do it; so have both ancient and modern humans. So why does it sometimes make sense to snack on your own species—and what are the downsides? From Hannibal Lecter to the Donner party, cannibals are now the subject of morbid fascination and disgust—but how did eating each other become such a taboo? Join us this episode for our Halloween special: the science and history of cannibalism!


Hotbox: The Oven From Turnspit Dogs to Microwaves

Humans are the only animals that cook their food, an innovation that changed the course of our evolution and the trajectory of the planet. But how did we tame those early cooking fires and put them in a box—and what can subsequent leaps forward in heating technology tell us about cuisines and culture? This episode, we're taking you on a whirlwind tour through oven history and science, from the legendary roast beef of Old England—and the special dogs bred to turn the spits on which it hung—to the curious origins of the microwave in military radar technology. What do we gain and lose when our ovens change—and how might understanding that help with the quest to bring better cookstoves to the developing world?


We Heart Chocolate TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode We Heart Chocolate, first released on January 31, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

CARLA MARTIN: One bit of trivia about this is even in the present day, women each week of the year are the biggest buyers of chocolate except for one week, and that’s the week leading up to Valentine’s Day.

NICOLA TWILLEY: That’s right, ever since Richard Cadbury put chocolates in a heart shaped box for February 14, way back in 1861, this stupid Hallmark holiday has been associated with one of my favorite substances.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Chocolate! One of mine, too, though I am with you, Nicky, about the holiday. Still, any excuse to eat chocolate is all good by me. It might not be Valentine’s Day quite yet, but the shelves are already stocked.

TWILLEY: And so we at Gastropod are here, as always, to equip you with all the weird chocolate science and history your heart desires. So: Heart-shaped boxes are one thing, but is chocolate really good for your actual heart? And why would you spend $18 dollars on a fancy single origin bar when you can get a chocolate hit for just a couple of bucks at the supermarket?

GRABER: And to get to the heart of the story, how did chocolate conquer the world? And is it true that we might be facing a chocolate-free future?

TWILLEY: Please God, no. I need at least one reason to live. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of history and science. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber.



GRABER: The first thing to know is that chocolate grows on trees.

TWILLEY: Which means that there is such a thing a chocolate forest! Simran Sethi has been to one of these wondrous places. She’s the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate, and she has a podcast all about chocolate called The Slow Melt.

SIMRAN SETHI: It’s lush. It’s akin to a rainforest. I mean, there’s a lot of different kinds of vegetation. The one thing that’s a bit challenging to a human is that there are a lot of insects called midges, also known as no-see-ums, buzzing around and they are relentless. They bite through your clothes, they leave these huge itchy welts, but they are what pollinate cacao.

TWILLEY: This is the first time in my life that I have felt good about midges. I hate midges. But if they pollinate chocolate trees—and Simran says they do—maybe they are actually cool with me.

SETHI: And what the cacao fruit actually looks like is something like a honeydew melon or an American football. It’s oblong or round in shape and it varies in colors from a light kind of whitish green to a deep purple and kind of everything in between, from red to orange to green to yellow. And there’s this what seems like quite haphazard placement on the tree itself. So to me it looks like kind of a botanical game of pin the tail on the donkey.

GRABER: Simran expected these cacao forests to smell like chocolate. But they didn’t—not at all. Cacao, by the way, that’s the actual plant. The tree. The beans. Chocolate, that’s what we turn cacao into. But so the forest didn’t smell like chocolate. Would the pod?

SETHI: You know, we crack open the pod and there are these kind of mushy seeds that are enrobed in mucilage or pulp. And I thought I would find the flavor there. But what those fruits, you know, what that flesh actually tasted like was a wide range of flavors ranging from lemon to honeydew to peanut brittle. I mean it was kind of astonishing.

TWILLEY: Simran got to taste the pulp fresh from the pod, which is not an option for most of us who don’t live in the tropics. But if you have a Brazilian neighborhood near you, you might be able to get hold of some frozen cacao pulp to try.

GRABER: I’ve had it fresh, it’s delicious. If you can find it, I totally recommend trying it. But again, what it still doesn’t do is taste like chocolate. Which Simran found a little frustrating.

SETHI: Nothing offered up the experience of chocolate. And so then I bit into the seed, which I shouldn’t have done because that’s actually just really this intense bitterness, and none of the sweetness, none of the cacao or the cocoa flavors that we expect. And what I learned through that process is of course that those things don’t manifest without many, many steps and that includes, you know, about a week, five to seven days of fermentation plus drying plus roasting. Those are the qualities and the steps that actually bring out the flavor that we know as chocolate.

TWILLEY: That’s right: chocolate is a fermented food. Like pickles and sauerkraut. I had never thought of it that way, but if you leave out the fermentation step, you don’t get chocolate.

GRABER: Once, again, thank the microbes.

TWILLEY: Drink. And yes, thank you!

GRABER: So if you wanted to go find a chocolate forest, where would you go? The wild plant originally came from around the northwest Amazon in what’s now Ecuador. And then it was domesticated at least 4,000 years ago.

TWILLEY: From what we can tell—and the archaeological evidence is pretty slim—it seems like people who first figured out the how to make chocolate from cacao—this whole business of fermenting, drying, roasting and winnowing the bitter seeds from their shell—those people were the Olmecs. And they lived in what is now Central America and southern Mexico.

GRABER: There are not a lot of archaeological images and descriptions of chocolate. So most of what we know comes from the conquistadors. Yep, the Spaniards who showed up in the New World in order to conquer it.

TWILLEY: Just to give you a perspective, post-conquest to now is about one fifth of chocolate’s existence. But it’s the part we know the most about—the part where Europeans come on the scene, for better and for worse.

GRABER: Carla Martin is a lecturer at Harvard University and director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute. She says at first, the Europeans had no idea what to make of these strange brown beans.

MARTIN: So this is actually another really fun myth that comes up frequently in relation to cacao and chocolate. It’s this idea that Columbus was the European who discovered chocolate. And in fact what happened is Columbus encountered a group of people off of the island of Guanaja in canoes who had what he described as a type of almonds that they treated as though they were extremely valuable.

TWILLEY: Columbus’s son Ferdinand, wrote about this encounter, and he said that when one of these almond things fell to the ground, all the natives raced to pick it up, quote, “as if they were eyes that had fallen out of their heads.”

GRABER: Nobody knows if Columbus actually ever tasted chocolate, or even figured out that the local Aztecs and Maya were using cacao beans as money. Because that’s actually what Columbus witnessed: the locals had basically dropped a bunch of their version of coins.

MARTIN: It was also a particularly practical type of coin, if you can imagine the kind of doubloons made of silver or other metals that Europeans would have been using at this time. If they showed up at the market and wanted to buy, say, a tomato, it was quite difficult to cut out a chunk of that coin and buy a tomato with it.

TWILLEY: Based on conquistador diaries, we have some record of what these cacao beans were worth. So, in the 1540s, in Mexico, a small rabbit would have been worth 30 cacao beans, a turkey egg would have cost you three beans, and a tamale was only one.

GRABER: A brief interlude with a prostitute would run you about eight to ten cacao beans. Apparently the price was negotiable.

TWILLEY: Whereas a good turkey hen was worth much more: 100 good cacao beans or 120 shrunken, old beans.

GRABER: Cacao beans were money, and also people were roasting the beans into a paste and drinking it. That’s how chocolate was typically consumed.

TWILLEY: It’s like eating gold leaf or something: the Aztecs and Maya were literally drinking cash.

GRABER: Europeans quickly figured out that cacao beans were more useful in the New World than their doubloons. But Carla says it took them a while to discover the joys of drinking chocolate.

MARTIN: There’s one particular character that I like a lot. I describe him as one of my favorite historical jerks. His name is Girolamo Benzoni. He was an Italian who went to what is today Nicaragua in the 1500s and spent time traveling through the area. And he was consistently offered cacao beverages and he would turn them down because he thought that they were a drink, as he described it, fit only for pigs. And he would say, you know, every time that I’m offered these drinks I turn them down, and the natives walk away from me laughing because they think, you know, they thought it was absurd not wanting to consume that. And he describes that it was only after he didn’t have enough access to wine, which is what he typically would have been drinking, and the water was bad quality, that he came to this habit of consuming cacao as a beverage. And then he found it to actually be a really nice and refreshing bitter treat. And this is quite typical of many European experiences in this time, where it was only after some real convincing that they came to like chocolate.

GRABER: They were missing out.

TWILLEY: But by the time chocolate reached the Spanish court, they were converted. No one is sure exactly when chocolate first arrived in Europe—the first recorded shipment is in the 1580s.

GRABER: And chocolate became all the rage among the Spanish nobility.

TWILLEY: And from Spain, thanks to nobles marrying each other and also religious networks, the chocolate trend spread across Europe. It was introduced to France by a Cardinal in the 1600s, who advised that it would be useful in helping people overcome fits of anger.

GRABER: The English, um, Nicky, took a while to catch on—English pirates burned a shipful of cacao beans off the coast of Spain thinking they were sheep droppings.


GRABER: You Brits did soon catch on. Nobody can resist chocolate. Okay, almost nobody.

TWILLEY: Slowly but surely, chocolate was conquering the world. But it wasn’t chocolate as we know it. And when it arrived in Europe, it actually wasn’t chocolate as the Mesoamericans knew it.

GRABER: Because for Mesoamericans, there wasn’t just one way to consume chocolate.


GRABER: Fernando Rodriguez lives in in a town near Mexico City. His company is called Chocolate Macondo. He is working with researchers to learn about ancient recipes, and he’s creating new versions of some of these original recipes today. He told us that the Mesoamericans made cacao drinks with flowers, herbs, spices, seeds. They called the drinks “precious waters.”

TWILLEY: One of Fernando’s favorites is made with magnolia flower petals, mixed with hierba santa, acuyo flower, pepper, and chile. Fernando says the combination is delicious.

GRABER: From what we can tell, there were a whole range of different styles of chocolate concoctions: drinks, gruels, powders, porridges.

TWILLEY: Carla’s tried a contemporary version of another ancient drink, too—it’s one that Fernando also makes.

MARTIN: So one recipe that was quite popular, and, in fact, that we still see today among contemporary Maya people, was a recipe that was essentially a meal replacement that brought together cacao mixed with a maize-like paste and water. And that would be consumed as something that was really to beat hunger and to provide you with energy to make your way through the day.

TWILLEY: You’ll notice that we’re not talking about chocolate bars. That’s because for most of its history, chocolate has mostly been consumed in liquid form.

GRABER: The Aztecs and the Maya drank it hot or cold. And they loved to whip it into a light, fluffy froth. And apparently the frothiness of that froth was really important.

MARTIN: So there are some beautiful examples in the archaeological record. One is known as the Maya Princeton Vase for example, which shows a serving woman pouring from quite a height a cacao beverage from one vessel to another, aerating it in the process.

TWILLEY: Europeans, once they got the hang of this new beverage, adapted it to what was available in the old world. Chili peppers were replaced with black pepper, fragrant sapote might have been substituted with cinnamon. And Europeans were not keen on drinking chocolate cold.

GRABER: They also preferred it pretty sweet. And then Europeans decided it’d be a good idea to add milk to hot cocoa. It seems like the first guy to offer that serving suggestion is Hans Sloane.

TWILLEY: Better known, at least in England, as the guy whose collection founded the British Museum. In the late 1600s, as chocolate drinking caught on in Britain, Sloane’s advice was that adding milk to chocolate made it easier to digest.

GRABER: So now chocolate is milky and sweet, so we’d recognize that. But it’s still not the chocolate we tend to eat today. When did it become a solid bar?

TWILLEY: Turning chocolate into a stable solid was actually kind of a challenge.

HELEN VEIT: Something that we think of as one of the most wonderful attributes of chocolate was a problem because you really couldn’t control the amount of cocoa butter.

GRABER: Helen Veit is a historian at Michigan State University.

VEIT: So the one of the big breakthroughs technologically was in the 1820s, when a Dutchman came up with a process for really pressing chocolate. And this bright yellow cocoa butter would just ooze out of the chocolate. And so you’d be left with this extremely hard pellet which you could then grind up and, if you wanted to, recombine with some of that cocoa powder and with milk, potentially with sugars, and things like that. So that was when the early solid chocolate started becoming available.

TWILLEY: And then—joy!—you get the first chocolate bar. It’s made in England by Fry’s in 1847. It’s kind of incredible: chocolate has a five thousand year history, but the world has only known the wonders of the chocolate bar for the past hundred and fifty of that.

GRABER: And then even after chocolate bars were invented, it took another almost 30 years before anyone figured out how to get milk into them.

MARTIN: In the mid 1800s, people in Switzerland especially were experimenting with ways that they could powder milk and actually allow for its preservation over longer periods of time. And, if you think about this, this was a really significant problem. Milk goes bad very quickly. It can make people quite ill if they consume it. And so there was this necessity, as people were looking for ways to improve food safety and preservation, to explore this. So it was with that development of a means to powder milk, that people first got the idea to then add powdered milk to chocolate, and it was Henri Nestle who did that in Switzerland.

TWILLEY: Nestle of course is a relatively well-known name in the world of chocolate today.

GRABER: Side note: The first major company to add milk to chocolate in America was, not surprisingly, Hershey’s. But instead of adding powdered milk, Hershey’s added fresh milk.


TWILLEY: As a Brit, I think Hershey’s tastes like puke.

GRABER: Not exactly the great American chocolate bar, huh.

TWILLEY: Many of us non-Americans share my view. Some of them have even shared their opinions on YouTube.


TWILLEY: See, Cynthia? It’s not just me. And it’s actually down to the milk: because Hershey’s uses fresh not powdered milk, they have to treat it to make it shelf stable, and that treatment—that adds the signature Hershey’s vomit flavor note. So now you know.

GRABER: Speaking of Hershey’s, which I don’t love, but I do not think tastes like vomit, that brings up another innovation in the chocosphere. It’s the final step in making what we know and love today. It’s a technique called conching.

TWILLEY: And it was invented by another name you might recognize from the candy aisle: Lindt. Rudolf Lindt.


GRABER: I’m not sure they’re selling chocolate in that ad. But basically the conching machine that Rudolf Lindt invented, it kneads the chocolate over and over and smooths out all the rough grittiness from the beans.

VEIT: One of the unique things about Hershey’s is that it’s not super smooth.

TWILLEY: Wow, sorry, we’re really dumping on Hershey’s here. But it’s not highly conched.

VEIT: So it hasn’t had as long of a processing time, so that you can taste a little bit of grittiness with chocolate, which I think Americans like and a lot of other people find offensive and unnecessary.

TWILLEY: No kidding. But here’s where chocolate’s journey from Mesoamerican spicy drink to candy bar is complete. Once conching was invented in the 1870s, chocolate really became chocolate as we know it.

GRABER: This transformation, from a drink to a bar—Helen and Carla both told us that what it also meant is that many more people had the chance to get to know chocolate.

VEIT: Early on, like in the 18th century, people really associated chocolate with the aristocracy, with the wealthy. Drinking chocolate was this sort of idle practice for people who didn’t have to work.

MARTIN: And really, by the early 1900s, these were foods that the average person could more regularly access.

TWILLEY: Chocolate had gone mass market. Kids could buy a penny chocolate candy.

GRABER: Workmen could have a bar for lunch

TWILLEY: And stressed podcasters could tear through tons of the stuff every episode.

VEIT: Yeah, I mean chocolate is one of those foods that when you say, like, “Oh I had a bad day I just want to go home and eat chocolate,” it’s this sort of, you know, automatic escape valve.

GRABER: Oh yes. And it turns out it might not be so bad for us. That’s right—chocolate might be good for our health. But, like everything with chocolate, this is actually a very old idea. In Mesoamerica, they ate it for all sorts of health-related reasons.

DEANNA PUCCIARELLI: So there’s theobromine in chocolate that gives you a perkiness. And so sometimes soldiers would consume it to stay awake.

TWILLEY: That’s Deanna Pucciarelli. She’s a professor at Ball State University in Indiana, and she’s an expert on the medicinal history of chocolate. Early Mesoamericans didn’t know what theobromine was, of course, but cacao was widely used as a stimulant—and not just for marching. It was considered helpful for the horizontal jog, too.

PUCCIARELLI: So we have quotes from the codices that suggest that, for example, Montezuma would consume anywhere from 20 to 50 glasses before he went with his wives.

GRABER: I’m not sure I’d really be in the mood after 20 glasses of anything. But really, the Mesoamericans saw chocolate’s health benefits as more of a holistic thing—it was really a huge part of their spiritual life. They used it in all sorts of rituals, from childbirth to marriage.

TWILLEY: Then the Europeans show up, and they are not interested in ritual. They just want to know what chocolate can do for them, physically.

MARTIN: The early Spanish conquistadors upon arriving in Central America were fascinated by the possibilities of cacao as an aphrodisiac. They were quite health obsessed, in fact, and were looking for foods that would make them less constipated—they were often consuming so much protein that they were uncomfortable—or that would make them more virile. So they were excited about the possibility that cacao could do those things for them.

GRABER: Then when the Europeans brought chocolate back home with them, they decided it could be used to treat all sorts of diseases.

TWILLEY: The first book entirely devoted to the topic of chocolate was published by a Spaniard in 1631, and he said, basically, chocolate is good for everything, but especially “the plague of the guts, fluxes, consumptions, and coughs of the lungs, with sundry other desperate diseases.”

GRABER: And actually, plague of the guts and fluxes—that’s diarrhea—there might be some reality to the benefits of drinking chocolate to treat those unpleasant symptoms.

PUCCIARELLI: At this time, you know, a lot of diseases was due to bad water, and so you’re boiling water to make this beverage so that aids in health at this time.

TWILLEY: So it’s less the chocolate that’s healing here, and more the boiling of water to make the chocolate drink. But hey, whatever, it worked.

GRABER: And consumption and coughs of the lungs? Turns out there might weirdly be some usefulness to chocolate there, too.

PUCCIARELLI: So most of our diseases during this era are associated with wasting. So we have, you know, smallpox and yellow fever and so people lose weight and they’re also very lethargic. Well, you start giving chocolate to a patient, it’s not going to cure a virus, but it certainly will aid anyway in having people gain weight as well as become a little bit more alert.

TWILLEY: In other words, someone who had TB and was wasting away, or someone with one of these other consumptive diseases—it’s like give them some chocolate, and at least they gain the weight back. They look healthier!

GRABER: Of course, that’s because chocolate is really energy dense. And in fact Mesoamericans loved it for that reason, as Carla described. Cacao paste mixed with maize, or corn—that was an energy drink.

TWILLEY: But what’s interesting is two things sort of happened at the same time. Like we said, by the end of the 1900s, chocolate has been transformed from drink to solid, which means that in Europe and North America it’s starting to be seen as a food, rather than a medicinal drink. And that’s also exactly when this guy called Wilbur Atwater starts measuring the energy in food in calories.

GRABER: And if you want to learn everything possible about the calorie, we have it covered. Go back and listen to our episode The End of the Calorie. You’ll become an expert. So applying the concept of calories to chocolate—according to Helen, that made chocolate even more appealing.

VEIT: If you’re looking at it in terms of calories, chocolate is cheaper than bread, it’s cheaper than butter, it’s certainly way cheaper than fruits or vegetables. So people promoted it for the poor because it was seen as economical in this, you know, in the sense that we no longer think of.

TWILLEY: It’s so weird now, when we think of cheap calories as bad. But in the early twentieth century, Hershey’s would put out ads that literally just compared the calories in a pound of chocolate to beef, potatoes, white bread… The message was, why waste your money on this other, energy-poor food, when you could just have chocolate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

GRABER: And this is awesome. Chocolate is food. And then, Helen told us, if you combine it with milk? Even better.

VEIT: Milk was was really at its high point in the early 20th century. People thought it was a perfect food. So this was this great way to combine what was seen as the healthfulness of chocolate, the, you know, the supreme nutrient nutritive value of milk, and also some sugar which was seen as energy boosting and positive. And advertising also really pushed hot cocoa for children and also chocolate bars as this special wholesome treat, a way that mothers could express their love.

GRABER: Yes, if you really loved your children, you’d give them chocolate. Children still use this argument today.

TWILLEY: And this is not just good news for kids. Chocolate makers are all over the switch from chocolate as medicine to chocolate as wonder food. I mean, you eat food everyday, you only take medicine if you’re feeling under the weather.

GRABER: This is all at the start of the twentieth century. But a few decades later, after the second world war, things are no longer looking so sweet. Suddenly those calories? They’re not so awesome anymore. In the West, we are now worried that we’re eating too many calories. Chocolate is no longer a good food, suddenly it’s a bad food. It’s sinful.

TWILLEY: This is a sad time in chocolate’s history. But all is not lost because it looks like now, in the twenty-first century, chocolate might actually be medicine again.

GRABER: But before we share that great news, we have news from some of our sponsors.


TWILLEY: So, let’s get some science going ourselves. Here’s my question: can it possibly be true that something as delicious as chocolate is actually medically beneficial? And not just because it makes you gain weight?

GRABER: Maybe. And for that discovery, we can thank an indigenous community in Central America back in chocolate’s original homeland.

PUCCIARELLI: The people that are attributed with the so-called discovery of chocolate and heart health were the Kuna Indians in Panama. It’s a group of people that lived on an island and consumed chocolate as a beverage unsweetened without milk. Just, you know, the cocoa and water mixed together. And they consume such high amounts, somewhere in the neighborhood of eight to 15 cups a day as part of their culture. And there was this correlation that they had relatively no heart disease.

GRABER: This came to light a while ago, in the 1940s. There was an army surgeon who was serving in the Panama Canal zone, and he noticed that the Kuna who stayed in their home region, these islands called San Blas, they had really low blood pressure. The ones who moved to the city, they weren’t doing nearly as well.

TWILLEY: This army surgeon’s work was kind of ignored for 50 years, but then a Harvard doctor came across his papers in the 1990s, and started studying the Kuna and chocolate’s possible cardiovascular benefits again.

PUCCIARELLI: Now, mind you, they’re living on an island, they’re not in a high-stress environment, they’re probably in a low-pollution environment. It’s recorded that they didn’t smoke cigarettes. So there’s other elements. But, in any event, that’s when the science started to take off again.

GRABER: Now, a few decades later, there’s reams of research into chocolate and its potential medicinal qualities. We spoke to another Harvard doctor about it. Eric Ding is an epidemiologist and nutritionist at the Harvard School of Public Health.

ERIC DING: There’s so many supplements that tout the benefits of cocoa that we really wanted to do an evidence-based assessment of whether a lot of these claims have merit. Especially since people say it pretty often colloquially—“Oh, chocolate is good for you. Chocolate is good for you.” But how good is it for you?

TWILLEY: So Eric and his colleagues decided to take a hard look at the evidence so far. Specifically, they wanted to know whether chocolate can prevent heart disease.

DING: So altogether we reviewed 24 papers that we included in our study, selected out of thousands of studies related to cocoa.

GRABER: Eric told us that there are dozens of factors that are linked to a healthy heart. Things like blood pressure and cholesterol that you’ve heard of and things like flow mediated vascular dilation which you probably haven’t.

TWILLEY: All of these are risk factors—things that have been shown to be either very predictive or actually causal, when it comes to heart disease.

GRABER: And did eating chocolate work? Did it improve these risk factors?

DING: So the chocolate findings are actually quite stunning. So it lowered blood pressure, it actually lowered the bad cholesterol, increased good cholesterol, lowered the bad triglycerides, and improved fasting glucose which means it improved insulin sensitivity. And interestingly it also improved inflammation, as well as the flow mediated dilation, FMD.

TWILLEY: Dude. Chocolate really is a wonder drug! This is the best news of 2017 so far.

DING: It’s not like a one-hit wonder in certain ways, it only lowers blood pressure and nothing else. It lowers almost every major risk factor for heart disease which is quite remarkable.

GRABER: And it’s something called flavonoids that seem to be the key to chocolate’s benefits. These flavonoids are chemicals that can be found in all sorts of foods, but the ones in cocoa do seem to be unusual.

DING: Right, so cocoa flavonoids are really specialized. So there are many flavonoids and, you know, there’s tea flavonoids and berry flavonoids. But the evidence for tea flavonoids and berry flavonoids are much more, you know, controversial.

TWILLEY: So what Eric and his colleagues showed is that these flavonoids in chocolate, they work in a bunch of different ways to lower risk factors for heart attacks. But here’s the question: do they actually prevent heart attacks?

DING: And I’ll say right now the heart attacks, in terms of doing these kind of actual heart attack prevention trials, take millions and millions of dollars and many, many years. And there’s actually one that just recently started called Cosmos and that trial will actually finish within the next two to three years. We should hopefully get preliminary results on whether or not it actually prevents heart attacks, which is a hard end point.

GRABER: So, really, we don’t know if chocolate actually prevents heart attacks. Yet. Though Eric is kind of shockingly positive about it.

DING: In academic science we don’t usually get that excited about compound but cocoa flavonoid seems to hold all the different checkmark potentials.

GRABER: Amazing! Chocolate is in fact the miracle drug we’ve all been looking for! But of course, there’s more to the story.

TWILLEY: Let’s go back to the Kuna Indians for a minute—they, like before, hold the clues.

DING: But you have to consider that, like, the natives in these these tribal populations that drank these cocoa drinks, drink a huge, huge volume a day on a daily basis.

GRABER: They were drinking about eight cups of unsweetened cocoa every day. This is not the same thing as having a few bites of chocolate after dinner.

TWILLEY: Right, and same deal in the medical trials—people were given really high doses of these flavonoids.

DING: Normally, you—to get the doses seen some of these trials, you would have to consume a lot of bars or likely use a supplement,

TWILLEY: Specifically, eight bars of dark chocolate. Every day.

GRABER: So does that mean there’s no benefit unless you eat those massive amounts? I mean, that sounds delicious, but I’m not sure about eight bars of dark chocolate a day. Or eight cups of unsweetened cocoa. What if I just want to snack on some chocolate?

DING: I think the benefits will accrue, even if you do not hit a certain target. There’s an assumption of linear effects, in which we assume even if you don’t hit the really high target that the benefits are proportional and accumulate.

TWILLEY: OK, so how do we know if the chocolate bar we’re eating is full of flavonoids?

GRABER: Like everything, it depends what you buy.

MARTIN: A Hershey’s Kiss typically contains about, I think, 11 percent cacao content. So really very little. And my students and I often try to think of what are other foods where if it only had 11 percent would you still call it chocolate, let’s say.

TWILLEY: Not to dump on Hershey’s again, although it does taste like puke. But Carla’s point is, most of the mass market chocolate out there has very, very little chocolate in it—and hence very, very few flavonoids. It’s mostly milk and sugar.

GRABER: In America, it only legally needs 10 percent cocoa to be called chocolate. And so to get some of the benefits Eric’s talking about, you really need to be eating dark chocolate. Like 70, 80 percent dark chocolate.

DING: But altogether darker chocolate or cocoa powder or the direct supplement itself is clearly the best source and milk chocolate is never going to get you to the right dose that you need.

TWILLEY: So here’s where we’re at. It’s taken hundreds of years, but chocolate has again become both food and medicine at the same time. But once again, there’s a dark cloud on the horizon. Even while scientists such as Eric are getting all excited about chocolate, other scientists are sounding alarm bells.


GRABER: It’s true: there are some pretty major threats to our chocolate supply. One of those is disease. Simran Sethi—she wrote the book Bread, Wine, Chocolate—she spends a lot of time worrying about the future of our our favorite treat.

SETHI: One third of the crop currently is lost to diseases that have like completely sinister names like witches’ broom and frosty pod rot and black pod rot. And you see them and, like, it just kills you because you see how sinister they are just on the vine.

TWILLEY: And—this story will be familiar from other crops—but one of the reasons disease is such a threat to chocolate is because of monocultures. We’re growing this one particularly hardy and high-yielding variety in bulk, on massive plantations in West Africa—to the point that 70 percent of the world’s chocolate comes from there. And that makes our supply vulnerable.

GRABER: A monoculture of one particular varietal that’s plagued by disease—that’s an obvious vulnerability, but that’s not the only threat to cacao. The trees won’t grow outside a narrow band 20 degrees north and south of the equator. And climate change threatens to make these regions too hot for cacao trees to thrive. Scientists are trying to breed varieties that are even hardier and more resistant to diseases.

SETHI: And so what we see is, you know, the development of hybrids, because they grow quite abundantly and they do have disease tolerance, are kind of taking over. We need to increase yield. But what happens is, when we increase yield to the exclusion of everything else is we lose this diversity, we lose the backup system, and we lose the diverse flavors. And to me that’s a real shame because we’re only just at the beginning of discovering them you know.

TWILLEY: And this is where some chocolate makers are saying hold up. There’s another strategy. What about if we grow traditional cacao varietals in a diverse forest, rather than a monoculture plantation? Because that kind of chocolate forest—that’s another way to resist disease. And there’s a big bonus to this strategy—it means we get to taste all the different flavors that chocolate can offer.

SETHI: And they range from like caramel and and violet that you find in cocoa from Ecuador you know or caramel from cocoa from Venezuela. A really nice fruit kind of acidity, almost a sourness that we find in cocoa that’s grown in Madagascar. There’s all this diversity that gets erased through the commoditization that says we kind of just need that one chocolate note and everything else can kind of go away.

GRABER: These flavor differences come from all sorts of things: different tree varietals, like Simran said, and also soils and growing conditions. You can even taste this for yourself. You can find higher end craft chocolate bars that are single origin—that is, they just come from one country. Buy some from different countries and taste them one after the other.

TWILLEY: This is precisely how I discovered that Hawaiian chocolate tastes like honey. For real.

GRABER: And cacao grown in Honduras tastes sort of like grapefruit. We’re not making this up.

SETHI: But if we stop growing those varieties, if we stop retaining that diversity, then we’re not going to have that backup system as we may need it moving forward. And it might be because of climate change, it might be because of our tastes changing, it might be because of disease. But what is a greater concern, a more immediate concern when it comes to the loss of chocolate is simply the fact that farmers are walking away from a crop that doesn’t treat them well, that pays them so little money that to grow this crop makes no sense when you could grow something far more lucrative like palm oil or rubber or any of the any of the other crops that thrive in these same environments.

TWILLEY: Basically, Simran is saying, yeah disease, climate change, monoculture, it’s all very scary. But the real chocpocalypse is being caused by us paying too little for our chocolate. According to Simran, if we’re paying 2 bucks for a giant Hershey bar, the cacao farmer who grew the chocolate is getting about 10 cents.

SETHI: So the choice that we actually have to make as consumers is: are we willing to consider different kinds of models?

GRABER: These models do exist. They’re the ones usually used by the more expensive, small company craft chocolate bars. The bars might have labels like fair trade or even direct trade. The companies pay the farmers more, and so the farmers can afford to grow traditional varieties of cacao trees in better conditions. And the resulting chocolate tastes better. But Carla says we’ve still got a long way to go.

MARTIN: So if we think about what part of the chocolate industry could be considered specialty or fine, it’s probably one percent, maybe even less than one percent. So ninety nine percent of chocolate that people consume is going to be commercial, mass manufactured, bulk chocolate.And when we compare this other specialty foods it’s actually striking how different it is. Coffee, for example, about 50 percent of the market is considered specialty, seven to eight percent is considered high-end specialty. Cheese has a significantly growing and robust specialty side of the market. Beer is another example. So chocolate is is on its way, but it’s going to require a lot more interest to do that.

TWILLEY: I am willing to eat much more specialty chocolate.

GRABER: Me too.

MARTIN: You’re both heroes.

TWILLEY: Yep, that’s me stepping up to do my part. Here’s the thing though. This kind of craft chocolate—it’s an expensive habit to acquire.

SETHI: And that’s kind of—I, you know, I understand people bristling at the idea of a $10 bar of chocolate or a $20 bar of chocolate. But the truth is we are not paying enough for these goods and until we as consumers are willing to put more money behind these things, until we are willing to explore some of these companies that are trying to reward farmers with money, you know, for sustaining these crops, I don’t think that we can relieve ourselves of the fear that chocolate will go away.

GRABER: And I do not want it to go away. To be fair to our wallets—I do love those $10 bars, but there are other great options, too. Two of my favorites are Taza and Theo. They’re leaders in the fair-trade chocolate world, and they’re like four to five dollars a bar.

TWILLEY: The other thing that I’ve noticed is that for my favorite good single origin chocolate, which is called Willy’s Cacao—it’s expensive, but I find I savor it more so I eat less. So I’m saving money. Kind of.

GRABER: Kind of. This is why you’re a podcaster and not an accountant.

TWILLEY: But really, cheap chocolate is not worth it. Especially when you think that you may might be supporting slavery.

GRABER: Just this month a judge ruled that six men now in their 20s and 30s can sue Nestle in court for having been enslaved on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast.

MARTIN: The most important thing to keep in mind about cacao and chocolate history is it’s one that has always been intimately linked with labor exploitation. And that goes all the way back to early Mesoamerican production, all the way up into the present day. Ultimately what’s going on here is that cacao is a commodity crop that requires, at least in the current structure of the way it’s supplied, requires cheap labor. And so until we actually structurally dismantle a lot of the ways that cacao is produced and fundamentally change how the money makes its way to people at the so-called bottom of the supply chain, we will continue to face these labor issues.

TWILLEY: So here’s your motivation for eating the good stuff: save chocolate and save chocolate farmers. And, if you need more encouragement, remember that the fancy dark chocolate bars are higher in flavonoids, so they’re better for you anyway.

GRABER: Carla says the idea of tasting and comparing dark chocolates can be kind of intimidating if you’ve mostly snacked on grocery store milk chocolate until now. So she has some suggestions.

MARTIN: There’s no sort of right or wrong way to taste. If you are interested in tasting it, like a lot of the chocolate connoisseurs taste today, one of the things that you can do is try to taste it in a more kind of mindful manner as people describe it. And that would include taking time to smell the chocolate, to snap it, to then let it melt on your tongue, and then once it has melted to think about the finish of the chocolate or the lingering flavor and whether or not that’s something that’s pleasant for you. And as you come to do that more and more you will become more comfortable with identifying what types of chocolate you like best, and also how you might then recommend chocolate to your friends and loved ones.

GRABER: We here at Gastropod are so concerned about getting more people to eat more of the good stuff in order to save chocolate for the future that we’re even going to have some with us at our live shows in April!

TWILLEY: Right. There’s so much we couldn’t cover this episode, and we’re going be able to squeeze that in in the live shows too—like the invention of the brownie! And the story of how the chocolate chip cookie become such an iconic American treat.

GRABER: Don’t miss it! Last time our tickets sold out in like an hour. We’re performing in April at the Boston Museum of Science and at Michigan State University.

TWILLEY: Details on our website and social media as always. Indeed, if you are on our mailing list, you will already have a code for special pre-sale access. Maybe it’s worth signing up if you’re not.



TWILLEY: Thanks so much to all our guests this week: Carla Martin, Simran Sethi, Eric Ding, Helen Veit, and Deanna Pucciarelli. We have links to their websites, books, podcasts, everything on our website.

GRABER: And don’t forget to mark your calendars for our live shows this spring: April 8th in East Lansing, at Michigan State University, and April 26 at the Boston Museum of Science. More information on our website, where you can also take our survey, sign up for our mailing list, support the show, and basically find everything you ever wanted.

TWILLEY: We’re back in two weeks with a topic that lots of people feel very, very passionately about: vegetarianism and veganism. Till then!

TRANSCRIPT The Secret History of the Slave Behind Jack Daniel’s Whiskey

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode The Secret History of the Slave Behind Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, first released on January 29, 2019. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

FAWN WEAVER: Well, it was hard. I decided I wanted to go to Lynchburg, Tennessee, and he said absolutely not. I am not, as a black man, going to a town with “lynch” in the name.

NICOLA TWILLEY: But that is exactly where we are going this episode—to Lynchburg, Tennessee, the home of Jack Daniel’s whiskey.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Because Fawn Weaver—she’s the woman who wanted to convince her husband to go on a trip to Lynchburg—she discovered new information about the forgotten history of Jack Daniel’s, and the role of a former slave in building this iconic American brand. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber.

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this week we’re telling a story. It’s a story about one man, a former slave who got written out of history. But it’s also a story about how American whiskey became American whiskey.

GRABER: And a story of the role of enslaved people in its creation. But before we get to that, we have a fun comment from listener Allison Olszewski in response to our last episode all about artificial sweeteners. She is a biochemist herself and shared an interesting bit of chemistry history that we didn’t know!

ALLISON OLSZEWSKI: I love your podcast and I just finished listening to the Sweet and Low (Calorie) episode. I would like to point out something about chemists tasting their experiments. This is not likely an accident. In early organic chemistry, it was a very common way for some chemists to easily monitor the progress of some chemical reactions. Chemicals can taste very differently so the taste of starting chemical could be very different from the taste of a transformed chemical. Today we monitor progress using thin layer chromatography or mass spectrometry. This is much more quantitative, safer, and no tasting allowed.

TWILLEY: Also—shhh—Allison told us that even during her undergrad, which wasn’t so very long ago, her professor was known to occasionally taste the odd reaction. And there I was judging those chemists for their sloppy lab hygiene. Little did I know it was common practice. That’s me told.

GRABER: Still, I’m glad it’s no longer common practice today, whether or not it led to billion-dollar businesses. That doesn’t sound super safe. Anyway.

TWILLEY: We’re on our way back to whiskey town, but first we want to tell you about an opportunity. If you’re a journalist and you have a cool food and farming related story you want to tell, then you should apply for the UC Berkeley 11th Hour Food and Farming Fellowship. It’s run by Michael Pollan with Jen Kahn and Malia Wollan, and it is an amazing opportunity.

GRABER: In fact, this is how Nicky and I met, so really the fellowship is like Gastropod’s fairy godmother! Also, it’s $10,000 to report a really cool story, so if you have one, pitch them! We have info on our website,

TWILLEY: And finally, if you live in or around Athens, Ohio, we’re coming to town! We’ll be performing at Ohio University on Monday, February 11. This is our last show for quite a while—we’re not traveling again to perform until next year. So if you’re around, come! And say hi! February 11 in Athens, Ohio at Ohio University—all the details are on our website,


WEAVER: So this story—I learned of this in June of 2016. June 28th. I was in Singapore and it was on the cover of The New York Times International Edition.

TWILLEY: This, like we said, is Fawn Weaver. She’s an author and a business woman. And in June 2016, she was in Singapore reading The New York Times. And there was a headline that caught her eye: “Jack Daniel embraces a hidden ingredient: Help from a slave.”

WEAVER: So that was the headline I saw. And I read it. And for me, as an African-American, it was mind boggling because we know that African-Americans have been involved in so many brands over the centuries but we’ve never been able to pinpoint to one and say: This person actually had a name and this person had a significant role. And so it was exciting to me just from the outside as a spectator looking at it and going, whoa, if this is true, this is pretty incredible!

GRABER: Fawn didn’t just read this story, she actually acted on it—but before we get to her story, let’s back up.

TWILLEY: To the story she was reading. Which was written by my friend Clay Risen.

CLAY RISEN: My name is Clay Risen and I am the deputy op-ed editor at The New York Times.

TWILLEY: But he’s also a whiskey expert.

RISEN: So I write about whiskey and spirits for The New York Times and other publications. I’m also the author of two books on whiskey. One is American Whiskey, Bourbon, and Rye, which is a guide to American spirits. And then Single Malt, which is a new guide to single malt scotch.

GRABER: Clay grew up in Nashville, in Tennessee.

RISEN: So I knew a lot about Jack Daniels—as as a company that made whiskey, as the whiskey that everyone had at home because it was the hometown whiskey. So I knew of it as a tourist attraction and as a cultural icon. It was, I want to say, the first whiskey I ever tried but I can’t—I can’t be sure. That said, I think it’s probably everyone’s first whiskey.

GRABER: At least in America. But yes, in America, that’s pretty much true.

TWILLEY: So we’re back in early 2016. And Clay got an email from the company that owns Jack Daniel’s, it’s called Brown Forman, and it’s a big liquor company—it owns a bunch of brands you’ve heard of.

RISEN: Someone from the company was in touch with me about a variety of things that they were sort of pushing out into the media because it was the 150-year anniversary of the founding of the brand. And one of the things that he brought up to me was: Did you know that Jack Daniel learned to make whiskey from a slave?

TWILLEY: Up till—well, basically now—if you knew the story of Jack Daniel’s, the story you probably knew was that Jack was taught to distill by a pastor, a man named Dan Call. Sometime in the 1850s, when Jack was still a young kid, he was sent to work for Dan Call, doing chores.

GRABER: Clay had heard that story—that the preacher Dan Call was the one who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey.

TWILLEY: But he’d also vaguely heard something about a slave—way before the company even reached out to him.

GRABER: In this alternate story, there was a slave at Dan Call’s, and this slave was the one who taught Jack Daniel to make whiskey.

RISEN: You know, it’s one of these things that I’m pretty sure if I went back and looked at my research for my first book that it was there, kind of tucked away. But weirdly, and I kick myself about this, it’s something that didn’t really jump out at me. It wasn’t a secret but it wasn’t something that people talked about in any real way.

GRABER: But this time, when the PR guy mentioned it, Clay realized this was indeed a good story. So he traveled to Lynchburg, and he wrote about the slave and his relationship with Jack Daniel for The New York Times. The slave’s name was Nearest Green. But there were a few things about the story that kind of niggled at Clay, even after he published his piece.

RISEN: I really didn’t have the time or the resources to learn in-depth, to learn a lot more about Nearest Green himself. To learn more about the relationship between Nearest Green and Jack Daniel. You know, I could sort of sketch the outlines but it wasn’t something that in retrospect or even immediately that I was fully satisfied with. I felt like there’s a lot more to do here. But I want to get this story out and see what happens.

TWILLEY: And what happens? Fawn Weaver read Clay’s story. And she was fascinated by it.

WEAVER: I order the Jack Daniel’s Legacy, which was his only official biography. It was written in 1967. So I order it with the thought process that the book may not actually mention Nearest by name. But it might mention a slave or it might mention something of that nature. And so I get the book. And very early on into the book you begin seeing Nearest Green. Uncle Nearest. And his sons Eli and George. And they are talked about throughout the book. Now that we’ve actually re-published the book we know exactly how many times they were talked about. It’s 50 times.

TWILLEY: Fifty times. As Fawn read this biography, she realized maybe this wasn’t just another story of a white guy stealing a slave’s invention and getting all the credit.

WEAVER: If you’ve stolen a recipe and you’re trying to hide the person, you do not mention them so many times in your own biography. And to understand that the biography—everyone who was interviewed to write this story on Jack were all of the people who were around him. So his nephews that had taken over the distillery, his nephew’s sons who were all running the distillery and running the bank that he founded, all of his employees, his closest friends, his family. That is who was being interviewed and they must have mentioned Nearest and his boys so many times that there was just no choice but to have them fully integrated in this story. And so a part of me thinks Jack’s family wanted to make sure something that I believe that Jack would have done if he had been alive when this biography was being written—which was to make sure that Nearest’s name didn’t get written out of the history books. The irony of it all is it eventually did get written out of the history books and we still don’t know how that happened.

GRABER: Because somehow, in between 1967 and today, the origin story of Jack Daniel had become that the white preacher Dan Call had taught Jack everything he needed to know. Nearest had disappeared.

TWILLEY: So it seemed as though there was much more to this story than Fawn originally thought. And actually, more that still needed to be figured out.

WEAVER: The historian in me just wanted to dive in and learn as much as I could about Nearest. And again, being African-American and having the opportunity to piece this story together for future generations was just something I couldn’t pass up.

GRABER: Fawn had a fortieth birthday coming up, and she told her husband just what she wanted to do to celebrate. She wanted to go to Lynchburg.

WEAVER: And he said absolutely not. I am not, as a black man, going to a town with “lynch” in the name. And so it was a little bit of negotiating with him. And so I was able to use the occasion of my fortieth birthday to do it. You cannot tell your wife she can’t go where she wants to go for her fortieth birthday, it just doesn’t work. And so every conversation we’d have, he’s trying to plan Paris and he’s trying to plan Rome, and I’m like, yeah, we can go to those places by way of Lynchburg. So finally he relented and said, “Fine, if that’s where you want to spend your fortieth birthday, that’s what we’ll do. But I am not staying longer than four days.” So we booked the trip for four days and I called the descendant who was referenced in The New York Times article.

TWILLEY: Using the magic powers of Google, Fawn had tracked this guy down.

WEAVER: So I called him and I said, you know—Claude Eady is his name. I said, Claude Eady, is this the Claude Eady on Main Street in Lynchburg? He says, I am. And so I told him who I was. And I said, listen, I believe that there’s more to this story than what is being reported in the press. I believe there is a book here. I believe there’s a movie here. And I’d love to come down and interview you and see if I’m right. And I told him I’d be there in two weeks and he says well—at the time he was 91—he says, I’m 91 years old. I cannot tell you if I’ll still be here in two weeks. But if I’m still here in two weeks you’re welcome to interview me. And sure enough we landed in Lynchburg, Tennessee, to go interview him specifically.

GRABER: But before Fawn went to meet Claude, she did what any good researcher would do. First she went to the local library.

WEAVER: And the librarian learned what we were researching and made some phone calls. And very shortly thereafter a woman walks through the door and she’s the second eldest living descendant of Jack Daniel. She’s now the eldest living descendant of Jack Daniel but at the time she was the second. And she walks through. And it makes all the sense in the world—you find out someone is in town doing research on your family. That person’s from L.A., so you’re assuming they’re liberal. That person is African-American, so you’re assuming they’re not there to look for the best story. And they’re not there to look for the real story but rather as sensationalized. So she was legitimately concerned walking through the doors. And I could sense that. And when she introduced who she was, I told her, I said, listen. I said, I read your ancestor’s biography. And if Nearest was intentionally hidden it was not by your family and it was not by Jack. And it is my belief that just in reading—not necessarily what was written in the biography but reading between the lines, understanding this is a biography being written in 1967—height of the civil rights era, the reporter that is writing it is a white reporter from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. You’re down the road from Pulaski, Tennessee, where the Ku Klux Klan began and was still very active in 1967. And this reporter has mentioned Nearest and his family over and over and over again in the authoritative biography of the biggest white whiskey maker that has ever come out of America. And so I looked at her and I said, it’s between the lines that I read. And that I believe that there is a story of love, honor, and respect here.

TWILLEY: And so, the second living eldest descendant of Jack Daniel—now the eldest—she heard this, and she decided to trust Fawn.

WEAVER: And so she pulls out her cell phone and she begins to give me telephone numbers of Nearest’s descendants and Jack’s. Because they grew up together and they ate around the same dinner table and they hung out together and they played together. As soon as she realized I wasn’t there for a sensationalized version of the story but I was there for the truth, she was comfortable in opening up her Rolodex. And then she says, you know in that book where Jack grew up and where he learned how to make whiskey, you do realize that farm is for sale? You should go buy it. And I did. So that’s where it all began.

GRABER: Yep, Fawn bought Dan Call’s farm. And she lost no time in trying to dig into everything she could find out about Nearest, his relationship to Jack, his family. To do that, it took, well, a town.

WEAVER: So it was just an entire community of people coming together and pulling things that they had in their basement. I would get phone calls that said, listen, I’ve got this legal document, it has a Green family member on it. I have no idea who it is. Do you know who Minnie Green is? And I said, Yeah I’ll be there in five minutes, that’s Nearest’s daughter. Hold on to that piece of paper. And I would go to that neighbor’s house. And so the whole community really got involved in telling this story and getting it right.

TWILLEY: Part of the reason that Fawn had to involve the entire city of Lynchburg in uncovering this story is because it’s really hard to uncover the stories of enslaved people in early America.

WEAVER: The thing to understand about slave trading unfortunately is it is the equivalent of cattle—trying to track cattle. They did not go by name in terms of the records. They weren’t treated as people. Until December 6, 1865, with the passing of the 13th Amendment, we as African-Americans were not people, we were property. So there is no records of us. In the slave rolls it will just tell you whether we were colored or mulatto. It’s not going to tell you what a name was.

GRABER: Clay encountered the same problem when he was doing his research for his book and for The New York Times. Slaves weren’t necessarily considered worthy of note. On top of that, many people were illiterate. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of record keeping, and, even if people did keep records, the records might not have survived.

RISEN: Well, we just don’t have a lot of records from antebellum plantations. They were either destroyed in fires, destroyed when the plantations broke up, destroyed when the Civil War ravaged their communities. Any number of reasons why we don’t have those documents. We don’t have a lot of documents on on anything. But more to the point this was not the kind of thing that people would have made a big deal about. You know, of course, at the time it was important that people knew which slaves were skilled at distilling and making whiskey and other products but at the same time it wasn’t something that you touted. No one sold or talked about—this is a whiskey made by enslaved people. It wasn’t something that was promoted.

TWILLEY: So, with so few traces left in the written records…  what did Fawn end up being able to find out?


GRABER: It did take pretty much the whole town of Lynchburg, as we said. And from that effort, one of the first most important discoveries Fawn made is that the farm she bought, the farm that originally belonged to Dan Call, where Jack learned to make whiskey? It actually was the site of the original Jack Daniel’s distillery.

WEAVER: When Jack began his distillery, it was not in the current location.

TWILLEY: Even the Jack Daniel’s company didn’t realize this.

WEAVER: But that’s because the IRS redrew the lines and they didn’t have the documentation for earlier. Well, we dove in and we do. So once we acquired the farm—understand that the farm is where the original distillery number 7 was. It is where Nearest Green made the whiskey and it’s where he taught Jack. But it was also where Jack grew up. So in the farmhouse, in the home, as we began pulling wallpaper off of walls and pulling carpet up off of the floor and unveiling what it looked like when Jack was there, a part of the story was in those walls. A part of the story was in excavating.

GRABER: Fawn figured out the location of that very first distillery because part of the excavating had already been done.

WEAVER: And one of Jack’s descendants, we meet, and he brings over to the farm this—what I believe is the only known metal jug stencil that has survived that era. And it simply said “Jack Daniel,” no apostrophe, no s. And he brings it over and he says, this belongs to this house. And I said, what do you mean, it belongs to this home? And he says, for twenty years I’ve been out here with a metal detector. I come out. The owner would allow me to go. Every square inch of this 300 plus acres I have gone over with a metal detector and I have found a lot of things. And this was found nine inches underground from where the original distillery site was. And so that is what caused me to begin looking at, well, did Jack Daniels start down the road where everyone thinks it started or did it actually start on this property?

TWILLEY: And then Fawn gets a call from her team—remember, she’s roped in the whole town at this point.

WEAVER: And the local archives person, as I begin working with her, she starts going through all of the paperwork that they have, all the original books from the 19th century. And she calls me really excited one day and she says, Fawn, you have to get down here, you have to see this. So I run down to archives—well, I drove down but nonetheless—and I get down to archives and she shows me these three documents. And each of the documents had Jack Daniel’s signature on it. And it was him agreeing to lease the distillery on that property and the two acres around it and the spring and renaming the distillery Jack Daniel distillery.

TWILLEY: That was the proof Fawn was looking for. But it was more than just evidence of where Jack Daniel’s got started. Because Fawn had also proved that Nearest Green was the distiller on this property.

WEAVER: And so we then were able to start piecing together: well, if Jack Daniel distillery began on this property, that makes Nearest Green their first Master Distiller.

GRABER: This is a huge deal. Nearest wasn’t just Jack’s teacher—

WEAVER: What we uncovered is he was who we now know to be the first known African-American Master Distiller.

TWILLEY: This is Fawn’s biggest discovery. Clay didn’t know this, when he wrote his original article. The Jack Daniel’s company didn’t know this. It is, like Cynthia just said, a really big deal. It’s rewriting American whiskey history.

GRABER: And we’re going to get back to that, and the role of slaves in shaping what we know as American whiskey today. But first, Nearest Green. Who was he? As Fawn said, she couldn’t find ownership records of him, she couldn’t find letters about him. Fawn suspects that Dan Call rented him rather than owned him.

WEAVER: Number one: Dan Call had no slaves. You had to—for tax purposes—you had to pay taxes on your slaves. They were property. So he never lists ever having a slave. And so that was the first indication. The second indication is Nearest’s last name is Green. And the largest slave owner in that area was a man by the name of Townsend P. Green and his wife Mary A. Green. And by all accounts in the research, even though they never reported having a slave trading business for tax purposes, when I met with the conservator in Tennessee and we looked at all their business and how the slaves moved in and out, it seems as though they had a slave trading business that just they weren’t booking records for it. Let’s put it that way.

TWILLEY: And it would actually make a lot of sense that Dan Call would have rented Nearest rather than bought him. Dan needed a distiller. And a slave who was already a skilled distiller would have been very expensive to purchase.

WEAVER: Dan had to get out of the whiskey business very early. At 18 years old, he married a teetotaler. And he was a preacher. And to be on the property, it’s—at that time it was 338 acres. On the same property, you had his church on one side and you had his distillery on another side and then the triangle sort of met at his house. So he was able to be at his house and not see either the distillery or the church and so he kept these two separate worlds. But that didn’t work for his wife and it certainly didn’t work for the church. So he had to make a decision. Do you want to stay in the whiskey business or do you want to continue to be a preacher?

GRABER: Dan wanted to be a preacher, so he got out of the whiskey business.

WEAVER: But he wasn’t crazy enough to give up the income from the whiskey, so he allowed by all accounts the distillery to continue to be run by Nearest Green while he just sort of kept his hands clean.

TWILLEY: So that’s how Nearest came to be distilling on Dan Call’s farm. But as for where he came from before that—Fawn isn’t sure. She’s found some census records that seem to show that his parents came from Maryland, but that’s about it for his early life.

WEAVER: By all accounts, he could not read or write. Neither could his wife Harriet. And it isn’t until we get to his grandchildren that we begin seeing people that can read or write. They were very skilled at distilling but outside of that, no.

GRABER: But Fawn has managed to find out a fair amount about Nearest—from his descendants.

WEAVER: What we do know is what his children were like and what his grandchildren were like because we have pictures of all of them. And you have people still alive who knew them, who were raised by them. And so you get a really good picture of who Nearest was based on who his children were.

TWILLEY: One of the mysteries Fawn has been able to solve has to do with one of the very few photos that exists of Jack Daniel himself.

WEAVER: And so one of these two or three photos of him that he has in total, he’s sitting next to an African—well, technically he’s standing. You just can’t tell because he was only five foot two. Everyone else in the photo is sitting and Jack is actually standing. But you have Jack with the person to his right, an African-American, and no one knew who that African-American was. And as we dove in it was actually Nearest’s oldest living—or second-eldest living descendant—who was able to identify that as Nearest’s son, George, because he raised her.

TWILLEY: This photo—it’s kind of shocking for its time. To have a white man—a successful business owner—photographed side by side with a black man? Fawn has never seen anything like it. And so this one photo gives you a sense that there was something really unique about the position Nearest and his descendants occupied in the whiskey business and in the town.

GRABER: There are no photos of Nearest that Fawn has found. But, in addition to that photo of Nearest’s son, there are actually a lot of photos of many of his other descendants. And one thing that immediately jumps out in those photos is how successful Nearest must have been.

WEAVER: When you look at pictures of of Nearest’s children, pictures taken at the turn of the century, you’d have no idea they were the children of a slave. Zero clue. As a matter of fact, Jack Daniel’s historian and I were laughing not too long ago because when you look at the pictures of Jack’s family during that period of time and Nearest’s family during that period of time you would swear that Nearest’s family was the family with money. And Jack’s family was the family that were poor farmers. I mean, it just is a fascinating thing to look at. But Nearest’s entire family were elite society. They were—by all accounts, the wealth that Nearest acquired during his lifetime, immediately following the Civil War, he was the wealthiest African-American in the area, and he was wealthier than a lot of the whites in Lynchburg. And so that clearly passed down to his children because they owned a great deal of land, as did his grandchildren. And they had their own businesses. Many stayed in business with Jack Daniel. But many started their own and were successful and wealthy in their own right.

GRABER: So that’s what happened to his family, but what do we know about his relationship with Jack Daniel? Nearest taught Jack how to make whiskey. And then the Civil War ended in 1865. Slaves were emancipated that same year. Jack founded his distillery the next year—it was the very first registered distillery in the U.S. And he hired Nearest Green—who was now a free man—Jack hired Nearest to be his Master Distiller.

TWILLEY: And Nearest carried on working as Master Distiller for decades. So it was clearly a fruitful working partnership—but what was the actual relationship between the two men?

WEAVER: I have no doubt there was a mutual respect and a—and I know this because I have seen more documents that anyone needs to see in any lifetime to be convinced of something. But more so, it’s the way that their families continued to interact. And so there are enough of them that are still alive that I was able to piece that together. But I don’t believe it was just Nearest and Jack. I think that they may have been the catalyst for why an entire community was that way. But it was the whole town of Lynchburg. And of course you always have some knuckleheads, you always have some racists, but as a whole you had the blacks and the whites playing together, eating dinner together, spending time together and that was very very rare.

I remember speaking to one of the African-American elders in Lynchburg who was a teacher there for 40 years. So she was there during integration. And I said, what was it like for integration here? And her response startled me. She said it was a non-issue. Now I grew up having seen Brown versus Board of Education and them bringing in the National Guard and what happened and what that looked like, and I said, what do you mean it was a non-issue? I mean this town is called Lynchburg! And she says, it was a non-issue. I had black students and then I had black students and white students. And I said, well, I mean, how did the parents feel? How did the kids feel? And she said, well, we were all fine because the kids were already playing together before school, after school, and on the weekend. So as far as they were concerned they were now able to play together during school. And so that’s just not something you would expect from the South. Not at that period of time.

TWILLEY: Fawn uncovered all these details to help piece back together this forgotten story—the story of Nearest Green. But her point is, this story is bigger than one man—this is about a whole town. It’s also about the role of African Americans in the invention of American whiskey.


GRABER: Back to whiskey—how important were slaves in the whiskey making in America hundreds of years ago?

WEAVER: They played the biggest role. Outside of the Scots and the Irish bringing it in. And there’s some influences of the French and the English. But the Scots and the Irish are who brought it into America, but they weren’t doing the work. Why would you? You spend eight hundred dollars for a person for a lifetime to do the work for you. And that’s what they did.

RISEN: We know that enslaved people did a lot of work on farms obviously and did a lot of the dangerous work. Also a lot of the skilled work. And so it stands to reason that you would have certain people of that group selected out, trained, experienced as distillers. Nearest Green being, I think, even now the only one that we know by name.

GRABER: Clay has done a lot of whiskey research for his books and his articles, and he’s dug into what archival evidence still exists about the role of slaves in distilling in pre-Civil War America.

RISEN: The little bit of archival work I did turned up all kinds of examples of—you know, anecdotal—of trade: slaves being traded or sold or escaped runaway slaves being sought after specifically for their distilling skills. There is an ad that appeared in a newspaper in Lexington, Kentucky, in, I want to say, the 1820,s that was taken out by Andrew Jackson. And a slave had runaway from his plantation, the Hermitage, which is outside Nashville. And the first thing he said about him was this was one of my best distillers. And he was taking out an ad all the way in Lexington, which was even further away then than it is today. But it was so important to him to get this person back. And so the more you sort of scratch the surface the more you see, yes, actually, there really is this whole other story to tell and it’s just not being told. Although I think the opportunity around Nearest Green really opens the door to a reckoning with that past.

GRABER: So obviously slaves did play a major role in making whiskey in pre-Civil War America. But that leads to a bigger question: what type of influence might they have had on how that whiskey turned out, what it tasted like?

RISEN: One of the things that is interesting about American distilling is that like a lot of other things, like a lot of other American traditions, it’s an amalgamation of different, in this case, primarily European traditions but German, Irish, Scotch or Scottish. All these different traditions that come together—French—each with their own sort of distinct addition. But there are also a lot of X-factors.

TWILLEY: And one of those X-factors would have been the distilling traditions the enslaved people brought with them from Africa.

RISEN: A number of enslaved people would illicitly distill. They would have their own stills back in their part of a plantation and that was, depending on the slave owner, depending on the time, accepted or tolerated often as just a way of allowing people to sort of let off steam. So it’s certainly the fact—it’s certainly true that there was a a culture and a tradition of alcohol making, whether it’s brewing or distilling, that an enslaved person would have brought to an endeavor like what became the Jack Daniel’s distillery.

GRABER: So one of the things that made Tennessee and Kentucky whiskey unusual is that at the time, very early on in American whiskey-making history, distillers there used a technique called charcoal filtering.

TWILLEY: Just like the old, false origin story of Jack Daniel’s, which had a young Jack learning to distill from a white man—Dan Call, this charcoal filtering technique had an origin story that wasn’t exactly true either.

RISEN: Well the way that the story goes is that there was one plantation owner who developed it in the curiously specific year of I believe 1826. And there’s really no strong—I’d say not even any weak—archival support for that claim. It’s just been sort of the story that everyone has always told.

GRABER: But Clay says that actually many people were using this charcoal filtering technique before 1826 in many different places.

RISEN: Which lends itself to the idea that maybe this came from enslaved people who were bringing over a tradition of their own from West Africa, where it’s known that charcoal played an important role in cooking and in filtering liquids.

TWILLEY: Using charcoal filtering in whiskey making is called the Lincoln County process.

RISEN: So the basic point of the Lincoln County process is simply to filter the whiskey through charcoal, ostensibly as a way of removing impurities. Now you don’t need a whole lot of charcoal to do that. So what you have with the Lincoln County process so to speak is more charcoal than you need simply to filter. Jack Daniels filters theirs through the top of what’s essentially a giant vat filled with charcoal. And the whiskey then seeps down to the bottom and when it comes out that has essentially gone through the Lincoln County process.

GRABER: And this extended charcoal filtering changes the flavor of the whiskey. It strips out some flavor elements and makes it a little sweeter.

WEAVER: And so that was the process that Nearest was doing differently. It is the process that he taught Jack. And it is the process that is now known to be what we call Tennessee whiskey.

TWILLEY: We may never know exactly where the idea to charcoal filter raw whiskey came from, but both Clay and Fawn agree that it is likely it came from enslaved Africans.

WEAVER: If this process came from the slaves then truly the difference between bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey is authentically African-American and I think that’s incredibly exciting. So we’re still digging into that.

TWILLEY: Okay—so Fawn has done all this research. She’s discovered the original location of Jack Daniel’s distillery. More importantly, she’s discovered Nearest Green was the first Master Distiller of the first registered distillery in the US—and, thus also the first African American Master Distiller in the US. But there are still things she wants to figure out about Nearest Green.

WEAVER: One, I want to find his tombstone. So the original records of the cemetery where we believe he was buried were lost. And so everyone who was there—that was buried there prior to the 1900s—isn’t there anymore. I’d love to know did he pass away or did he simply retire? Is that why I lose him in 1884? There are a lot of questions I have that I still don’t have the answer to. And when you’re piecing together a story that is this important, I don’t think you stop looking for it until you have all the answers. Most of the answers we do have at this point. But there are still holes and I’d like to have those filled.

GRABER: But it’s obvious that, despite those holes, Fawn has found out a lot about Nearest, and about Jack Daniel’s. And the Jack Daniel’s company has now changed their own story, and the tours they give at the distillery in Lynchburg. Thanks to Fawn.

WEAVER: And when you go into Jack Daniel distillery, there is a really large display. I think they did—their designers did a great job. And they borrowed a lot of stuff from my research room. And so now when you go in and you—I was there not too long ago and I took some folks over to go for a tour. And I had to smile because when you buy tickets now they tell you, okay, go stand over in the area with Nearest Green. So people are looking around, going oh, and there’s this huge display that’s to Nearest Green. And so it is—I think it’s great that he is being honored there, at their distillery.

TWILLEY: But—Fawn’s not just relying on Jack Daniel’s to keep Nearest’s story alive. After all, that didn’t work out so well before. So, she’s writing a book. She’s working on a movie. And, of course, she’s making a whiskey.

WEAVER: Yeah. Well, Uncle Nearest premium whiskey was started ironically not at the suggestion of myself or anyone around me but at the suggestion of one of Jack’s descendants. And she had been the head of whiskey operations at Jack Daniel for 31 years. That’s all she’s ever known. She’ll tell you now, whiskey is in my blood. It’s what my family has done. And while we were doing the research on this she says, if you guys decide that you want to do a bottle to honor Nearest, I will come out of retirement and we will do it right. And once Nearest’s family said that’s what they wanted for his legacy, that’s what we did. And it’s easily the fastest growing whiskey—non-celebrity whiskey brand—possibly in American history. We shall see. But that’s what we’re tracking.

TWILLEY: Because of how long whiskey takes to age, Fawn is starting out by buying and blending someone else’s aged whiskey, while hers is still sitting in barrels. Clay’s tried these early bottles.

RISEN: Yeah, I think it’s good. It’s a really nice balanced whiskey. More to the point though, I’m really excited to see what she will come up with—what that whiskey will taste like when it actually comes out of the Nearest Green stills.

GRABER: Fawn doesn’t yet have any of Nearest’s family members helping make Uncle Nearest whiskey, but she’s working on it

WEAVER: I’m trying to coerce some of them to get into the whiskey business. I think I’m going to succeed in it. But their family as a whole has been out of it for so long, and so coming back into it. But in terms of their family involvement every aspect of what we do every single day involves them. We do not go out and and do anything they haven’t seen ahead of time. Everyone of Nearest’s descendants that is in college whether it’s for their Bachelor’s or the Master’s, we pay for that. And so we have an entire generation of Nearest’s family that we’ve taken under our wings. So hopefully some of them coming out with their Bachelor’s and Master’s will decide to be the next Master Distiller. But so far none of them has said yes.

TWILLEY: This struggle to recruit Nearest’s family—Fawn’s laughing and it is funny—funny haha, but also funny curious. The fact of Nearest being an African American Master Distiller— it’s not just that he was the first. It’s that he was pretty much also the last. He was incredibly unusual.

WEAVER: The irony is is with Uncle Nearest, with our whiskey, I’ve been looking for a Master Distiller who’s not white and who’s not male and you would not believe how difficult that is to find. And we literally have not seen an African-American Master Distiller before or after Nearest. Which I think is insane. And so to any African-Americans out there, maybe you might want to go to school, learn fermentation, a little bit of chemical background. It is a good idea. But we’ve not seen anyone outside of Nearest. I think that’s a part of why this is such a big story and why it’s such a big deal is you have an entire industry where he is the only person we’ve ever seen to run a major distillery in America.

GRABER: Fawn hopes this story will convince other African Americans to become Master Distillers. And Clay hopes it’ll prod other people to dig into history, like Fawn did, to find other stories, stories like Nearest’s.

RISEN: Where is that story in general in American whiskey? Where there is evidence that exists, it’s still at a local level. I think someone with an enterprising mind or the time to do it would would do well to dig into local—state and local archives to find places where these kinds of records still exist. They’ve just never been examined.

TWILLEY: Listeners, if you’re looking for a research topic, be our guest—you can thank us in the acknowledgments.

GRABER: There may be and likely are other stories, but these two men, they’re really special.

RISEN: These men came of age at a turning point in American history, of course, but also in whiskey history.

GRABER: They met when slavery was legal, they started a business after slaves became freed. This is also the beginning of more significant commercialization of whiskey, the first days of building a whiskey brand in America, instead of just making some liquor you might give or sell to your neighbors.

TWILLEY: Fawn is determined that Nearest Green’s part in the story of America’s first whiskey will never be forgotten again. That’s what her book is for, that’s what the movie is for, that’s why she’s building a whiskey brand. To make sure Nearest doesn’t get written out of the picture ever again.

GRABER: For Clay, this story is about more than just whiskey. It’s forced him to look back at his own upbringing.

RISEN: And, you know, it’s interesting. It’s not just the Nearest Green question. I think that having grown up in Tennessee, someone of my age in particular, you’re sort of taught, or you were taught not to think about certain questions. And so and I’m—you know, it’s just the way it is. And so I think it’s the kind of thing that someone, maybe an eagle-eyed outsider observer might come in and say: So this company is 150 years old. What’s—where are the enslaved people? Right? But it’s not something that—I mean, it took this story to really make me realize that it’s part of that rethinking of my own past.

TWILLEY: But again, this story is bigger than Fawn, or Clay, or even Nearest himself.

GRABER: This year, 2019, it marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the first slave who was brought to what was then the colonies. Four hundred years. There has never been a brand on a shelf ever that commemorated an African-American.

WEAVER: And that to me is remarkable and sad. And to have had the ability to change that is huge. And to know that moving forward there will at least always be one brand on the shelves that commemorates an African-American and the amount of work that we put in, our ancestors put in in the shadows—to bring that to the light is amazing.

TWILLEY: Huge thanks this episode to Fawn Weaver and to Clay Risen. We’ve got links at so you can can find more about Uncle Nearest whiskey as well as Clay’s articles and books.

GRABER: And we’ll be back in couple of weeks with a brand new episode. What should you eat to power your workout and your recovery?

TWILLEY: We live in a world full of Gatorade and Muscle Milk, but what does the science say? And who even invented these curious beverages.

TRANSCRIPT Dirty Tricks and Data: The Great Soda Wars, Part 2

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Dirty Tricks and Data: The Great Soda Wars, Part 2, first released on December 18, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

TAX PROPONENT: Got the measure passed! Not only passed, but with 75 percent of the voters. Yes!

TAX OPPONENT: I think it’s absolutely outrageous. It’s not going to change anybody’s drinking or eating habits. If anything, I know me personally, I’m going to stock up on all my sugary drinks before January 1.

NEWSCASTER: The measure won by a wide margin. It requires distributors of soft drinks and other sugary beverages to pay a tax of one cent per ounce.

TAX PROPONENT: Also, I feel that this is going to have an incredible statewide, first, and then definitely national impact

TWILLEY: This, dear listeners, is where we left you last episode. In the city of Berkeley, California—which is the city where Cynthia and I first met!

GRABER: Ah, the memories. But today, we’re not going to stroll down that particular memory lane. We’re going to stick to the soda lane today.

TWILLEY: So: we’re in 2014. Berkeley has passed the nation’s very first modern soda tax. Some people are already planning to hoard the sugary stuff. And others are saying this is the start of a wave.

GRABER: So, was it? Did other cities, even countries, catch that wave? This is part two of The Great Soda Wars. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber.

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode, we’re going to get to the bottom of the real question: Do these soda taxes work? But also what does “work” even mean, in this context?

GRABER: And why did the soda industry take the entire state of California hostage last summer? What was going on?

TWILLEY: Not to mention their dirty tricks campaign in Colombia.

GRABER: We are actually going to mention that, Nicky—thanks for bringing it up.

TWILLEY: My pleasure. Finally, are soda taxes the best bang for the buck? Are *they* the best way to cut sugar consumption and all its related health impacts?

GRABER: All that and more.


BARRY POPKIN: Well, we actually began in Mexico around 13 or 14 years ago.

GRABER: Barry Popkin is an economist and nutritionist at UNC Chapel Hill. But his work actually extends around the world. He consults with countries—such as Mexico—about policies that can help improve public health, policies like soda taxes.

TWILLEY: As we just said, in the U.S., the first soda tax to pass in modern times was in Berkeley, in 2014. But in fact, an entire country had passed a soda tax just before that, in 2013. Mexico.

GRABER: Countries other than Mexico have had soda taxes here and there.

TWILLEY: Most of them were small taxes, passed for revenue reasons rather than health. But some of the Pacific Islands—Nauru and French Polynesia—they had passed soda taxes to try to reduce consumption back in the 2000s.

GRABER: But the reason we’re going to focus on Mexico is, well, first, because they’re our neighbors. And they’re a larger country than the Polynesian islands. But also because Mexico was dealing with a serious health crisis. People had been gaining a lot of weight.

TWILLEY: When Mexico joined the North American Free Trade Association—NAFTA—in the 1980s, soda flooded across the borders. And obesity has tripled since then.

GRABER: The Mexican government was in a panic. Diabetes was becoming a national threat. The World Health Organization reported that diabetes had become the number one cause of death in the country.

TWILLEY: So the Mexicans called Barry.

GRABER: It was tough—the Mexican government, working with Barry, they had to get everyone on board, and they had to do it while combating the efforts of the soda industry. But they succeeded. Mexico got a tax, roughly a ten percent soda tax.

TWILLEY: That was smaller than Barry had hoped but it was still significant, particularly in a middle income country.

GRABER: Barry wanted to see a bigger tax passed, because he thought it’d have a bigger impact. And that was what was about to happen in Philadelphia.


NEWSCASTER: And with that, Philadelphia became the first major city to have such a tax.

TWILLEY: That’s right—on their third try, Philly became the largest city in the U.S. to have a soda tax.

NEWSCASTER: Mayor Kenney says the 1.5 cent per ounce beverage tax will generate $386 million over 5 years.

GRABER: This 1.5 cent per ounce tax was the highest in the U.S. to date, and it went into effect at the beginning of 2017. That might not sound like a lot, but here’s how it works. Because it’s a per ounce tax, a 16-ounce plastic bottle will only cost you an extra quarter, no big deal. But a two-liter bottle? That’d cost another full dollar.

SARA BLEICH: So one thing that happened early on in terms of industry effort is Pepsi decided that they wouldn’t sell anything larger than a 1 liter bottle within the city of Philadelphia.

TWILLEY: Sara Bleich is a public health researcher at Harvard.

GRABER: And what’s interesting about this move from Pepsi is it’s a cool side effect from the tax—it also ends up being sort of a portion cap, like what Mike Bloomberg wanted to get passed in New York.

TWILLEY: So this is all a big success! But for public health advocates, it has been an uphill struggle—for every place where a soda tax has passed, it seems as though there’s at least one that’s failed or been repealed, like in Chicago. But there is progress.

POPKIN: We now have 39 countries with sugary beverage taxes, along with cities and counties in the U.S.

GRABER: So now, we have all these soda taxes. Mexico’s and Berkeley’s have been around for a few years, Philly’s been in place for coming up on two years. So it’s time to take a look at all those dire warnings you heard last episode.

TWILLEY: All the terrible things that the industry and people opposed to the taxes predicted would happen. Remember?

SPENCER MICHAELS (PBS NEWSCAST): In a statement provided to The News Hour the beverage association called the proposed Richmond tax regressive and added it disproportionately hurts the most, those who can least afford it.

GRABER: Spencer Michaels reported on soda taxes for News Hour a few years ago, and he heard all the complaints.

MICHAELS (NEWSCAST): People don’t support soda taxes, don’t believe they’ll reduce obesity, and don’t trust these taxes will go to pay for childhood obesity programs.

MOHAMMED EL ZULFRI (NEWSCAST): This will just hurt the poor people and hurt the business owners like myself.

CORKY BOOZE (NEWSCAST): It’s unfair to people who are basically don’t have the means of getting out of their neighborhood store to go into the neighboring communities to be able to avoid that tax.

TAX OPPONENT (NEWSCAST): If the cost is absorbed by the distributors that ends up doing nothing to deter people using these products as the proponents would claim. And therefore what’s the point of them even passing this kind of law?

TWILLEY: Whew. A lot of doom and gloom, some of it contradictory—like, if it isn’t going to work then it can’t really be unfair. So it seems like we need to break this down a little. Did the bad things happen? Did any good things happen? Do we even know?

GRABER: Well, scientists are starting to study it. It’s early days, there’s a few years of data in a few places.

KELLY BROWNELL: So it shouldn’t be too long until we have a very robust set of studies that will show what the impact of taxes will be. But the results so far look pretty good.

TWILLEY: This is Kelly Brownell, director of the World Food Policy Center at Duke University. He’s one of the scientists analyzing all the data now that these taxes exist in the real world.

GRABER: So now we’re going to go through this, argument by argument, and let the scientists say what they’ve been learning. Argument number one: People will drink just as much soda as they did before the tax, so there’s no point in a soda tax.

BLEICH: And so, you know, why put this tax in place that’s going to have no effect on people’s behavior? But there’s a lot of empirical evidence—from Berkeley, coming out in Philadelphia—that taxes do work and that they are having the desired effect, which is trying to get people to purchase fewer sugary beverages with the end goal of reducing obesity risk.

BROWNELL: Now in Mexico we and others were a little worried that the size of the tax was too small to affect consumption. So we were worried there wouldn’t be any change or it would be so small nobody would care about it. But in fact the change in soda consumption was greater than expected and people seemed to switch primarily to water.

BLEICH: What Mexico found is that after about two years that they think the decline was about 10 or 11 percent with higher declines among vulnerable populations.

TWILLEY: And it’s not just Berkeley and Mexico. Everywhere there is a soda tax, scientists have seen drops in soda consumption. In Philly, the results were dramatic—a 57 percent drop in soda purchases. And like Kelly said, people seem to be substituting water for that soda, rather than, I don’t know, beer or pumpkin spice lattes.

GRABER: Okay, so, great, it looks like people have cut a lot of sweetened drinks, especially in Philly. But maybe everyone’s just buying their sodas across the border, outside the city limits? Sara says that’s what everyone predicted, that people would just drive somewhere that doesn’t have a tax to get their soda fix.

BLEICH: What we’re seeing preliminarily in Philadelphia is that it exists but it’s not huge.

TWILLEY: Researchers call this kind of tax avoidance leakage, which is an unfortunate term. And leakage is an issue with cigarettes. But not so much with the sodas.

POPKIN: In general, these are very large volume products. We don’t see so much smuggling and leakage like we were with cigarettes, where smuggling is a big problem from area to area and country to country across the globe.

GRABER: Yeah, people aren’t lugging many two-liter bottles across city lines. But then what the argument about jobs?

BLEICH: So one of the biggest ones is it’s going to put stores out of business and because it puts stores out of business employees will lose their jobs. That does not seem to have borne out in Berkeley or Philadelphia, although the data is still coming on those.

TWILLEY: Same in Mexico—Barry says that from the data so far, it hasn’t been an issue.

POPKIN: We saw no changes in overall employment. We saw no changes in what happened in the retail sector. It’s just people shifted to other products. And so—and they were healthy products in the case of Mexico.

GRABER: Sara says there’s one industry-funded study that did show that there were, like, a thousand jobs lost in Philadelphia.

BLEICH: But they essentially took all the jobs that were no longer happening because beverage taxes have been put in place and just threw them out. as opposed to re-purposing them. Maybe someone moves from a bottler to retail or maybe someone moves from a store to a clothing store. But they’ve sort of pulled them out of the model and as if to say they no longer existed.

TWILLEY: Once again, the moral is: industry-funded studies tend to find results that support industry arguments

GRABER: So the hit to retail and jobs—it’s a tricky one to measure, but so far the evidence is that, nope, business is not really taking a hit. But now onto the really important question. Do soda taxes make a difference for people’s health?

TWILLEY: This is what I want to know: this is what the question of whether a soda tax actually works means to me. Do soda taxes reduce obesity?

POPKIN: You can’t expect to see an immediate change in overweight and obesity.

GRABER: This is actually obvious if you think about it—it’s not like you put the tax in place, people drink less soda, and the pounds immediately fall off. Scientists have to model the impacts, they have to project it into the future on maybe a ten-year time scale. They can’t see it happening now, these impacts take a while to play out.

TWILLEY: But even then, the projections—they’re not actually predicting a big drop in obesity from the taxes.

POPKIN: We expect to see a shift to less BMI at each point in the population distribution.

GRABER: This sounds a little complicated, but what it means is that, on a population level, everyone will lose just a little bit of weight. Overall, Barry and his colleagues say that translates to obesity dropping maybe one percent.

TWILLEY: That seems tiny. Like, why bother?

GRABER: Well, they say that what seem like small changes in BMI and small reductions in obesity, they’ll still have a really important health impact in the future.

TWILLEY: After all, if you’re obese and you drink less soda because of a tax, your BMI will likely shift downwards and your health will likely improve, but you might still be classified as obese. So that doesn’t register as a reduction in obesity, but it’s still a win from a health point of view.

GRABER: In fact, when researchers projected what kinds of health effects they should see over the next decade, they say tax will prevent hundreds of thousands of cases of diabetes, tens of thousands of strokes and deaths. They also predicted that it would save Mexico nearly a billion dollars in health care costs. In just ten years. Again—small shifts, big results overall.

TWILLEY: But the real health benefit—it’s preventing future cases of obesity, especially in kids. That’s where these taxes will have their biggest effect. Steve Gortmaker is at Harvard, where he specializes in modeling the impacts of soda taxes. And of all the health benefits, he’s most excited about prevention.

GORTMAKER: Children aren’t born with obesity, they develop it over their early life and childhood and adolescence. And our feeling is that if you really want to make a dent in the future, you’ve got to begin young, every single year. There’s nothing magical about any particular year. You just got to slow that rise every single year. Once adults have obesity, it’s very hard to turn around. It’s not that it’s impossible. And some people really are successful at turning that around. But we just would like to see a more of a preventive focus.

GRABER: And this is the real point of soda taxes. Preventing future cases of obesity.

TWILLEY: Reducing obesity in the future is obviously good—but what about the argument that these taxes are a regressive way to achieve that goal? This is the argument that soda taxes hurt the poor the most, and that’s unfair, because the poor aren’t responsible for the inequalities and failures in our society that underlie obesity. So why should they be punished with a tax?

GRABER: In Mexico, the people who drink the most soda are among the poorest. And while overall, Mexicans reduced soda consumption by about ten percent, the poor reduced their consumption by nearly twice that.

BLEICH: It looks like where it’s having the biggest effect is among low-income populations. It’s the same story in Berkeley where researchers out there looked at consumption pre-/post- tax and found larger drops among low income populations.

TWILLEY: And those larger drops in consumption, they translate into larger health benefits. So, in that sense, these soda taxes are actually quite progressive—the poor are getting the biggest health benefits. And, according to Steve Gortmaker’s modeling, soda taxes are also not hurting the poor financially—because they’re reducing consumption rather than paying the tax.

GORTMAKER: With a tax they’ll tend to spend less of their money on the beverage after the tax. I mean, even taking into account the tax.

TWILLEY: Well okay. Based on the data so far, the case seems closed. We should just implement these soda taxes everywhere. Why haven’t we already?

GRABER: Well, as we’ve mentioned, the soda industry isn’t really excited about all these taxes. Especially because they do seem to work and people drink less soda after the taxes kick into gear.

TWILLEY: They’re fighting to stop the spread of soda taxes, and we’re going to tell you about some of their dirtiest tricks in that fight next.


GRABER: So, again, the soda industry has fought tooth and nail to keep soda taxes off the law books. In the eight years after Kelly Brownell’s anti-soda-tax op-ed, the soda industry spent more than a hundred million dollars just in the U.S. to oppose these taxes.

TWILLEY: But here’s the thing. Soda sales have actually been going down in the U.S. for a while.

GRABER: And, as you probably know, rates of obesity have still been increasing in the U.S.

TWILLEY: The soda industry actually uses this as an argument. Look, they say. It can’t be our fault that everyone is obese, because even when Americans are drinking a little less soda, they’re still getting fatter.

GRABER: It’s true, and it’s true that soda isn’t the only reason for the growth of obesity in the U.S. and elsewhere. But it’s also true that when people who drink a lot of soda cut out that soda, on an individual level and on a population level, they do lose weight. And soda taxes have been proven to help with this.

TWILLEY: So that particular industry argument is also spurious. But the point is, because of that dip in sales here in the US, Coke and Pepsi have been making up for that by boosting their sales overseas, particularly in lower-income countries.

GRABER: According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Latin America is now the largest market for soda companies in the world in terms of the value of the sales. The companies have really been focusing their advertising efforts there.

TWILLEY: And if you think they’ve been fighting soda taxes hard in the U.S.—well, you haven’t seen what they’ve been doing in the rest of the world.

ESPERANZA CERÓN (TRANSLATED FROM SPANISH): My name is Esperanza Cerón. I’m a doctor and I’m currently in charge of an organization called Educar Consumidores, Educate Consumers.

GRABER: Esperanza lives in Bogota, in Colombia. And that is where we are going now for the next battle in the soda wars. Esperanza was involved in a campaign to get a fairly sizeable soda tax implemented in Colombia. The tax was proposed in March of 2016.

TWILLEY: And Esperanza’s nonprofit—they work on campaigns for all kinds of human and environmental health issues, and they put out a TV ad in support of the soda tax.

GRABER: It’s pretty eye-catching. It talks about the rise of obesity and diabetes in Colombia and how sugary beverages contribute to these problems, and why the tax is so important. There’s a graphic moment with an infected foot—this kind of nerve damage can be a consequence of diabetes.


TWILLEY: But the TV channels didn’t play their catchy ad. And they weren’t playing it because the Colombian government ordered it off the air. And the government did that because the soda industry told them to.

CERÓN (TRANSLATED FROM SPANISH): Overnight, the National Authority made us retire that commercial from all television channels, arguing that it was deceitful publicity.

GRABER: Not only did the government force the ad off the air, but Esperanza and her colleagues were legally forbidden from publicly talking about the health risks from soda, and sugar. If they did, they would be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars.

TWILLEY: But industry still wasn’t done. After all, even though Esperanza had been silenced and the ad was censored, the bill introducing a soda tax—that was still under consideration.

GRABER: Enter the lobbyists.

CERÓN (TRANSLATED FROM SPANISH): In Congress, industry had posted one hundred and five lobbyists, not only offering arguments but also resources for the campaigns for the next election. Our team was made up of only five people, competing with 105 lobbyists from the beverage industry.

GRABER: Those lobbyists were quite friendly with the Colombian lawmakers. Apparently they sat right next to them during the committee hearings about the tax. Which is against Colombia’s rules for committee hearings.

TWILLEY: Meanwhile, Esperanza’s nonprofit was still working behind the scenes—they couldn’t talk publicly, thanks to the soda industry, but they were still active. And the soda industry didn’t like that.

CERÓN (TRANSLATED FROM SPANISH): When we were close to the bill’s approval, in the last two months, we began to see people around our office, taking pictures. Our computers and email accounts were hacked. Our mobile phones were hacked. And between October and November, I received a number of threatening calls, demanding I stay silent. First these were just phone threats. And then it happened in the street, while I was walking, someone going by in sports clothing pushed me and told me I should stay silent or face the consequences. And there were two times that people on motorcycles approached me when I was in my car, and they knocked hard on my windows, on both sides, saying the same thing — rudely telling me that I should stay silent. It was really terrifying.

GRABER: Esperanza went to the police, and they suggested some things she could do to protect herself, but they didn’t pursue the case themselves.

CERÓN (TRANSLATED FROM SPANISH): We cannot prove, we cannot say for sure that it was the soda industry. But it was the only thing that I was doing that year, that we were doing that year. I was exclusively talking about the soda tax that entire year, and the damage that sugar and soda can cause to our health. There was no other thing I was talking about publicly.

TWILLEY: The New York Times published an article about Esperanza’s experience fighting for a soda tax in Colombia. They reached out to the soda companies, which said they were not involved in the attacks and harassment. And the Colombian authorities declined to comment.

GRABER: But even after ordering the ad off the air and silencing Esperanza and here colleagues and even with all the cozy lobbying, the soda tax had gotten a lot of support and it looked like it was going to pass. But—last minute—almost the last day of the year on December 30th, 2016, congressional opponents of the tax stuck that tax in with a big bill that was certain to get voted down. And it did. No tax.

TWILLEY: A couple of months later, a court overturned the ban on Esperanza’s nonprofit talking about the health effects of sugar and soda. So, although, she lost the tax battle, she’s still fighting.

CERÓN (TRANSLATED FROM SPANISH): We cannot stop, because, look, we lost in Congress, but we won in civil society. Wherever we go, people are more aware, or are becoming more aware, of the negative health effects from these products. And this is something entirely new in Colombia, it was never discussed before we started our campaign. So this is an enormous gain for civil society.

GRABER: Lest you think this is just a story about underhanded tactics in a country fairly far away and one that doesn’t have as strong a civil society as we do here in the U.S., we have another story for you.

TWILLEY: From my home state of California.

NEWSCASTER: A stunning power play at the state capitol—lawmakers caved to big soda with a special deal that bans future taxes on sugary drinks. You could call it a kind of a soda shakedown.

BLEICH: So in California essentially the way that it’s often described in the press is that the legislature and the governor were essentially held hostage.

GRABER: Let’s talk about California. California is the home of a lot of progressive initiatives at the city and state level. And soda taxes were going pretty well at the city level.

TWILLEY: As you’ll recall, the very first modern soda tax in the United States was passed in Berkeley, California.

GRABER: And then other Bay Area cities followed—San Francisco, Oakland, Albany. And yet other cities had a soda tax on the ballot, like the state capitol of Sacramento.

TWILLEY: California had more soda taxes than any other state already, and the trend seemed to be catching—cities all across the state were joining the soda tax fun. But the soda companies were not going to let this happen without a fight.

GRABER: They spent millions of dollars to get an initiative on a statewide ballot. It’s something anyone can do in California, if you have a spare seven million dollars lying around to spend on getting hundreds of thousands of Californians to sign a petition. And this was what their initiative said: local communities will not be able to raise any new taxes without getting the approval of two-thirds of the voters or elected officials, instead of a simple majority. State Senator Scott Weiner and Assemblyman David Chiu were interviewed by the local CBS station.

SCOTT WEINER (NEWSCAST): This measure would have required every tax to be a two thirds vote. No matter what.

DAVID CHIU (NEWSCAST): Which could literally jeopardize billions of dollars of city and state services around California.

TWILLEY: Every new tax. That means new taxes to pay for police or firefighters or transit or parks or homeless shelters or schools or any of the kinds of things that we frequently get asked to vote for tax increases on here in California. Side note, voting in California takes a couple hours, no joke—we vote on everything. This year we had to vote on whether dialysis center workers had the right to unionize and whether EMTs should be forced to respond when they’re off duty.

GRABER: It is really hard for voters to be totally up to date on what all these initiatives might actually mean in reality. So maybe a lot of people would have thought, hey, why not get a two-thirds majority for any new taxes, and they wouldn’t have thought about how hard it would make it to raise money for all the government services they need and use regularly.

TWILLEY: So the soda industry gets this on the ballot. Every government official in California has a heart attack. Then the soda peeps send a nice letter to the California legislature saying, hey, we’ll take this off the ballot—if you pass a statewide ban on any new city-level soda taxes for the next 12 years.

SCOTT WIENER (NEWSCAST): This industry is aiming basically a nuclear weapon at government in California and saying if you don’t do what we want we’re going to pull the trigger and you are not going to be able to fund basic government services.

DAVID CHIU (NEWSCAST): This was a tactic of political extortion.

NEWSCASTER: In his signing message, the governor called the ballot initiative an abomination and wrote that he was only signing the law because it was in the public interest.

GRABER: It does frankly seem a lot like blackmail.

BLEICH: I mean, essentially, I think that is what happened. I mean if you if you ask the legislators did they want to make that choice? It doesn’t sound like they do. But it also doesn’t sound like they had much of a choice in the process. So I think it was a very—I mean, it was checkmate. It was a very effective strategy by the American Beverage Association.

TWILLEY: Straight away, places like Sacramento that were working toward getting a soda tax passed—they stopped. So it was a huge win for the soda industry.

BLEICH: And the fear from the public health perspective is that we’re going to see more state preemption.

GRABER: And, actually, that’s just what happened. Washington State voted to ban any future city-wide soda taxes, also this year. As Sara said, this tactic is called preemption. They’re preempting future local taxes.

TWILLEY: And preemption has actually been a tactic in the soda industry playbook for a little while now. Since 2008, 14 states have passed laws preempting local food and nutrition policies. And on top of that, 26 states have passed something called a Commonsense Consumption Act, which bans any future lawsuits against the food industry for obesity related claims.

GRABER: This is unbelievable. And shockingly underhanded.

TWILLEY: I mean could there be a more clear admission of guilt from the soda companies, just purely by how hard they’re fighting and how low they’re going.

GRABER: What’s even more interesting is that the soda industry is not inventing these tactics itself—the marketing, the lobbying, the pre-emption, supporting scientific research that muddies the issue—even the intimidation. They are taking these strategies straight from Big Tobacco’s playbook.

TWILLEY: We actually interviewed Cristin Kearns about this—she’s the founder of a new archive of internal food industry documents at UC San Francisco. We talked to her about how you can use these documents to trace direct lines between the two industries and how they fight regulation.

CRISTIN KEARNS: And I think that public health, the public health community who is out there trying to implement policies and programs to reduce sugar consumption, they need to know what they’re up against.

GRABER: But we’ve had to save the rest of Cristin’s story about her discovery of hidden food company documents, and how they’re tied directly to big tobacco—because otherwise this episode would last forever. So, we’ll tell that story in our special supporters email.

TWILLEY: We’re saving Cristin’s story because we want to get to our next question, which is: are soda taxes the most effective tool we have to cut sugar consumption and improve public health?


GRABER: So for nearly two entire episodes, we’ve been talking exclusively about soda taxes. They’re great. They work—they cut sugar consumption, they help reduce obesity and diabetes. Wonderful.

TWILLEY: But, of course, just cutting soda consumption using soda taxes—that’s not the only way to achieve these end goals. In my home country, the UK, there’s been a slightly different approach.

BRIGGS: So back in 2016 our Chancellor of the Exchequer, so our finance minister, in effect announced that he would introduce a tiered sugar sweetened beverages tax. So that meant that there are different levels of taxation based on how much sugar was in the drink.

GRABER: Adam Briggs is a doctor who studies public health at Oxford University.

TWILLEY: So you might be thinking, well, what’s so different here. It’s a tax. You’ve told us about taxes.

GRABER: So the way the British tax works is that if your drink has a lot of sugar, it’s taxed at a high level. If it has somewhat less, it’s taxed at a medium level, and if there’s only a little bit of sugar, it’s taxed at a low level. There are three different levels of taxes.

BRIGGS: And the interesting thing about the tax system that he announced was that it would be introduced after a two year lead-in period. And he said the explicit intention of that was to allow industry to reformulate product or change their products such that they can reduce their potential tax liability.

TWILLEY: And the idea of having these three tiers and the two year run up to the tax—it wasn’t just to make life more complicated. Like Adam said, the whole thing was explicitly designed to encourage beverage companies to take that two years and figure out how to reduce the amount of sugar in their products so they wouldn’t get taxed at the high level.

GRABER: Okay. So we were wondering—is there any data showing that this approach would work?

BRIGGS: Well, we don’t really have any. Which is why it’s interesting.

TWILLEY: Yep, the UK is the guinea pig in this example.

GRABER: Nobody else in the world has ever done it before.

TWILLEY: So when the Chancellor of Exchequer announced this in 2016, Adam and his colleagues were intrigued. They wondered how the soda industry would actually respond. They figured there were three things that could happen: soda companies could just opt to sell smaller containers of drinks—so there’d be less sugar in each container, so it would get taxed less.

GRABER: The second option they modeled in their study? The companies wouldn’t do anything. They’d get taxed, and they’d raise the price of their drinks accordingly. It’d be like a regular soda tax.

TWILLEY: Scenario number three was what the Chancellor said he wanted to happen, which is reformulation. Meaning that the soda companies would reduce the sugar in their products to go down to a lower level of tax.

BRIGGS: Of our three categories of scenario that we modeled, we found that this reformulation we felt would be most likely to have the biggest positive health impact.

GRABER: That’s right—Adam predicts that reformulation would have a bigger health impact than the flat taxes that get people to drink less soda.

TWILLEY: After the two-year run up, the law went into effect at the start of this year. So … what happened in reality?

BRIGGS: So I am part of a team that’s independently evaluating the soft drink tax here and our data are thus far preliminary.

GRABER: But one thing Adam could tell us is that option three won. The soda companies mostly used that two-year ramp-up to change their recipes and lower the amount of sugar in their sweet drinks.

BRIGGS: And these are not small companies. This is things like Lucozade and Ribena and Irn-Bru which are manufacturers of very popular soft drinks over here in the UK.

GRABER: I haven’t heard of any of these companies. Nicky, how big a big deal are they in England?

TWILLEY: Yes, they are real. Ribena is a super popular blackcurrant cordial. I feel like it’s like ketchup—everyone has a bottle at home. Irn-Bru is basically Scotland’s other national drink. It’s bright orange and it tastes… well, fizzy and sweet.

GRABER: And Lucozade? That sounds like medicine.

TWILLEY: That’s funny—my Mum actually used to give it to me when I’d been sick. It’s basically our Gatorade.

GRABER: Okay, so these companies now sell their drinks with less sugar. They’ve all added artificial sweeteners to replace some of that sugar.

TWILLEY: This has made lots of British people very unhappy because the taste of their favorite drinks has changed. And while reformulation definitely reduces the calories in a drink, it does raise some other issues—like about the health impacts of the artificial sweeteners themselves.

GRABER: Which we are going to come back to early next year. So stay tuned.

TWILLEY: So Adam and his colleagues are still collecting data, which means that the jury is still out on whether a tiered tax is more effective than a flat tax.

GRABER: So what’s going in England, that is another kind of a tax. But there is an entire other way to approach the question of how to help people cut some sugar from their diet.

POPKIN: We started working with our colleagues in Chile and the Chilean government actually quite a long time ago.

TWILLEY: This is Barry Popkin again. He’s kind of the go-to guy for a government that wants to try to cut sugar consumption. He worked with Mexico on their soda tax. And then Chile picked up the phone.

GRABER: So Barry and the government of Chile—they all came up with a new approach to combating obesity and diabetes. It’s includes soda—but it also encompasses all the other junk food that folks are eating.

TWILLEY: Chile already had a small soda tax—too small to make much of a difference, Barry said.

GRABER: So now, the main new tools they’re using are these bold, black stop-sign shaped warning symbols that are printed on the front of food and drink packages. One stop sign if the food has a lot of fat in it, a second if it has a lot of sugar, and a third black stop sign if it has a lot of salt.

TWILLEY: So at this point you might be thinking big whup, what’s so exciting about labels. We have labels on our food. We can read exactly how many grams of sugar are in our sodas.

GRABER: But that doesn’t seem to stop anyone from drinking them. As Sara said, we get confused by these numbers, we don’t know what they mean, we don’t know how many calories we’re supposed to eat or how many we’ve already eaten.

TWILLEY: Lots of countries have other kinds of labels—often positive labels like ones that say “healthy choice” or “low in fat.’ Most of these label systems are voluntary. And most of them have relatively tiny effects on people’s consumption and thus people’s health. In fact, industry tends to like these kind of positive labels for exactly that reason.

GRABER: So instead, Chile went dark. These mandatory negative front labels, this is something that had never been tried before.

POPKIN: Never in the world.

TWILLEY: But wait, there’s more. It’s not just that soda and other sugary foods now have these black stop signs on them. It’s what you can do once you have them labeled.

GRABER: Like—ban marketing of those foods to kids.

POPKIN: So this summer Chile started a complete ban on marketing. So if your product has a warning logo, you cannot advertise it any time between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.

TWILLEY: Foods and drinks with the warning label can’t be brought into schools. And food and drinks with the warning label—they also can’t have fun characters on their packaging.

GRABER: Of course, the soda industry fought this move—they fought it all the way to the World Trade Organization. But they lost.

TWILLEY: So Chile actually won this battle. But are they winning the war? What effect has the Chilean stop sign system actually had in terms of cutting sugar and improving public health?

POPKIN: So it’s very big. That’s all I can tell you. It’s much bigger than the tax. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need both. We need both.

GRABER: This law kicked in about two and a half years ago. And Barry is still studying the results, that’s why he can’t give us many details. But he’s really excited about this Chilean program. Even more excited than he is about what’s going on in Mexico or in Philadelphia.

POPKIN: Yes. I think Chile will become the first country in the world to reduce the prevalence of obesity. I think it will take five or eight years, but I think and I’m predicting—up to now no country, zero countries in the world have reduced obesity and overweight levels. Chile will become the first one.

TWILLEY: This is gobsmacking. Everyone told us that it was almost impossible to significantly reduce obesity—that prevention was the goal, but actually reducing obesity? How? What is it about Chile’s plan that is so effective?

GRABER: Well, one thing that happened is that, just like in the UK, industry changed the recipes of their products. They reformulated.

POPKIN: And they made huge changes. For example we had Fanta. It had a high amount of sugar in it. All of a sudden they added Fanta Zero to the market. And then a couple of months later they they cut the sugar in the regular Fanta. and the people bought it. But it was a low-sugar Fanta. Industry has enormous potential to do these changes when they’re regulated. They don’t do them until they’re not.

TWILLEY: Barry told us that purchases of the foods and drinks labeled with the stop signs have also gone down, and that kids are seeing way fewer ads for them.

GRABER: The Chilean government has released a lot of ads themselves to help people understand what these stop signs really mean, to help them understand why these foods aren’t good choices. There’s a fun one with a bunch of little kids where the kids are clearly rejecting the foods that have black labels on them.


TWILLEY: And, based on Barry’s research, these ads and the stop signs are working. The kids are learning. He’s done a bunch of focus groups, and he gave us a couple of examples of the kinds of things he was hearing.

POPKIN: One is the mother saying—this happened by five or eight different mothers. We had eight different focus groups of low- and middle-income mothers with children. My son told me I had to stop buying things with these black labels on them, I could only buy healthy food. And the second was her daughter said, Mother, you can’t buy any more packaged food. I want you to buy salads for me for school. The third was the women saying I never knew how much sugar was in these products. Now with these warning labels I know it’s really a lot and I’m stopping buying them.

GRABER: Barry still thinks soda taxes are a great idea. He’s not anti-soda tax. He’s just also pro-warning label. But is one better than the other?

POPKIN: I can’t at this point tell you because we don’t have the kind of data from countries only doing the warning label, so that it would be very hard to answer that.

TWILLEY: What also makes it complicated to compare apples to apples with labels vs. taxes is —how high is your tax? That makes a huge difference to its impact. Cigarette taxes in the US—they’re pretty much at 300 percent. Soda taxes—right now they typically max out at about a 10th of that. Public health researchers think that if soda taxes were at 300 percent, they’d be a lot more effective.

GRABER: But Chile’s experiment has already proven so effective that a lot of other countries are copying it. Israel, Peru, Uruguay, Brazil—and Barry said a lot of other countries are starting to look into it now, too.

TWILLEY: What about here? Could we have a Chilean-style warning label system here?

GRABER: Well, experts think it’d be really hard to do. One of the main points of these labels is to use them to prevent companies from marketing to kids, like banning characters and banning advertisements on TV at certain hours. Kelly says that probably wouldn’t work here—at least in part because of the first amendment. That’s freedom of speech, but lately it’s meant freedom of speech for companies, not just people.

TWILLEY: But Barry, for one, hasn’t give up hope.

POPKIN: We can do it. It will take a lot of political will. We’ll need evidence from countries like Chile and others, so that we can fight industry. We’ll need a government that truly cares about the health of the population and realizes that our health care costs are going to continue until we start eating healthier diet and cut the diabetes, hypertension, and all the other non-communicable diseases that are truly impacting our healthcare costs. So it’s going to be a long battle in the US.

GRABER: But it is a battle we need to fight. Basically, Barry, Sara, and Kelly all say—you do what you can, wherever you are, and you still try to push for the best policies possible.

TWILLEY: A city can’t do a Chile-style negative label or even a British-style tiered tax on its own. So a plain soda tax is the way to go if you’re just working at the city level. It’s horse for courses, to use my favorite expression that no American seems to understand.

GRABER: Nicky, what does that even mean?

TWILLEY: Choose your thing to suit the conditions. Like a horse that’s good at jumping for a steeplechase.

GRABER: I’ll keep that in mind. And actually, Barry and Sara say that we need all the horses.

BLEICH: Reporters always say: Wave your magic wand—what is the one thing? There is no one. There is for sure evidence on a suite of things that are likely to work. And it’s the ability just try to try multiple things in concert and ideally in a sort of complementary way that is going to make all the difference.

TWILLEY: And none of them are going to reduce obesity overnight. And that’s OK. Because the point is the kids.

POPKIN: We’re talking about changing the whole norms of eating and the culture of eating and that’s going to take time. It’s not going to happen in two years or five years. It may happen for preschoolers that we start them and they as they get older eat healthier, but we’re going to have to start now to get the next generation eating healthier.

TWILLEY: We can do this! Just slowly! But there’s hope!

GRABER: But we couldn’t leave you listeners with such a feel-good ending, not when it comes to something like the great soda wars. Because you know that the soda companies aren’t rolling over and saying, okay, fine, now there are taxes and huge black warning labels. They’re still fighting. And now they’re trying with international treaties, like the North American Free Trade Act.

TWILLEY: It’s preemption all over again. Mexico and Canada saw what was happening in Chile with the negative labels and they were beginning to think about doing it themselves—and the American soda industry was so not into that. They tried to put a clause banning negative labels into the new NAFTA treaty, so that Mexico and Canada could never do that.

GRABER: Luckily, they lost that battle. But now the soda industry is trying to put that same ban on negative logos, they’re trying to push it through CAFTA, that’s our NAFTA style trade agreement with Central America. So then no Central American countries would be able to use negative labels.

TWILLEY: In other words, the soda wars continue. But the episode ends.

GRABER: Thank god. As we said, we’re actually going to be continuing this topic—we will be doing an episode all about artificial sweeteners early next season. Where did they come from?

TWILLEY: And are they the wonder product they promise to be — can you really have your cake and eat it all with aspartame?

GRABER: Before we wrap up today, a final thanks this year to some of our special Gastropod superfans who support us at particularly high levels: Stephanie Momot, Rawewon from Thailand, Bonni from Melbourne, Tyler McGahee, Karen Shea, and John McArter. Please forgive us if we messed up your names, we do love you! And don’t forget, go to and let us know just a little bit about you. You might win a $100 Amazon gift certificate. Also, email us at [email protected] is you have ideas for people who would be great on the show and who can help us diversify the voices you hear.

TWILLEY: And don’t be shy—nominate yourself if you fit the bill! Huge thanks this episode to Barry Popkin, Kelly Brownell, Sara Bleich, Esperanza Cerón, Adam Briggs, and Cristin Kearns. Thanks also to the fabulous Gabriella Gómez Mont, who generously volunteered to record a translation for Esperanza—for the past five years, Gabriella has run the Lab for the City in Mexico City, which is the coolest urban project I know of. Links to everything on gastropod dot com as always, so check it out—you can search for your city or different companies in Cristin’s new archive, or check out the soda tax calculator that Kelly created to see how much your city could raise from a soda tax.


TRANSCRIPT Souring on Sweet: The Great Soda Wars, Part 1

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Souring on Sweet: The Great Soda Wars, Part 1, first released on December 4, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.


DORIA ROBINSON: Well, at least half the kids start their day with a Coke and a pack of hot fries. Like, that’s breakfast. And then throughout the day, drinking soda like it’s water. Those empty calories have an enormous cumulative effect on our society. We are paying the price in the medical bills and, you know, all of the kind of health outcomes in the community.

ED RENZI: Well, this is a classic socialist government. Stick your hand in a citizen’s pocket while they’re trying to find a refreshing drink, pull the money out, and then condemn the citizen for drinking sugar and trying to save their life by saving them from sugar.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Wow, that’s a roller coaster.

NICOLA TWILLEY: It’s the pro-soda tax anti-soda tax rollercoaster ride!

GRABER: Some people think soda taxes are absolutely necessary, some people think they’re basically the devil’s handiwork.

TWILLEY: That rollercoaster ride—that is basically today’s fun-filled Gastropod episode. And actually, it’s the next episode too. That’s right, we have got a special two-part series for you, the first two-parter we’ve ever done.

GRABER: We, of course, are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber.

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And for the next two episodes, we are going to be exploring our fatal attraction to sweetness—and one of the best or maybe, depending on who you listen to, the worst tools we have for cutting our sugar consumption. Soda taxes.

GRABER: First, what’s the science behind why love that delicious sweet taste—and the science behind why kids crave desserts that seem actually sickly sweet to us adults?

TWILLEY: And if sugar tastes so good, can it really be so bad? What is the science on how our sugar consumption affects our health?

GRABER: And why might soda be the worst form of sugar delivery of all?

TWILLEY: Plus, if the goal is to cut sugar consumption, are soda taxes really the best way to do it? It’s a huge, huge story, filled with fascinating science, forgotten history, and even a little good old-fashioned blackmail. Today’s episode is part 1 of the great sugar sweetened beverage wars.


TWILLEY: Today, the average American eats a lot of sugar. Exactly how much is a little tricky to pin down—even different government departments publish different numbers.

GRABER: But overall we eat way more sugar today per day, per year, than we did in the past. A couple centuries ago, we ate only two pounds of sugar a year. And now we on average are likely eating that much in only two weeks!

TWILLEY: Part of the reason we eat so much sugar is that we love it. We’re set up, biologically, to love it.

JULIE MENNELLA: It’s pleasure. And we are hedonic animals that like pleasure. and one sees that at a very early age, even in a child. You really don’t have to learn to like sweets. It’s there.

GRABER: Julie Mennella is a sweet connoisseur. She’s actually a developmental psychologist, and she studies all things sweet at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

MENNELLA: For sweet, many would argue that it is our signal—thinking of the environment in which we evolved in, it’s our signal for energy or calories.

TWILLEY: This is the theory—that we evolved to get super stoked when something tasted sweet because it meant that we had hit the calorie jackpot. And, just like hitting the lottery jackpot today, that was a rare event for our ancient ancestors.

MENNELLA: You know think of the environment in which we came from, if you will. And we didn’t evolve in an environment of manufactured sweets or added sugars. Our sweet quality came from mother’s milk, from fruit, nectar, honey. That probably were the primary sources.

GRABER: And, of course, as Julie pointed out, we love it. We’re wired to love it.

MENNELLA: For sweet in general there are areas of the brain that receive information that are associated with pleasure and reward, often leading that many to say that sweet is our oldest reward.

TWILLEY: There’s been a lot of debate recently around whether sugar is actually addictive. Researchers have shown that in some conditions, lab rats pursue sugar over cocaine, and they’ve found that sugar seems to cause the same type of symptoms of dependence and withdrawal as addictive drugs.

GRABER: But researchers are careful not to say that sugar is genuinely addictive to us humans—they can’t really say that people who love it are dependent on it and engage in risky behavior to get it, the way they do with drugs. Julie agrees that it’s complicated.

MENNELLA: One would argue, could foods ever be addictive, per se? Because it’s something that you need and it’s calories. But many drugs of abuse are actually cooperating in these brain pathways that were designed for sweet. When you taste something sweet, there are chemicals in the brain—dopamine being one of them—that are released in certain areas of the brain that are also activated with certain drugs of abuse.

TWILLEY: Basically, sugar—that sweet taste—it’s powerful stuff.

GRABER: So, okay, we adults adore sugar. But kids love it even more than we do.

MENNELLA: I think all you have to be is an observer of human behaviour and you know the children like sweets.

TWILLEY: Julie and her colleagues at the Monell Center have done a number of scientific studies looking at exactly how much kids favor sugar.

MENNELLA: What we consistently find over the years is that children will most prefer a sweeter solution than adults. We all like sweet, but it’s to a different degree.

GRABER: But how much sweeter exactly?

MENNELLA: So the most preferred level sweetness on average for an adult is the of a can of cola. Let’s say you’ve got a can of cola. Add seven cubes of sugar to it, and that’s a child.

TWILLEY: I can’t even imagine how crazily sweet that would taste. But Julie’s tried it.

MENNELLA: Of course, yeah.

TWILLEY: What does it taste like?

MENNELLA: As one would expect, very sweet [LAUGHS]

GRABER: Kids are super sensitive to even slight differences in sweet. Julie’s tested this with blueberries.

TWILLEY: Different varieties of blueberry have very tiny differences in their levels of sugar, just naturally. Julie’s colleagues measured these differences in the lab, and then Julie fed the blueberries to a group of volunteers.

MENNELLA: And we had adults and children, a variety of methods. I always like to ask the child the question a number of different ways, whether they picked which one they liked the best, whether they rank them, which one they wanted to take home.

GRABER: So when kids and grown-ups could choose from blueberries that had the same sugar content but maybe slightly different textures, there was no real difference in what both groups chose.

MENNELLA: But when there was a slight difference in the sugar content, children really went for the ones that were sweeter. Where adults were probably were picking up other cues or liking a blueberry for other reasons whether it was texture the crunch.

TWILLEY: If you’re a kid, sweetness is just the most important quality in a blueberry—or anything else. And there’s a very simple reason why sweet matters to kids more than it does to grown-ups.

MENNELLA: So you see children are attracted to that which they need. They’re growing. They need the energy. And then when growth has stopped, you actually can see that children start preferring lower levels. You know, it’s often fascinated me where many will say how their children changed during college. You know, obviously there’s a lot of social changes that are occurring. but I think that there may also be something biological.

GRABER: Julie’s tested this, too.

MENNELLA: It was first done at the University of Washington in which they measured sweet preference in children, and then also collected urine and measured a biomarker for bone growth. And then several years later we did a similar study.

GRABER: And they found that when that biomarker in urine shows that children are growing the most intensely, they also crave sweet the most intensely. And then when their growth stops—in adolescence—so does that overwhelming obsession with extra high levels of sweet.

TWILLEY: None of this would be anything other than interesting science, if it wasn’t for the fact that we now live in a world that is super sweet compared to the world we evolved in. And so kids, who are biologically programmed to crave sugar—they can eat of a lot of it. More of it than they actually need. And they do.

MENNELLA: From the age of two, an American is more likely to eat a manufactured sweet on a given day than a fruit or vegetable.

GRABER: Steve Gortmaker studies the implications of what kids are eating today at the Harvard School of Public Health. And, based on his research, he can predict what this means for kids when they grow up.

STEVE GORTMAKER: Like, we projected 59 percent of today’s two-year-olds will have obesity when they’re 35. That’s where we’re headed.

TWILLEY: 59 percent. That is a truly shocking statistic.

GRABER: And horrifying. Because it’s not just that they’ll be heavier. There are a lot of health problems that come along with that. Joint problems. Higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, higher risk of certain kinds of cancer, higher risk of cardiovascular diseases like strokes and heart attacks.

TWILLEY: So, some of you will have heard stuff in the media about whether rising rates of obesity are even real, and if they’re real, whether that’s something we should even be worried about. Here’s where we are on that. Yes, different individuals can be healthy at different weights.

GRABER: No, we should definitely not be body shaming anyone. Anyone.

TWILLEY: And yes, obesity is measured using a flawed system—BMI, or Body Mass Index—that doesn’t account for the difference in weight between muscles and fat, for example.

GRABER: But still, there is a scientific consensus here. Rising rates of obesity are real, they are a problem right now, and they’ll mean rising health problems down the line.

TWILLEY: And Julie’s concern is that we’re setting the next generation up for these problems—and actually, that today’s sugar-filled environment is reprogramming them to consume more sugar even as adults.

MENNELLA: So children are learning. And they’re learning what a food should taste like.

GRABER: As Julie said, today’s two-year-olds are more likely to eat a sweetened cookie or candy or extra sweet juice than to eat a piece of fruit. So she’s studying what impact this will have on the foods they prefer in the future.

MENNELLA: You know many consider that some of these added sugars are almost like supernormal stimuli. And there’s basic research and animal models that would suggest this. It’s the type of studies that we’re trying to do now with children to see how they learn, how does exposure affect the level of sweetness they like.

TWILLEY: What makes this especially hard is, given how much kids biologically just love sweet, and how happy it makes them, and how much sugar there is all around them—how can a parent possibly deny that pleasure to their kids?

MENNELLA: So I think there are many people that are looking at this question. And I leave it to those minds to come up with a solution.

TWILLEY: Ok, so let’s see what those minds are thinking.

GRABER: In theory, one thing we could do, the most simple thing? Just ban sugary foods.

BARRY POPKIN: We can’t ban them. We can’t ban food. The problem is a little food is OK for you, a lot of food is bad for you.

TWILLEY: Phew. Thank you, Barry. It would be a sad world indeed without the occasional sweet treat. That’s Barry Popkin, he’s an economist and nutritionist at UNC Chapel Hill.

GRABER: So—you can’t ban sugary foods. But maybe you can make it a little harder for people to eat them.

TWILLEY: But there’s sugar in everything—bread, and crackers, and ketchup. So nutritionists and economists and public health folks, they’ve chosen one particular food to go after.

SARA BLEICH: So beverages, sugary beverages, are the largest source of added sugar in our diet.

TWILLEY: That’s Sara Bleich, a professor of public health policy at Harvard. And, again, it’s hard to pin down exactly what Americans eat and drink, but researchers believe that roughly half of all the sugar consumed in the U.S.—half!—comes straight from sugary drinks.

GRABER: This isn’t just soda, of course. It’s sports drinks like Gatorade and sweetened teas and energy drinks and any other sweetened drink you can buy. But it seems like roughly a full third of all sugar that is consumed in America comes from sodas. Scientists call this whole category sugar-sweetened beverages. But that’s clunky—sorry, Nicky, not a great title for the show—so we’re just going to lump it all together and call it soda.

TWILLEY: There are regional differences in what a soda is called—I grew up calling them fizzy drinks, and I kind of love “pop” as a term—but soda is what we’re using this episode, so deal with it.

GRABER: Everyone knows that sodas have sugar in them. But it’s kind of shocking just how much sugar there is in a normal 12-ounce can of Coke or Pepsi.

TWILLEY: That one can? It has ten teaspoons of sugar. For me, it’s still kind of hard to picture how much that is, but here’s an experiment you can do to get a sense. Put 12 oz of water in a glass—that’s just a cup and a half—and then add ten teaspoons of sugar, and then try to drink it.

GRABER: We did and it is disgustingly sweet. That sweetness gets masked by both the cold temperature and by the fizz. But try a coke warm, or a coke that’s gone flat. And you’ll see. It’s incredibly tooth-numbingly sweet.

TWILLEY: And of course all that sugar makes soda a pretty major problem for public health.

KELLY BROWNELL: Well, the research on this probably goes back about 15 years. But in the past seven years or so the research on this has just become rock solid.

GRABER: Kelly Brownell is director of the World Food Policy Center at Duke University.

BROWNELL: So there are studies using many kinds of methods using different populations as study subjects, and they are pretty uniform in finding that there are significant links between consumption of sugared beverages and important health outcomes—obesity and diabetes in particular. But other health outcomes, pretty scary health outcomes as well. There are some studies not showing this but those tend to be industry-funded studies.

GRABER: We will actually be coming back to those industry-funded studies.

TWILLEY: But wait, there’s more bad news about sodas. Because they’re not just a target because of how many calories they contribute to the average American diet. Turns out, sodas do something a little different to our bodies than other sugary foods—and the science behind that is really fascinating.


GRABER: So soda is different from other sugary foods in one particularly strange way. Kelly told us that people just don’t seem to get as full from soda calories as they do from food calories.

BROWNELL: So let’s just say for example we take half of your audience and and we do an experiment and on the same day half the audience gets whatever they normally eat for lunch. But we add 200 calories to what they normally eat. But it comes in solid form. It could be pizza, doughnuts, or ice cream for that matter, but it’s solid. And then the other half of the audience gets what they normally eat for lunch. They get an additional 200 calories, but it comes in sugared beverages. The ones they got the sugary beverages won’t adjust as well in subsequent meals for the 200 calorie excess because a body doesn’t seem to register the calories as well—it doesn’t seem to feel as full with these calories that are coming through liquids.

GRABER: Richard Mattes has done a bunch of experiments that show this. He’s a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University.

MATTES: Well, we’ve done trials where we manipulate food form from clear liquid to semi-solid to solid foods, and have people consume them in fixed portions.

TWILLEY: And then Rick monitored these people to see how full they felt and how hungry they got afterwards.

MATTES: And the findings consistently demonstrate that the appetitive sensations are least affected by the beverages. That is hunger drops the least, fullness rises the least. And that total daily energy intake goes up more when there is a beverage.

GRABER: Basically, people don’t get full from the calories in soda, not the way they would from solid foods. They eat just as much afterwards as they would otherwise, so they end up with more total calories consumed.

TWILLEY: Amazingly, Rick has found this effect even works just based on whether you believe a food is a solid or a liquid.

MATTES: We did a trial a few years ago where we told people that a food would be a liquid or solid in their stomach after it was consumed.

GRABER: It didn’t matter what they were told—in fact, it was always actually just clear liquid. But if the participants thought they had a solid food in their body, their hunger dropped, their stomachs actually physically stayed full longer. The liquid even took longer to pass through their intestines. Just because they thought it was solid. Rick’s not sure why.

MATTES: I think the mechanistic explanations are not defined in great specificity but it’s clear that we handle liquids and solids very differently, biologically.

TWILLEY: Once again, there’s an evolutionary theory for why the calories in a liquid don’t seem to register the same way as food calories. Our bodies are actually quite finely tuned to measure how many calories we take in—there are lots of different systems keeping track of that, because it’s really important that we get enough calories to survive.

GRABER: But the only real liquid we drank in evolutionary terms that had a lot of calories? That was mother’s milk. And we weren’t drinking it for most of our lives.

MATTES: Beer is only maybe 12,000 years old or so, so in evolutionary time still a very recent phenomenon. But by and large post-weaning we just drank water. And so there was no need to monitor energy in beverage form.

GRABER: And so we don’t seem to have that ability.

TWILLEY: So, up till now, we’ve been talking about sugar in terms of calories—that the main danger of consuming lots of sugar is the excess weight gain. But that’s not actually soda’s only danger.

MALIK: There is independent metabolic effects from those sugars beyond weight. So we have two—there are two pathways.

GRABER: Vasanti Malik is a public health researcher at Harvard.

TWILLEY: The first pathway or problem that Vasanti flagged for us, is kind of obvious when you think about it. When you drink a soda, you are getting just a lot of sugar really, really quickly.

MALIK: So you get spikes in blood glucose and blood blood in insulin. and over time that can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes, and put you on that path to cardio-metabolic dysfunction.

GRABER: And then there’s another problem that’s a particular issue when you get all that sugar at once from soda — the fructose from soda gets broken down in your liver.

MALIK: And when you have too much fructose getting into the liver your body starts creating triglycerides or fats and that contributes to insulin resistance and diabetes again. So it’s really the sugars in these beverages contribute to cardiometabolic risk independent of weight gain.

TWILLEY: So the case is starting to seem stacked against soda. But still, plenty of foods are high in sugar and not a lot else.

BROWNELL: Now the soda companies will often complain that they’re getting picked on unfairly because there are lots of foods contributing to things like obesity and diabetes. and that’s an interesting argument that one can address.

GRABER: But even if most people don’t know all the scientific reasons why soda in particular is bad for us, Kelly says that focusing on sodas still make sense. Because people get that soda has a lot of sugar.

BROWNELL: People understand soda as a category, and they see it as a luxury rather than a necessity.

TWILLEY: And all of this means that soda is officially the target here—mainstream scientists are agreed we should be drinking less of it, particularly kids. So the next question is how to make that happen.

GRABER: Well, there’s one government response that you listeners might have already heard about—you can tax it. This seems like a modern idea, but actually, people first started talking about soda taxes a long time ago, even before scientists alerted us to all these health impacts. Coca-Cola was first taxed in the U.S. during the Spanish-American war at the end of the 1800s to help pay for the war. And it was taxed as a medicine. Because of the kola nut and the caffeine—and, you know, of all the cocaine in the coca leaves.

TWILLEY: Funnily enough, after the war Coke sued the government and won. Their argument? That actually Coca-Cola wasn’t a medicine, it was just a soft drink.

GRABER: A couple decades later, sodas were taxed at 10 percent as part of the Revenue Act of 1918. It was just a move to try to raise money for the government.

TWILLEY: This tax was repealed 3 years later, when government was out of the hole. But it freaked out the soda companies so much that they teamed up to form the American Beverage Association. Remember that name because you’re going to hear it again.

GRABER: The American Beverage Association got pretty powerful, pretty quickly. They kept taxes off the table for decades. There were a couple really small taxes, a penny here, a penny there, but nothing significant.

TWILLEY: But these taxes were all about revenue—about an easy way to raise a little extra cash. That was how people thought of soda taxes until Kelly Brownell started thinking about them in a public health kind of context in the early 1990s.

BROWNELL: The first time I wrote anything that was of a more public nature was an op ed piece in The New York Times in 1994.

GRABER: Kelly was saying that taxing soda could reduce the consumption of soda. Because scientists had finally done the research to see that taxes had done exactly that for tobacco.

TWILLEY: Today, it seems obvious that cigarette taxes are a good idea to reduce smoking and improve public health. But Steve Gortmaker says it didn’t always.

GORTMAKER: Before those went into effect, I remember reading, and people going, are people really going to change their behavior?

TWILLEY: We know now, of course, that as cigarettes were taxed more and more, across the U.S.—well, people did start smoking less. A lot less.

GORTMAKER: You raise the price people buy less and that’s what’s happening here. It’s very predictable.

GRABER: And so public health folks like Kelly thought, great, taxes work. People are smoking less. They’re healthier because of those cigarette taxes. So…

BROWNELL:  Why not tax these foods, when tobacco taxes work so well and the soda consumption is having a negative impact on health? So it was a public health argument and partially an economic argument.

TWILLEY: Like we said, Kelly first put out this suggestion—that we could tax soda to improve public health—he put that out in The New York Times in 1994. And people talked about it, but nothing really happened for another fifteen years.

BROWNELL: But then in 2009, things took a different turn. and several things happened. One is that the science became very robust and quite clear that the sodas were having a negative impact. But also at that time governments in the United States were struggling for income because of the economy going so badly. And one way to raise revenue to help with economic things is to increase taxes. And some politicians began thinking of putting in a tax that would have a double benefit—it could raise revenue but also might lower health care costs. And that’s when soda taxes jump back into the picture.

GRABER: As you might remember, these aren’t technically called soda taxes—they’re called sugar sweetened beverage taxes, or SSB taxes. Because they cover all sorts of sugar sweetened beverages. But SSB is just not as fun to say. So, soda taxes it is.

TWILLEY: In New York City at this point, the Mayor was Mike Bloomberg. In 2010, he started pushing hard for a tax on soda, but the problem he came up against was that had to happen at the state level in New York. The city couldn’t go it alone.

GRABER: And that idea was shot down at the state level. But Bloomberg wasn’t done. He’d managed to get the most comprehensive ban on public smoking in the entire country. He banned trans fats. And he knew soda was another big health problem. Here he is in conversation with Charlie Rose.

CHARLIE ROSE: You attract enormous attention for what you’re trying to do in health. There was smoking. There was trans fat. Now there is sugar and sugary drinks. What is this? What is that drives you to try to impose….

BLOOMBERG: If government’s purpose isn’t to improve the health and longevity of its citizens, I don’t know what its purpose is.

TWILLEY: Bloomberg couldn’t legally do a tax. So, in 2012, he came up with an alternative.

NEWS HOST: We’re going to turn now to the looming ban this morning on all supersized sugary drinks. New York City planning to outlaw sales of big sodas and other sweet drinks over a certain size in an effort to curb obesity. It is the first-ever nationwide ban of its kind. And ABC’s Dr. Richard Besser is here with more. And Rich, this is raising a lot of eyebrows.

RICHARD BESSER: It really is. I mean this is big. This is a dramatic measure.

GRABER: What was this big deal? Oh my god—you can’t buy a sweet drink in anything larger than a 16-ounce cup.

BLOOMBERG: Well, the way it would work is simply those organizations—those industries that we regulate, which are restaurants and movie theaters and carts, they would—they can still sell 32 ounces of a sugar drink to you but they’d have to put it in two containers.

TWILLEY: I lived in New York City at this time. And I have to tell you, everybody had a complete meltdown about this. You would have thought Bloomberg was trying to take away everyone’s first-born child.

JON STEWART: I am all for promoting public health. But Mr. Mayor, this plan makes your asinine look big.


STEWART: Let me… Let me get this straight. As a New Yorker I can go on my lunch break to—I don’t know Carnegie Deli and order fourteen pounds of pastrami garnished with seven pounds of beef tongue. And not only won’t the Deli guy go ‘What? That’s the most ridiculous self destructive thing a person could ever order!’ The deli guy will go, ‘Oh you want Mandy Patinkin.’ Then I can go from there right over to Hooters for a quick basket of chicken wings, battered, deep fried, and tossed in hot sauce and melted butter served with a bowl of cheese. Top it all off with a little bit of frozen hot chocolate from Serendipity’s. All of this is legal in New York City. Until to God forbid I want to wash it down with a little something as pure and refreshing as Mountain Dew. Oh no, I’m on the run from Johnny Law.

GRABER: Jon. I love you. I do. I agree with you about almost everything. But come on!

TWILLEY: Wait Cynthia, he’s not done.

STEWART: Look, Mr Mayor, I know you can be intimidated by these large sized drinks. You and I are both, let’s face it, small. We might see a generously proportioned sugared beverage and think of it as a drowning hazard. But it’s not fair. It’s not fair.

TWILLEY: But, really, what was so unfair? Remember, no one was saying you couldn’t have all the soda your poor overstressed heart could desire. You just had to buy another cup-full. That was all.

BLOOMBERG: If you want to have multiple ones, that’s up to you. We’re not taking away anybody’s right to do anything. All we’re trying to do is to remind you that this is something that could be, should be—is, not should be—that is detrimental to your health and to do something about this national epidemic. It’s not perfect. It’s not the only answer. It’s not the only cause of people being overweight. But we’ve got to do something. Sitting around and doing nothing and watching our kids get fatter and fatter when they’re going to be overweight as adults if they’re overweight as kids—that’s just not something that we should do as a society.

GRABER: And the Board of Health in New York agreed with Mayor Mike Bloomberg. They thought that keeping sweet drinks to only 16 ounces was a great idea and could be a boon to public health. They voted in favor of it.

TWILLEY: And the soda industry? They went ape. They ran a full page ad in The New York Times showing Mike Bloomberg looking super frumpy in blue dress, looming over the city like King Kong. It was made to look like a movie poster, where the movie was called “The Nanny.” Tagline: “You Only Thought You Lived in the Land of the Free.”

GRABER: Bloomberg did respond to the ad at a press conference. “Would I wear a dress like that? No, It was one of the more unflattering dresses.”

TWILLEY: But putting Bloomberg in an unflattering dress wasn’t the only trick up the soda industry’s sleeve. They hired a public relations firm to start a supposedly citizen group called New Yorkers for Beverage Choices.

NEW YORKERS FOR BEVERAGE CHOICES AD: This is New York City. No one tells us what neighborhood to live in, what team to root for, or what deli to eat at. And don’t even try to tell the city that never sleeps that it’s bedtime. So are we going to let the Mayor tell us what size beverage to buy? If we let him get away with this, where will it end? Hey, New York, it’s time to take a stand.

GRABER: Nobody was taking away anyone’s choices! Drink all the soda you want! But frankly, the research does seem to show that if you buy a 16 ounce cup, you usually just drink that. And if you buy 32 ounces? Well, you drink all of it. That’s why this was a good idea.

TWILLEY: But Jon Stewart and the media spent so much time ridiculing the portion cap and saying the Mayor was trying to ban soft drinks, and the American Beverage Association spent so much money shifting public opinion, and so much money paying lawyers to nitpick over the jurisdictional issues, and in the end?

NEWS HOST: The ban on the sale of those giant sugary sodas, the subject of so much late-night comedy? Well, that ban has been put on hold. It was a big public health effort by the Mayor of New York to help with obesity and it was supposed to start tomorrow. But today a judge said not so fast.

GRABER: But. Bloomberg wasn’t done. You’ll hear his name in part 2 of our story, because he thinks that reducing soda consumption is really important.

TWILLEY: But I want to spend a minute here, because what about this argument, that Americans don’t need a nanny? That we can make our own choices about drinking soda?

BLEICH: Well, so number one, I think one really important thing to understand—yes, people hate being told what to do. But public health is a very long history of essentially telling people what to do. and creating these bumper cars around our lives to make us safer. So that includes sanitation, that includes vaccines, that includes seatbelts in cars, helmets when you ride a bike. There’s a whole long list of things that public health has done.

GRABER: This is Sara Bleich again. She says that, first of all, as you might remember, we need extra help to stop drinking soda because it just doesn’t make us full.

BLEICH: A second thing is that Americans and people in general have no sense of calories. So if you said to them, you know, that soda is 400 calories, or 500 calories—that’s going to require mental math. Numeracy is poor in the United States. It’s going to require an understanding of how many total calories do I need in a day? And where does this fit in? And can I remember what I even had for breakfast? And so that level of attention is often not—it’s not normal in the U.S..

TWILLEY: Given all of this, maybe we kind of do need a nanny when it comes to soda. Because we can’t rely on our bodies to tell us we’re full, and most of us, myself included, can’t make sense of the numbers on the label. And also, we’ve been trained by our environment to expect to drink huge amounts of these sugary beverages.

BLEICH: I am of the mindset that if you handed someone a 20 ounce soda rather than their 32 ounce soda, I’m not sure they’re going to be any more thirsty. They’re probably not 12 ounces more thirsty because you’ve reduced the size. And so a big part of this is you know the expectations we have around beverage sizes and just expecting everything to be very large. But I’m not convinced we do that because we’re thirsty. We just took what’s right in front of us.

GRABER: So we don’t actually have totally free will. We think we do, we think we’ve chosen to drink all that ice-cold soda, but. And it’s not just the expectation of size—we don’t even realize how intensely we’ve been subjected to soda marketing.

BLEICH: Yeah, so advertising is like the elephant in the room. So particularly for children, children younger than the age of five or six can’t tell you in the 20-minute show what was a commercial what was actually the show. So the advertising can have a huge impact on them. I have small children. I have observed that firsthand.

BROWNELL: It’s not easy to escape the presence of these sodas. First of all, there’s relentless marketing. The companies will very often say they don’t market directly to children,

TWILLEY: Which they used to do, blatantly.

PEPSI TV AD KID 1: What makes you cool is your attitude, your inner self. It’s not the way your hair’s cut. It’s not the clothes you wear. It’s not what you drink.

PEPSI TV AD KID 2: You got a Pepsi for me?

GRABER: Okay, it’s clear who’s supposed to think that drinking Pepsi makes you cool in that ad from the 80s. But even today, some of the marketing to kids is not obviously directed at kids, but really, they’re still the target.

TWILLEY: I mean for heaven’s sake, Coke literally has Santa Claus and fluffy polar bears in their ads.

BROWNELL: You know, you don’t have to look very far in a sporting event to see, on the scoreboard or some prominent place in the stadiums, big advertisements for sugared beverages. There are music stars and movie celebrities and other people children admire who become spokespeople for the beverage companies.


TWILLEY: That medley, Cynthia! I’m about to moonwalk!

GRABER: If you’re anywhere around my age, I dare you not to start dancing. To an ad.

TWILLEY: Sara and Kelly told us that soda companies spend billions on advertising. Literally—Coke spends more than 4 billion dollars a year. And then on top of that, they also do a lot of quote unquote philanthropy, sponsoring school sports and community stuff, and that doesn’t even look like advertising to most people, but it is.

GRABER: Imagine. You’re a teen. Your school has regular football or basketball games. And every time you go, you see a soft drink company’s logo on the billboard. Why wouldn’t you be triggered to drink it? That’s an ad.

TWILLEY: Remember, soda is basically flavored, fizzy sugar water. But the marketing folks at those soda companies have turned that sugar water into a magical potion, It’s even capable of bringing world peace

COKE AD: I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony. I’d like the buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.

GRABER: I am back in elementary school right now listening to this. I think we sang it in school!

TWILLEY: That jingle was so popular coke literally released it as a single. And that’s from the 70s, but Coke is still doing this world peace schtick today.

GRABER: Coke—this is out of control—Coke set up this thing a couple of years ago where there were vending machines in India and Pakistan, and there’s like a Skype hook-up, and you could get a free Coke if you touched hands with someone in the other country.

TWILLEY: Who knew that one of the longest running conflicts in the world just needed some fizzy drinks to smooth things over?

GRABER: But let’s not forget that Coke apparently can provide happiness on an individual level, too. You can make someone else happy, you can make yourself happy.

COKE AD: That’s the way it should be, I like to see: the whole world smiling with me. Coca-Cola and smile. Have a Coke and a smile.

TWILLEY: This stuff is pervasive. And it has made Coke and Pepsi two of the most loved, most ubiquitous companies in the world.

GRABER: And even if you think that this is because they’re the most delicious drinks on the planet, it’s impossible to disentangle those feelings from all that advertising. It has a really big impact on us.

BLEICH: So what a lot of the behavioral psychologists will argue is we’re not actually making the choices that we think that we’re making, because so much of our environment is scripted around us.

GRABER: And remember, kids drink a lot of soda. And a lot of the marketing is targeted at kids. And kids? Well, everyone knows, they need nannying! Teens, too. They’re not the best decision makers. We all need these little nudges, but kids most especially.

TWILLEY: So there are a lot of reasons why we might need a little help from nanny, a.k.a. the government, to cut down on our soda consumption. Again, no one is saying you can’t have a soda if you want one, just like no one is saying you can’t have a cigarette, if you’re an adult and that’s your kind of treat.

GRABER: But basically, really, soda is only sugar and water. And it comes with health risks. Maybe not to quite the same degree as cigarettes, and soda isn’t addictive like nicotine is. If you want it, okay. But there are potential harms from drinking too much of it.

TWILLEY: So why shouldn’t public health officials introduce just a little friction into the whole process? You can still chug the 24 teaspoons of sugar in a Big Gulp if you want. But given all the ways the soda companies are manipulating you, why shouldn’t government use a few of its own tools to make you think just a tiny bit more before you drink?

BLEICH: And so behavioral nudges which have been shown in lots of different areas with just the simple little tricks, that you could call them, sort of move people in the right direction.

GRABER: That’s just what Bloomberg was trying to do. He was trying to make it just a little bit harder for you to drink a huge amount of soda, to help you drink less. He wanted to try to combat all the ways that the soda industry has been convincing you to drink more. His cap didn’t work.

TWILLEY: The same time Bloomberg’s cap was being debated, places that could pass taxes—remember, part of Bloomberg’s problem was that he wasn’t able to do that at the city level in New York—but other places around the country decided they’d try to pass taxes—to use that as a nudge.

PBS NEWS HOST: Now the campaign against sodas and sugary drinks in the name of public health. One city in California may be poised to go farther than anyone has so far with a new tax.

GRABER: This is Richmond, California, in the Bay area. The year is 2012—it’s just a few months after Bloomberg’s first proposed his soda cap.

TWILLEY: As PBS’s Spencer Michaels reported at the time, Richmond is a pretty low-income community for the region, and it had—and has—a serious childhood obesity problem.

SPENCER MICHAELS: In fact the rising rates of diabetes and other weight related illnesses are at the heart of the debate now raging in Richmond over the proposed tax.

JEFF RITTERMAN: We have a big problem with childhood obesity in Richmond. As you probably know. And it’s health disparity issue for us. Fully a third of our Latino fifth and seventh graders and a third of our African-American fifth and seventh graders are obese.

MICHAELS: City Councilman Jeff Ritterman, a cardiologist, proposed the tax which would be the first of its kind in the country.

GRABER: The plan was to use those taxes to raise millions of dollars for local sports fields, diabetes treatment for low income kids, and nutrition classes in schools.

TWILLEY: But not everyone was on board.

MICHAELS: At the family market in the working class town of Richmond, California, near San Francisco, owner Mohammed el Zulfri is deeply concerned about a new city council backed measure which would place a penny per ounce tax on sugar sweetened beverages.

EL ZULFRI: This will just hurt the poor people and hurt the business owners like myself. People that want to drink sodas they drink… Palm Springs and Beverly Hills—they all drink soda. I mean it’s not a matter of you know just Richmond that got fat.

GRABER: A city councilman named Corky Boozé agreed this was a bad idea.

MICHAELS: Boozé says some residents will shop elsewhere to avoid the tax. But poor people won’t be able to.

CORKY BOOZE: It’s unfair to people who are basically don’t have the means of getting out of their neighborhood store to go into the neighboring communities to be able to avoid that tax.

MICHAELS: And Boozé says he doesn’t think the government should be in the business of dictating what people should drink or eat.

BOOZE: I think that when we get to the point of being a dictator to people, I think it’s wrong. People are heavy for all kinds of reasons.

TWILLEY: These arguments—they’re the arguments that were being made by our old friends the American Beverage Association. They spent heavily to campaign against this tax. They paid people to argue against it at community meetings. They even ran a Super Bowl ad.

AMERICAN BEVERAGE ASSOCIATION AD: Feeding a family is difficult enough in today’s economy. Now some politicians want the government telling me how I should do it.

GRABER: On November 6, 2012, the people of Richmond, California went to the polls. They had to say yay or nay to Measure N, a one cent per ounce tax on soda. And it failed.

TWILLEY: Over the next couple of years, a soda tax ballot initiative failed in Telluride, Colorado. It failed in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It failed in Chicago. It failed in El Monte, California. It failed in dozens of places around the U.S.

GRABER: Until one finally passes. In 2014.

REPORTERS: Voters in Berkeley California are the first in the nation to approve a tax on sodas, to make people drink less sugar.

GRABER: Seventy six percent of people voted in favor of the tax. Despite the fact that the soda industry spent nearly two and a half million dollars in Berkeley against it—thirty dollars per voter. Four months later, the city would put the tax in place. It would add a penny an ounce tax on sweetened beverages.

TWILLEY: So—did it work? Did the soda tax reduce obesity? Or did all the failures the soda companies predicted—did they come true?

GRABER: Industry groups had some pretty dire warnings. They said people would just go buy their soda somewhere else. Local grocery stores would lose money. They’d lose jobs. The poor would suffer the most. And people wouldn’t cut down their soda consumption at all, so there wouldn’t even be a health benefit.


GRABER: We’ll tell you that story in two weeks. Plus: why and how did the soda industry take the entire state of California hostage just this past summer?

TWILLEY: And is a soda tax the most effective tool to reduce obesity, or is there something else places could be doing that would have more impact?



TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Julie Mennella, Barry Popkin, Rick Mattes, Vasanti Malik, Kelly Brownell, Sara Bleich, and Steven Gortmaker. And a special thank you to Gastropod listener and volunteer Sam Panzer, who helps us get transcripts of our episodes for you all and who also found quite a bit of the cool sound in this episode. Thank you, Sam!

GRABER: And don’t forget: We want your ideas for how to improve the diversity on the show, email us at contact AT We want your help by filling out our survey at—and you might win a one hundred dollar Amazon gift card. And we really need your help in telling people regularly about the show in person and on social media! Help us spread the love!

TWILLEY: Tune in in two weeks for the second part of our soda wars story. In which big soda takes things up a notch.

GRABER: You described the media kind of calling it blackmail, does it sound like blackmail to you?

BLEICH: I think essentially that is what happened. I mean if you ask the legislators did they want to make that choice? It doesn’t sound like they do. So it was checkmate. It was a very effective strategy by the American Beverage Association.