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!

Happy Birthday to Us: Gastropod Turns Five

We launched Gastropod in September 2014, which means we're turning five this month, and that's approximately 100 in podcast years. We're celebrating our birthday with a special episode featuring highlights from the past five years’ worth of episodes, as chosen by you, our listeners—served up alongside a generous slice of cake science and history. Join the party and listen in now as we revisit fan favorites and behind-the-scenes highlights from our first half-decade, and then sit down with this souvenir list: 25 of our favorite fun facts from Gastropod, or five for each of the five years we’ve been making the show!


TRANSCRIPT Omega 1-2-3

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Omega 1-2-3, first released on August 13. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

PAUL GREENBERG: It was a little bit of a grueling thing. It’s funny. I was—I never went out on a Jet Ski as a younger person, and I was, I think, 47 when I started on this on this book. So you know it turns out riding a Jet Ski is not a lot of fun, if you’re 47.

NICOLA TWILLEY: The Jet Ski mounted hero of today’s episode is… 47-year-old Paul Greenberg.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Well, he’s not 47 anymore. That was when he started the book, so he’s a few years past that now.

TWILLEY: Like us all, he’s getting older. And that, actually, is what led him to the topic of his book.

GREENBERG: I did start this book in, you know, in the throes of kind of a panic about middle age. And when you Google all the things that are going wrong with you in middle age—your joints hurt, your blood pressure is going up, losing your memory—and you Google solutions for this, you know, what comes up again and again are Omega-3 supplements. So it struck me as a way, a lens for looking at the Omega-3 was to look at it through the lens of the sort of panic that you that you get in middle age around all these things.

TWILLEY: This episode is not about the panic.

GRABER: It’s about the Omega-3s. In fact Paul’s book is called The Omega Principle. Omega-3s have come up in our reporting this year, you might remember we talked about how important these fats are in our Alzheimer’s episode. But what are Omega-3s?

TWILLEY: And why is everyone from Dr. Oz to the American Heart Association telling us to eat more of them? Is there any science behind the idea that Omega-3s are miracle molecules?

GRABER: You’ve probably heard that there are Omega-3s in oily fish like salmon, but what about the pills you can buy at the drug store? Where does the Omega-3s in those come from?

TWILLEY: And what is this Omega-3 boom doing to our oceans, not just our bodies?

GRABER: All that, plus some adorable and mischievous sea lions. But first, we have some really exciting news: we are turning five! Next month!

TWILLEY: I know, we don’t look it. Or even act it sometimes. But it’s true. And five in podcast years is like… I don’t even know. It’s impressive. And we want to celebrate!

GRABER: But we need your help to do it! We’re planning a special birthday episode for September—yes, there will be birthday cake, at least the story of birthday cake—but the episode will be built on your votes.

TWILLEY: That’s right, we need your help to plan the perfect birthday party episode. We want you to vote for your favorite episodes from our first five years, so we can revisit the top ten in our birthday show! We have a link to our voting form on our website.

GRABER: We can’t make this special episode without you, so go vote! You have until August 23 to vote!

TWILLEY: Okay, we’re about to get back to this episode—which was made possible thanks to generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, and Economics, as well as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research.


TWILLEY: So 47-year-old Paul is on a Jet Ski with his guide, Jet Ski Brian.

GREENBERG: And so I told him I didn’t really want to go fishing. I wanted to actually watch this company called Omega Protein fish for menhaden.

TWILLEY: Paul was on his Jet Ski, in the Chesapeake Bay, watching this big blue ship scoop up these tiny silvery fish called menhaden. The company that owns the ship— Omega Protein—it’s actually the largest processor of menhaden in the U.S..

GRABER: Paul watched the mother ship lower little aluminum baby ships into the water. The boats circled the school of thousands of menhaden, and they scooped them together with a net.

TWILLEY: The ocean went frothy as the little fish thrashed around in the net, and Paul said suddenly the air smelled like watermelon—apparently that’s what menhaden smell like, although I wouldn’t know because I’ve never eaten one.

GRABER: Me neither, and probably none of you listeners have either. Because none of these oily menhaden get eaten—they’re being converted into things like fish meal and fish oil—fish meal to feed animals. And fish oil for Omega-3 supplements.

TWILLEY: So what are these magical Omega-3 things?

GREENBERG: Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fat fatty acids. You know you can go wheels within wheels to get more and more deeply exactly what that means, but basically what it means is that they have a double bond at the tail end of their structure between two carbon atoms. And that makes them much more sort of dynamic and flexible.

GRABER: And that flexibility of these Omega-3 fatty acids is awesome for fish that swim fast in cold waters. But these types of fats first evolved not to help with swimming but to turn sunlight into energy. They played a key role in photosynthesis in the very earliest and simplest microscopic creatures that swam in the oceans.

TWILLEY: These little phytoplankton guys, they’re like tiny, super-basic algae. They only did one thing, which was photosynthesize. And they were making Omega-3s to grease the wheels of their sunlight harvesting machinery. And they got really good at it. They harvested so much sunlight and breathed in so much carbon dioxide that they completely changed Earth’s climate.

GREENBERG: But not the climate change we are all obsessed with. But climate change going in the other direction. So back in the days of the early Earth, we had a atmosphere that was very soaked in carbon dioxide.

GRABER: As you might have heard, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere keeps things pretty hot. So then when those phytoplankton used a lot of carbon dioxide, the atmosphere got colder. Pretty dramatically colder.

TWILLEY: Which fortunately the little phytoplankton could adapt thanks to … our heroes, the Omega-3s.

GREENBERG: It turns out that having Omega-3 fatty acids in your membranes makes your membranes more pliable and more dynamic at colder temperatures.

GRABER: One important thing about Omega-3s is that they come in different flavors. There’s the one used in photosynthesis called ALA, and it’s still around in leafy green plants today. And then there’s one called DHA. The early sea creatures turned their ALA into DHA to make them cold-water powerhouses.

GREENBERG: And that’s basically it was used for. But you know as evolution goes of course whatever things were originally designed for gets repurposed and reconfigured for other purposes further down the line.

TWILLEY: The first phytoplankton were photosynthetic, but if you have a system for gathering light, it’s just a few short evolutionary steps to having a system for sensing light. Aka the eye. And these plankton with eyes became hunters—they started eating the eyeless photosynthetic plankton to get their energy.

GRABER: And then at some point in evolutionary history, those hunter plankton didn’t bother making Omega-3 fatty acids themselves anymore. They just ate them.

TWILLEY: Those Omega-3s—specifically the DHA variety—they still play an essential role in the parts of the eye that pick up light. For all animals with eyes, including us. We couldn’t see without Omega-3s.

GREENBERG: What I found throughout looking at Omega-3s was it’s kind of the Forrest Gump molecule.

GRABER: First of all, Omega-3s are everywhere in the plant world, because they’re critical for photosynthesis. Omega-3s are literally the most abundant fat on earth. And then, as we just said, they’re critical in all animal’s eyes for the same light sensing reason.

TWILLEY: Basically, they’re so bendy and flexible that they’re super useful anywhere you want to be dynamic and mobile—anything that has to move fast or transmit signals fast.

GRABER: Moving fast—so remember those tiny watermelon-scented menhaden? They have to swim super fast in cold water. And so they are super oily and packed with Omega-3s. And another tiny creature that has to swim really fast? Sperm. Also full of oily Omega-3s.

TWILLEY: Other places you might find this Forest Gump molecule are the heart—depending on your blood pressure, that’s moving pretty fast. Also, hummingbirds. Their wings have to beat 52 times per second and so those muscles are crammed with Omega-3s.

GRABER: Another weird place you can find Omega-3s: in the hooves of the caribou that roam the frozen tundra. The fact that Omega-3s stay flexible in the cold helps keep the caribou’s blood circulating even when their hooves are marching through the super cold permafrost of the Arctic.

TWILLEY: But the tissue with the largest amount of Omega-3s is your brain! Your brain isn’t moving, but all the cells in it are sending signals really fast, so they need to be bendy and flexible too.

GRABER: In fact, a few decades ago, a scientist named Michael Crawford got interested in the relationship between Omega-3s and our brains.

GREENBERG: Yes, so Michael Crawford, he was based in Africa and he did some initial look—sort of looking at comparative analysis of different brains. And I think he looked at 40 different mammalian brains and what he found was that the size of your brain was directly dependent on the amount of DHA Omega-3 fatty acid that was available. So that, you know, sort of leading to this conclusion later on that Omega-3s, DHA Omega-3 fatty acids were an essential part of the human brain.

GRABER: As I said before, those earliest hunters with the earliest eyes, they didn’t bother making Omega-3s, even though they needed them, because they could just eat them. And we’re the same way. We eat all the Omega-3s we need, either from green plants or really mostly from oily fish that eat those plankton to power their cold-water-tolerant bendy muscles.

TWILLEY: There are so many freaking phytoplankton making Omega-3s—I mean, literally, there’s one species of phytoplankton alone that is the most abundant species on earth. So although almost all animals need Omega-3s, pretty much none of them actually bother making them.

GRABER: Omega-3s are the fats everyone is obsessed with, and you can see why—we need them to think. And to see. But they aren’t the only Omega fats out there. Any plants that can photosynthesize can make Omegas—and not just Omega-3s.

GREENBERG: So there are Omega-6s, there are Omega-9s. Omega-12s. There’s all sorts of Omegas.

TWILLEY: You’ve probably heard of Omega-6s, they’re not as famous as Omega-3s, they’re like the less well-known, less desirable sibling.

GREENBERG: Organisms that use Omega-6s as their primary fatty acid tend to be more rigid. Because the Omega-6 itself is a much more rigid structure. So when we look at things like corn and soy, particularly corn oil and soy oil, they tend to have a nutritional profile that leans towards Omega-6. And in fact many things on land are going to tend towards Omega-6 because, well, they need to stand upright.

GRABER: Omega-6s are also actually a critical part of our diets. We’d die without them. They’re in seeds and seed oils—corn oil, sunflower and safflower and soy oil, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds.

TWILLEY: And even though they’re essential, they get a bad rap these days. Which we’ll come back to.

GRABER: Yes, we are going to come back to the relationship between these fatty acids and our health—but overall, it’s clear that these fatty acids are found in so many parts of our bodies and that they’re essential to our existence. But how did we figure that out?

TWILLEY: The answer involves rats with dandruff, Spam, and a Baptist scientist.

GRABER: This story starts back in the 1800s. That’s when scientists first really started to figure out what it was in food that was good for us.

GREENBERG: So you had the 19th century, which was all about the discovery of vitamins and minerals, right? And we kind of went through that whole thing.

TWILLEY: We talked about that whole thing in our vitamin episode—this complete shift in our understanding of what food was doing for us and our health.

GREENBERG: And into the 20th century, you know, medical research was always looking for new angles and people started to wonder did fat have any kind of nutritional quality to it.

TWILLEY: Back then, everyone knew fat was a great source of energy, in the form of calories. But no one realized fat was essential—like, you’d die without fat.

GRABER: Until George and Mildred Burr came along in the 1920s.

GREENBERG: These two scientists, the Burrs, a husband and wife team that did these deprivation experiments with rats where they deprived them of fat and then saw that when they didn’t have fat they actually wasted away and had all these other physiological problems.

GRABER: The rats looked pretty bad without any fat in their diet. They had dandruff and scaly skin. Their tails swelled and got ridges. They had no fur around their faces. And then they died.

TWILLEY: But if the Burrs gave them just three drops of lard before it was too late, they recovered! Pigs eat everything, some of those things have Omegas in them, and so lard has some Omega-3s and 6s in it. Not that anyone knew an Omega from Adam at the time. Omegas hadn’t yet been discovered. No one knew which of the chemicals in fats was saving the rats’ lives.

GREENBERG: So it was established that fats were important. But then what kinds of fats? And then a lot of sort of deepening research happened in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

GRABER: Ralph Holman is the guy who discovered the Omegas. George Burr was his thesis advisor.

TWILLEY: George and Mildred Burr did their rat fat deprivation study and then they quit and moved to Hawaii to study pineapples. And Ralph Holman picked up the fat torch.

GREENBERG: He used to work for the Hormel company that was, you know, worked on Spam and so forth.

GRABER: All the different fatty foods and oils you might find in your kitchen have a combination of different fatty acids in them. Like lard, which is mostly an animal fat you’ve heard of called saturated fat, but it also has these Omega unsaturated fats. And some of those different types of fatty acids go rancid more quickly than others. Hormel wanted Ralph Holman to figure out which fats went bad, so the company’s Spam wouldn’t go bad.

TWILLEY: So Ralph did experiments to figure out what all these different fatty acids are. Which meant he was the one who discovered Omegas. And got to name them.

GREENBERG: But he was a Baptist growing up and he knew his Bible really well and he came up with the nomenclature and decided to call it Omega-3. Because there’s a line, I think, in Revelations. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, et cetera, et cetera.

TWILLEY: In the Greek alphabet, Alpha is the first letter, and Omega is the last. It’s at the end. And that’s also where the distinguishing feature of these special fats is—the chemical structure that makes them so bendy and pliable.

GREENBERG: So if you count three carbon atoms in from the end, that’s where you’ll find your first double bond. So that’s why it’s called the Omega-3.

TWILLEY: And if the first double bond is six carbon atoms in—well, you’re looking at an Omega-6. And so on. Omega-3s just have more double bonds all along their length.

GRABER: These double bonds are what make them so flexible. But these bonds also react really easily with oxygen, and that makes them turn rancid super quickly. Ralph’s discovery was useful to Hormel—eventually scientists figured out how to get rid of those Omega-3s in processed foods to make them more shelf-stable.

TWILLEY: So at this point in history, thanks to George, Mildred, and Ralph—

GRABER: And Spam

TWILLEY: —all thanks to spam—so at this point, we’ve identified Omega-3s, we know that rats will develop dandruff and die without fat, but we don’t know what those fats are doing that is so essential. Meanwhile, scientists have started connecting animal fat and cholesterol to heart disease.

GREENBERG: And so there were these two doctors named Bang and Dyerberg who went to Greenland in the early 1970s

GRABER: Olaf Bang and Jorn Dyerberg went to Greenland because the Inuit there seemed like a paradox. They ate a lot of meat, mostly from seals, and a lot of fat. At the time, meat and saturated animal fat were thought to be the main cause of heart disease—but the Inuit had really low levels of heart disease. So Bang and Dyerberg tested their blood.

GREENBERG: And they were the ones who discovered that Inuit populations there had very, very high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in their blood. They also had a diet that consisted primarily of marine mammals and fish.

TWILLEY: While Bang and Dyerberg were doing their Greenland thing, Michael Crawford was doing his brain measuring thing. And suddenly Omega-3s were the hot new molecule on the block.

GREENBERG: It all kind of sort of smushed together. I think the very first dietary supplements that we started to see—Omega-3 dietary supplements—were really kind of like early 80s.

GRABER: These might have been the first supplements with the words ‘Omega-3’ on the label, but they certainly weren’t the first time we used fish oil as medicine. Which we are going to tell you all about.


GREENBERG: Yeah. So garum might just be the world’s first Omega-3 dietary supplement. It was an ancient fish sauce that seems to have come possibly from the Phoenicians, although we don’t know, I wasn’t there.

TWILLEY: The theory is that this fish sauce made its way from the Phoenicians through the Greeks and eventually to the Romans.

GREENBERG: What we do know for sure is that the Romans absolutely loved it. And, in fact, if you go to Pompei, if you were to try and reconstruct what Roman civilization was built around based upon what you found in Pompei, you would conclude that it was primarily a fish-sauce manufacturing country or empire. Because that there were so many vessels of this fish sauce called garum found everywhere.

GRABER: To make garum, ancient Romans took whole anchovies or mackerel, guts, heads and all. They mixed the fish with a lot of salt. And then they let the whole mess rot in the sun for months. They’d stir it occasionally, some people would add some wine. And, at the end, they’d funnel off the resulting liquid.

GREENBERG: Romans used it as a condiment. It was found in ancient recipes. It’s more common than salt in the recipes. So it was very salty so it provided that aspect to it. But it had a certain kind of stinky, umami-ish thing that it gave to food.

TWILLEY: Sounds delicious! But garum was more than just fish sauce. It was a supplement. Romans poured it down the noses of sick animals, they took it as a laxative, but also to cure chronic diarrhea, they believed it could restore a lost appetite, and treat everything from tuberculosis to migraine headaches.

GREENBERG: People used it as a curative as well for sciatica. Some people thought it could cure an upset stomach. People associated with with amorous qualities as well.

GRABER: It was a big deal. Romans brought their garum with them everywhere. Turns out, they might have been on to something.

GREENBERG: Recently some Spanish food scientists recreated, reconstructed how you would have made garum. They did that and then they sort of tested it for its nutritional qualities and it had a number of very useful nutrients including being very high in Omega-3 fatty acids.

GRABER: You might never have heard of garum, that’s kind of ancient history. But you might have heard of something that was used for a lot of the same health benefits, and that’s cod liver oil.

TWILLEY: Or maybe not, because, if you remember taking cod liver oil, you are pretty much an archaeological specimen yourself.

GREENBERG: Cod liver oil is sort of an interesting case because—so those who are a little bit older might remember a day when they didn’t know exactly what Omega-3 was but they did take cod liver oil. Cod liver oil is actually very high in Omega-3s. And the reason—so cod themselves, if you eat a fillet of cod, it’s actually not particularly Omega-3 rich or particularly oily. Cod tend to store their oil in their liver. And one of the reasons they do that is because it allows them to shuttle the Omega-3s over to their gonads when it’s time for reproduction.

TWILLEY: And just like human testicles, cod balls require plenty of Omega-3s to do their sexy thing.

GRABER: So we humans have been taking Omega-3 supplements in fish oil for thousands of years actually, if you consider the history of people swallowing some garum or cod liver oil to help with various ailments. They didn’t know those were Omega-3s. The people buying supplements today, though, they certainly do.

GREENBERG: Ralph Holman went to the store—this guy who had named them the Omega-3 fatty acids—went to a store and saw a jar of supplement—of fish oil—and it said “Omega-3s are here!” And he bought it. And he was so excited!

TWILLEY: Today, Paul says that Omega-3s supplements are a $15 billion industry—an industry that is still growing at seven percent each year. Omega-3s are also one of the world’s most profitable supplements. After all, they’re supposed to help with diseases of aging—heart disease, dementia, cancer, even—and the West is clogged up with all these boomers right now, who don’t want to go quietly into the night.

GRABER: But as a big a market as those aging boomers are for the supplement industry—and it’s a huge, huge market—it’s actually not the biggest market for these tiny fish. Today, oily fish, full of Omega-3s, are a super important ingredient in animal feed.

GREENBERG: And this is really the key, the killer app, so to speak, for little fish. First they started feeding all these little fish to chickens. Then they fed them to pigs.

TWILLEY: What happens is, in industrial hog production, piglets are not allowed to nurse for very long, so they don’t get enough Omega-3 fatty acids from their mothers milk. So the farmers have to add Omega-3s to pig infant formula.

GRABER: And this means that fish oil and fish powder have gone industrial. Chicken feed, pig feed. And actually it’s a major ingredient in cat food, too. And so a lot of the fish caught in the world are not eaten as fish.

GREENBERG: Yeah, a lot. It’s something like 20 to 25 million metric tons a year, which is, you know, around close to a quarter of all the fish that we catch is reduced. This completely invisible thing. And you know if you were to weigh that—you know, 25 million metric tons, what is that? That’s actually the equivalent of the human weight of the United States taken out of the sea every year.

GRABER: It is impossible to picture that, but, obviously, it’s a lot.

TWILLEY: Today, the biggest market for all those ground up tiny fish? Is: Other fish. Farmed fish.

GREENBERG: Because there are a lot of fish out there that just simply need Omega-3s. They just will die if they don’t get Omega-3s—salmon being one of them. So probably the global salmon industry is probably the biggest market right now for all these little fish.

GRABER: It’s not just that some animals can’t live without Omega-3s—salmon, for instance, and baby pigs. It’s also that other farmed fish, they grow faster when their diets are supplemented with fish meal.

TWILLEY: The little fish that are feeding all these bigger fish—for the most part, we’ve never heard of them. Like the menhaden that Paul Jet Skied out to see in the Chesapeake. Or like the Peruvian anchoveta.

GREENBERG: Which is the largest fishery in the world. Sometimes it’s been as much as more than 10 percent of the world catch.

GRABER: Paul traveled to Peru to see what a fish catch at this scale looks like. He sailed with a fisherman out into the turbulent Pacific at 2 AM.

GREENBERG: And I thought we were immediately going to go to the fishing grounds, but instead we stopped about an hour or two in and just waited. And I said why, why are we waiting? He’s like, well, we have to wait for the other boats. I’m like, you know that just goes totally contrary to everything a fisherman always thinks. You know, I want to be the first one out to the grounds.I was like, why? He’s like, well, you’ll see.

GRABER: So they wait. And then suddenly there are dozens and dozens of boats all around, all sailing together towards the same point.

GREENBERG: And I realized why we were doing this and the reason we were doing this is because there were so many sea lions that immediately got on the fishing nets that if you didn’t have a number of boats they would all congregate around one boat and eat basically eat your net to shreds. And what was really interesting about it was that you know you always see these sort of Greenpeace moments of like, oh, the poor sea lion who got caught accidentally. He was just minding his own business and he got scooped up by the net. But what was kind of crazy about this Peruvian situation—the sea lions totally knew the game.

TWILLEY: These sea lions were just lounging around, waiting for the humans to gather all the anchoveta together into a nice oily anchoveta ball. And then they would jump in the net.

GREENBERG: And they would just you know sit there and they would just eat and eat and eat and eat. And people would be shouting at them and they’d be like, they’d stick up their noses. Oh no, it’s too delicious here. I don’t want to leave! And eventually they would kind of harass them enough so they would leap over the net and get out.

GRABER: So it looks to Paul like a pretty healthy ecosystem. There are clearly a lot of fish out there, and the fishermen are all pulling in quite a hefty haul.

TWILLEY: In both Peru and in the Chesapeake—there seem to be shedloads of tiny fish, even though these companies scoop out so much.

GREENBERG: Everybody will say that their industry is totally sustainable, that they’ve—you know, they used to be overfished but now they’ve really worked it out and da da da. And granted a lot of these countries and regions and companies have made adjustments. But I always go back to the fact of what if 25 million metric tons of fish were still in the sea? What would the ocean look like if we had 25 million extra tons of prey, of food for whales, for birds, for the fish that we like to eat. And nobody could ever give me a clear answer on that.

TWILLEY: Paul’s point is, these little oily fish, they would normally be eaten by other sea creatures, or by seabirds, or they’d die and their nutrients would cycle around in the marine ecosystem. But now that food source is gone.

GRABER: And, frankly, any time we humans think there’s an endless supply of something, well, there isn’t. Hundreds of years ago, sailors said there was so much cod in the Atlantic they could practically walk across it. Then we fished nearly all of it.

TWILLEY: We talked about this in our counting fish episode—there are plenty of fishermen today who will still say there’s loads of cod in the ocean, even though there’s nowhere near as much as there used to be. It’s called a shifting baseline.

GREENBERG: And shifting baseline basically says that each successive generation has a diminished view of what it perceives as abundant in nature. Like the example of codfish: if I go out nowadays out of Long Island and I catch five codfish, I’ll think that I would have had a fantastic day. My father, if he goes out, if he catches five codfish, will think it’s a miserable day. And my grandfather, if he’d gone out, would think like what the heck has gone wrong in the universe that you could only catch five codfish.

TWILLEY: In other words, we don’t really know the environmental impact of our hunger for Omega-3s. But it’s a safe bet that there is one, and it isn’t great.

GRABER: But doctors and scientist are telling us to eat seafood, salmon in particular, and a lot of them are also suggesting Omega-3 fish oil pills. And both of those things are exactly what the Peruvian anchovetas are getting turned into. So maybe it’s worth it?

TWILLEY: Only if Omega-3s are doing all the miraculous things people claim they’re doing. Which, it turns out, scientists do have something to say about.


JOANN MANSON: The interest in Omega-3s has waxed and waned over the decades.

TWILLEY: This is JoAnn Manson—she’s an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School.

MANSON: Interestingly, about 30-40 years ago, there was tremendous interest in Omega-3s in having a role reducing cardiovascular disease.

GRABER: This is the time that people were concerned about animal fats and heart health, and Bang and Dyerberg saw that the Inuit were doing well with their Omega-3 rich diet of seals and fish, so maybe Omega-3 pills would help the rest of us.

MANSON: And some of the randomized trials of Omega-3s that were done in the 1980s, 1990s looked promising. But then more recent trials were actually disappointing.

GRABER: There was a big study last year that looked at other studies—it’s called a meta analysis. And it showed that there was actually no heart benefit from taking Omega-3 fatty acid supplements.

MANSON: And that led to a lot of discouragement about Omega-3s.

TWILLEY: But JoAnn says the problem was that there were problems with a lot of these earlier studies.

MANSON: So the randomized trials of Omega-3s have included some trials with lower doses that may not be adequate dosing. Some trials that were short duration, even less than a year, or only one to two years. It’s been a mixed bag.

GRABER: Those earlier studies were also done on patients who already had heart disease, or had suffered from a stroke, or they had diabetes—they basically already had health issues. Which meant they weren’t necessarily a great test of whether Omega-3 supplements would help the general public.

TWILLEY: So JoAnn set up a trial of her own.

MANSON: Well, very surprisingly, the Vitamin D and Omega-3 trial, VITAL, was the first large scale randomized clinical trial of Omega-3s in a true usual risk population.

GRABER: JoAnn’s trial was called VITAL, and it was a fully randomized, double blinded trial. That meant some of the participants took a supplement, and some took a placebo, and none of the doctors knew which was which.

TWILLEY: There were more than 25,000 participants, all over fifty years old.

MANSON: But they were just all comers. Some of them did have hypertension or diabetes as you would have in the usual population but they were generally healthy.

TWILLEY: The folks in the trial who were getting the fish oil supplement got a gram of Omega-3s a day, the others took their placebo, and then JoAnn sat back and waited—for more than five years—to see what happened to everyone.

GRABER: JoAnn told us that if you look at how many people in the trial ended up having a heart attack or a stroke, well, the Omega-3s didn’t make a difference. But that changed if you took strokes out of the equation.

MANSON: We saw a reduction in fatal heart attack, about a 50% reduction there. So we did see significant reductions in coronary heart disease related events. We saw no reduction in stroke.

GRABER: Okay, no reduction in strokes, but the reduction in fatal heart attacks is intriguing.

TWILLEY: Where it gets really intriguing is in the differences between different participants. People who ate less than one and half servings of fish a week—so they weren’t getting a lot of Omega-3s in their normal diet—those people, if they got the Omega-3 supplement, a statistically significant percentage of them had a reduction in heart disease overall, even including stroke.

GRABER: In comparison, people who did eat fish did not see a reduction in heart disease from taking the supplement. But here’s an important thing to know: the percentage difference might look dramatic, but the numbers are really, really small. For instance, of the more than 13,000 people who didn’t eat a lot of fish, the difference in who ended up with heart disease and who didn’t was only about 40 people.

TWILLEY: Obviously if you’re one of those 40 people who didn’t get heart disease, that’s great, but 40 people out of 13,000 is not nearly the huge impact it might sound like if you just hear the percentage reduction. But it is statistically significant evidence for the benefit of Omega-3s.

GRABER: And there was another subgroup that seemed to benefit more than others from the supplement.

MANSON: We had very dramatic reductions in the risk of heart attack among the African-Americans with the Omega-3s. They actually had a 77 percent reduction in the risk of having a first heart attack. Now this could be a chance finding. This needs to be replicated. Because if African-Americans are benefiting this much from Omega-3 supplementation, it’s really important to know that. And it could play a role in reducing health disparities.

GRABER: Once again, the actual numbers are super super small, so the results are promising, but, as JoAnn says, it could be chance. Plus, we also want to point out that even if there is a benefit from the supplements for African-Americans, it might have nothing at all to do with skin color.

TWILLEY: In general, African-Americans have lower incomes than white Americans, they have poorer access to health care, they tend to live in more polluted areas, and of course, not unrelated to all of those other factors, they’re subject to discrimination and racism.

MANSON: So our findings in African-Americans could be due to a number of factors. One possible explanation is increased stress and even increased exposure to air pollution and some environmental risk factors where the Omega-3s have been implicated in having benefits.

TWILLEY: Right now, the only results JoAnn has from her VITAL trial are to do with heart health. But taking Omega-3s is supposed to have lots of other wonderful benefits, and the trial is looking at them too

MANSON: We’re looking at cognitive function, mood depression, risk of Type 2 diabetes, autoimmune conditions, and a number of other health outcomes. We’re still in the process of doing the data analysis. But stay tuned. We will have results from many of these other studies within the next three to six months.

GRABER: There’s plenty more research ahead, both for JoAnn and for other scientists who are looking at Omega-3s and health. These findings have to be confirmed by other scientists. And there are a lot of questions: how much Omega-3 do we need? Is more better?

TWILLEY: But JoAnn’s study, which is just one study but is a really solid study, makes it seem as though Omega-3 supplements are beneficial for some folks. But assuming other scientists replicate these findings—does that mean people who would benefit from more Omega-3 should get those Omega-3s in pill form?

GRABER: In JoAnn’s study, she had to deliver those Omega-3s in capsules. Otherwise it’d be pretty obvious who was getting the Omega-3 and who had a placebo—some people would be eating a lot of mackerel and salmon and sardines, and some, well, they wouldn’t.

TWILLEY: But outside the constraints of a scientific study, is consuming your Omega-3s as a pill really the way to go?

MANSON: So, I’m glad you asked this question because I think the primary recommendation is to try to increase consumption of fish and not to jump to popping a pill.

GRABER: JoAnn says it’s not clear whether there’s really a difference between the two, but she says that one of the benefits of eating your Omega-3s in fish and not in a pill is that eating fish might be taking the place of eating something that’s not quite as good for you.

MANSON: So if you’re having fish more frequently you may end up having red meat, saturated fat, processed foods less frequently and you’re replacing them with a food that’s more healthful.

GREENBERG: The other issue is that the human body has evolved to incorporate nutrients based on food. And a lipid taken out of context of other lipids, and just sort of just a shot of lipid right there in the morning when people are most likely to probably take their supplement, seems to me maybe out of sync with what the body is able to deal with.

TWILLEY: What’s more, as regular Gastropod listeners know, all supplements are not created equal. Because there’s no real federal oversight of the supplement business, some are pure Omega-3 goodness. And some are not.

GREENBERG: The companies that are making supplements are making them from fish that weren’t necessarily refrigerated upon capture. Omega-3s are very dynamic compounds and they will oxidize very quickly and if they oxidize then they’re not really going to provide the health benefit that we’re looking for.

GRABER: The oils turn rancid, and when they’re rancid, they’re just not good for you any more.

MANSON: So it’s important to look on the label for some of the signs of quality control. The seals of U.S. Pharmacopeia, USP, and NSF. Various ways that you can tell that there’s some external audit going on for quality control.

TWILLEY: OK, but if you do find a good quality supplement— should you be taking it? Should we all be popping Omega-3s, just as back up?

MANSON: So our advice at this point would be not for the entire population to start taking a Omega-3 fish oil supplement because we really are not seeing overall widespread benefits.

TWILLEY: So fish is best. But do I have to eat those watermelon-smelling menhaden or what?

GRABER: Well, not necessarily menhaden—but yeah, different fish have different amounts of Omega-3s. As we said earlier, fish that swim really quickly in cold water have a lot of Omega-3s. You’ve heard of these fatty fish: herring and anchovies and sardines and mackerel and salmon and sablefish, otherwise known as Pacific black cod. Not the cod most people eat from the Atlantic.

TWILLEY: The problem with normal cod and other white fish—haddock, tilapia, flounder, grouper—is that they just don’t get enough exercise. Cod don’t swim for miles and miles and miles, like mackerel do.

GREENBERG: It’ll have a quick lunge but then most of the time it’s kind of a lazy kind of fish. So it’s not so essential to have these hard swimming oils in their bodies.

GRABER: If you’re only eating cod and haddock, you are probably not getting enough Omega-3s in your diet.

TWILLEY: But this question of enough—this is where it gets complicated.

GREENBERG: You know if you’re just talking to your family physician, a lot of physicians will say something like you know 500 milligrams a day. And you can kind of hit that amount if you have, I think it was like something like four anchovies a day. So like you know 8 little fillets of anchovies, which is really not a lot.

GRABER: But if your family physician does say this, well, it’s not actually based on settled science. We don’t know how much we need of these Omega-3s. And there’s another thing that makes this question even more complicated—

TWILLEY: So here’s the thing. We told you we outsource production of Omegas—we just eat them. And we also told you that the Omega-3s used in photosynthesis, the ALAs—that they are the most abundant fat in the world. And then we told you that our brains and our hearts need the other kind of Omega-3s, the marine kind.

GRABER: There’s some good news here—we can actually make that marine kind, in our bodies, from ALA from plants! We can convert the plant Omega-3 from flax seeds and chia seeds and leafy greens—we can convert it into the marine Omega-3 that our brains and our hearts need.

TWILLEY: But can we make enough? No one is sure. And part of the reason no one is sure is because it’s possible that the specific amount matters less than the ratio.

GRABER: Yes, the ratio. Specifically the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3. Remember, Omega-6s are in corn and soy, basically in seed oils. Omega-6s are critical, but some scientists think we shouldn’t have too much of them.

GREENBERG: Omega-6s interfere with the body’s ability to elongate short chain Omega-3 fatty acids that we’re getting from leafy greens and so forth. And they also seem to lead to the production of inflammatory compounds.

TWILLEY: And here’s why. Your body uses whichever Omega happens to be handy in order to build all the things it needs to be bendy and flexible, like cell membranes. Omega-3s are the bendiest and most supple of all, but, if Omega-6s are what’s most available, that’s what your body will use.

GRABER: Scientists think that if your cell membranes are made of Omega-6s rather than 3s, they’re not as flexible, and the communication between cells doesn’t work as well.

TWILLEY: And the movement of other chemicals around your body— it’s less fluid and more explosive because the cell membranes are a little stiffer. And some scientists think that more explosive movement is more stressful for your body and can cause inflammation. Which is bad.

GRABER: Right. And, one final point here, food technologists have gotten rid of as much Omega-3 as possible in processed food because it turns rancid quickly, as we told you. Omega-6 doesn’t go bad quite as fast. And corn and soy are so cheap. So our processed food world is full of Omega-6s, far, far more than we would have eaten in the past.

TWILLEY: So are our industrially produced animal products, because cows and pigs and chickens are fed corn and soy rather than grass and bugs and stuff.

GREENBERG: Terrestrial meats that are fed a feedlot diet will have an Omega-6 ratio far in excess of what we think probably Neolithic humans might have had in their own blood.

GRABER: This is all a hypothesis. Nobody has proven this ratio question—in fact, when we asked JoAnn about it, she didn’t even want to touch it.

TWILLEY: The basic mechanisms makes sense, biologically. The idea that the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 in our diet has changed over time, and so has the incidence of all kinds of heart disease and other industrial world health problems—that’s based on observational evidence. But overall, it’s still an argument, not a fact. JoAnn agrees—there’s still huge gaps in our understanding when it comes to Omegas and health.

GRABER: But at the end of the day, whether or not the ratio matters, it’s not a bad idea to add more oily fish to your diet. Fish like mackerel, sardines, herring, salmon.

TWILLEY: Farmed salmon is actually often a little higher in Omega-3s than its wild counterpart. But it’s being fed anchoveta. And Paul says that’s not a good use of anchoveta.

GREENBERG: And you know the people who argue for the Peruvian anchoveta industry doing what it’s doing say, well, I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it. We’re still making human food. We’re just making these pellets that we’re sending to Norway so they can feed salmon. We’re just transforming it. I don’t know if I buy that argument. I think that, you know, a lot is lost in the process and we could probably do a lot better.

TWILLEY: What’s lost is that pound for pound, you are getting less food at the end by feeding the small fish to the big fish, than if you just ate the small fish. So it’s a waste. Not to mention the energy you use to reduce the small fish into pellets and ship them around the world.

GRABER: So it’s not really a great idea to feed the anchoveta to salmon instead of just eating those anchoveta directly—which Paul says taste exactly like anchovies.

TWILLEY: Or just leaving more in the oceans for all the other sea creatures.

GRABER: But Paul says maybe there is a better way to feed salmon and to make supplement oil—

TWILLEY: A way that is in fact how Omega-3s are created in the first place. By tiny microscopic phytoplankton, basically algae. I mean, why not cut out the middlemen?

GREENBERG: Why kill hundreds of millions of billions of fish every year to reduce into the supplement, when you could grow them using algae which would actually sequester carbon and do all these other kinds of things in the process.

GRABER: This is actually something that people are working on—they’re growing algae and harvesting Omega-3s. You can find algae-based Omega-3 fatty acids in supplements at the stores. But they’re really expensive right now. So they’re not being used as salmon feed.

TWILLEY: But hopefully that’ll change in the future. If farmed fish were being fed algae-based Omega-3—well, Paul says, that would be a game changer for the planet.

GREENBERG: So you know I think there are a lot of people out there who like never want to eat a farmed fish. And they think that they’ve heard all these bad things about about aquaculture. But what I realized was that we could conceivably produce fish and shellfish at a fraction of what—using the fraction amount of carbon and a fraction of the energy and just generally have this source of protein that was much greener.

GRABER: This is a change for a fish guy like Paul. He’s spent most of his life and career as a writer focusing on wild fish, but as he wrote this book, he came around to a new idea. Maybe it’s a better idea is to grow algae on land and use those algal Omega-3s to feed farmed fish. And leave more wild fish in the ocean.

TWILLEY: Maybe by growing marine Omega-3s on land, we can have our fish—farmed fish—and healthier oceans too.

GREENBERG: Interestingly, I started this book with this idea of trying to understand what the miracle supplement was. But I came away from it being like, huh, the sea and the products that we could get from the sea could completely reshape the way that we eat and make our footprint on the planet much much gentler.


TWILLEY: But in the meantime, truly, my hot tip is to dissolve anchovies into all your sauces. It’s just salty umami deliciousness, no excess fishiness. Paul actually has even more recipes to help you love oily fish in his book, The Omega Principle, which we have a link to on our website.

GRABER: Thanks to Paul Greenberg this episode, and also to JoAnn Manson of Harvard University. And to the Sloan Foundation and the Burrows Wellcome Fund for supporting our science and health reporting.

TWILLEY: Do not forget to vote for your favorite episode for our birthday special. I cannot wait! I live for birthday cake.

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.