Ultra-processed food, dying soil, and harmful chemicals negatively impact metabolic health across the globe. Levels advisor Robert Lustig discusses the food industry’s corrupt history, its ongoing consequences, and what we can do about it.
Chemicals in Our Food
Ben Grynol: Metabolic health is very much this upstream concept in health and wellness, with numerous downstream implications. In the food system, production is upstream. When we think about companies involved in production—not food processing, but more in agriculture—we think of BASF, Bayer, DuPont. But these are chemical companies. How do some products, or things like insecticides, get into the food production system to begin with?
Dr. Rob Lustig: Ultimately, there are the growers and then there are the helpers. We actually don’t know the growers’ names. They make up very small groups, for the most part. The helpers of the growers are the interesting ones, because they’ve got specific products that end up being incorporated into our food, which we don’t necessarily know because, after all, there’s no logo on the front.
There’s no logo on the front because all of these things have been, “Generally recognized as safe” by the government. Therefore, we “don’t need to know,” as it were. That’s where the rubber hits the road.
We’re not talking about Mom and Pop’s Farm. We’re not even talking about International Harvester or John Deere, which help produce food through cultivation. We’re talking about the groups of companies that add something or subtract something. Those companies are known to us as chemical companies, for the most part.
We’re talking about Monsanto, BASF, as you said, and Bayer, which bought Monsanto. We’re talking about Syngenta, in Europe. These are companies that make products that then either are used to change the food in some fashion or prevent its degradation with either herbicides or pesticides. To some extent, we’ve been able to increase productivity in the food system because we’ve decreased loss.
Locusts don’t kill off the weed fields anymore. That, in one way, is good. You can feed a lot more people, and do so cheaply when you don’t have a problem with wastage, spoilage, or destruction of crops.That has contributed to the US being the behemoth in food production that we’ve become. You could make an argument that’s a good thing. From an economic standpoint, that’s true.
What’s the downside of that? It starts in World War II. We had a problem with typhus and malaria and were losing troops in the field to these terrible infectious diseases. We had to basically clear the large swaths of land from vegetation.
In the 1920s this new product called DDT, which was originally produced in the 1870s, came along. In 1939, it started being applied to World War II vegetation, to try to help the American soldier. Iit was very effective in keeping the typhus problem significantly down during the war.
During World War I, we didn’t have it, and it was a huge issue. During World War II, we had other issues, but that wasn’t one of them. After the war, DDT started to be used as an insecticide, to get rid of vegetation virtually everywhere. In fact, the guy who brought DDT to the war, Paul Herman Mueller, won the Nobel prize in 1948 for the application of DDT to this.
It wasn’t until 1962 that we even realized there was a downside. This stuff was basically sprayed willy-nilly over the entire crop land of the United States in an attempt to try to reduce spoilage.
Then Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring, came along and said, “This is causing a problem.” It was causing problems in terms of cancer and fertility, because DDT is an estrogen. It doesn’t take much to be an estrogen. All it takes is two hydroxyl groups, 22 angstroms apart.
There are a lot of compounds in our environment that are estrogens, and a lot of compounds that are made by chemical companies that are estrogens. BPA, bisphenol A, which is used on the inside of packaging to keep cans from spoiling, is an example.The thermal paper we print our receipts on at Target is another example.
These compounds are almost everywhere. Carson was the first one to associate DDT with increased cancer risk, and also changes in fertility. We know that fertility is going down in humans. It’s also going down in animals all over the planet. We’ve got an alligator problem— not too many alligators, too few alligators. The entire Everglades may lose its entire alligator population, and it’s because of DDT. You can actually measure the DDT levels in the alligators.
DDT went away from the United States. We finally banned it in 1972, but you can measure its metabolite today in the alligators and in pregnant women’s urine in the Salinas Valley, which we did. I’m a member of an academic group out of UC Berkeley that studies a cohort in the Salinas Valley, Steinbeck country, called CHAMACOS. The cohort consists of the children and mothers of Salinas.
We assessed the health of these offspring of women who were exposed to these insecticides and pesticides early on in their pregnancy, and what affects this might have long term. We can see the effects on cognition, on reproduction, on obesity, on puberty. These compounds are estrogens. Estrogens make really good insecticides because they interfere with the life cycle of the insect. But they are poisoning us, too. We learned that the hard way, with DDT in particular.
We didn’t learn about anything else. Right on the heels of DDT being banned, everyone said, “Well, what are we going to do next? How are we going to fix the spoilage problem in the next round?”
Estrogens make really good insecticides because they interfere with the life cycle of the insect. But they are poisoning us, too. We learned that the hard way.
Then Monsanto came up with, shall we say, the “next big thing.” That was glyphosate. We are really now just pulling back the BandAid on the wound of glyphosate. This is, and continues to be, an enormous problem.
It’s not just glyphosate. If it were just glyphosate, that would be bad enough, but we’ve got another one, called atrazine, created by Syngenta. Both Monsanto and Syngenta claimed on a stack of Bibles that this stuff was safe.
But they’ve been paying out court cases for cancer both here and in Europe, not admitting wrongdoing. They’re all settled. Except for the case in 2018 where a gardener at a school ended up suing for his lymphoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and won $280 million. That sort of got Monsanto’s attention.
Actually, Bayer, another Big Ag company, ended up buying Monsanto. They’ve now created a fund where they have put $10 billion into glyphosate class action lawsuits. If that’s the case, how did these compounds get on the market in the first place? The answer is that nobody did the studies. That’s how.
Soil, Dirt, and Cows
Ben Grynol: That’s something you alluded to in your book Metabolical. Some of these chemicals or compounds make it into food production in some way, shape, or form, and just sort of make it onto the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list. There isn’t really any diligence. They’re just accepted as safe.
Let’s go back to the 1970s, when DDT was banned and when Monsanto came out with Roundup. That herbicide led to all of these problems. And we see, from your research on obesogens, how long it takes for something like DDT to actually get out of the system.
We know there was collusion and corruption with some of the awareness that Monsanto had internally about the health implications of the product, but they kept pushing it out to market. That has led to some very serious considerations, even now, with what we’re seeing with topsoil. Our topsoil is kind of dying, and we should think about regenerative farming. There are so many issues in addition to health.
Dr. Rob Lustig: You’re absolutely right. People think topsoil is just dirt, and it is not. There’s a difference between soil and dirt. They’re both ground, but they’re not the same. You cannot grow a plant in dirt, unless you spray fixed nitrogen, in the form of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, on it, and add a few extra things like Miracle-Gro.
But you can grow a plant in soil. The question is, “Is the plant that grows in the soil the same as the plant that grows in dirt with Miracle-Gro?” No. The food industry acts like it is, but it’s not.
Soil is alive. Soil has bacteria, viruses, fungi, mushrooms, all of which contribute to the vitality of that soil and allow for the plants to create the various chemicals they need for their survival. This helps them fend off foreign invaders—locusts, ticks, boll weevils—and also create the various nutritive compounds that help us, which we call vitamins, flavonoids, and various other things. We get all of these essential nutrients primarily from plants, and that’s why plants are important.
We need those chemicals; they are essential. We can’t make them; we have to consume them. They’re basically made by what’s in the soil. But the dirt doesn’t have that. It sprays the various chemicals that the plant ultimately needs, but it doesn’t actually then produce the things we want that plant to produce. That plant is essentially nutritionally deficient, because it didn’t have what it needed to create the chemicals it required for its survival.
Soil is alive. Soil has bacteria, viruses, fungi, mushrooms, all of which contribute to the vitality of that soil and allow for the plants to create the various chemicals they need for their survival. This also helps them create the various nutritive compounds that help us.
Processed plant production is not the same as regenerative farming, where you’re growing stuff in soil that works. This is part of the problem. It means that our current processed plant production in the United States is deficient. It’s deficient nutritionally, and it’s unbelievably problematic in terms of climate change.
Climate change is due to greenhouse gasses entering the atmosphere. The question is, “Where are those greenhouse gasses coming from?” The overwhelming majority is coming from industrial petroleum use rather than from agriculture. But agriculture definitely provides a proportion.
I’ve seen levels as low as 14%. I’ve seen levels as high as 33%, depending on who you read and depending on exactly what they are calling the use. Some of them just talk about the agriculture itself, some talk about the animals, some talk only about the plants, some add the transporting into the equation as well. There are different numbers as to what percent of climate change is due to agriculture. I don’t want to go there. That’s for the statisticians.
Everyone blames the cows. Everyone is saying cows make methane, and methane contributes to climate change. Methane does contribute to climate change. The question is, “Where’s the methane coming from?” It has many sources.
Cows make methane. Cows have always made methane. All you have to do is go to a cow farm and you’ll know pretty quickly that cows make methane. The question is, “How much?” In 1968, there were more cows in the United States than there are today, because of changes in meat consumption and current food processing. Yet the entire cow mass, if you will, in the United States produces hundreds of billions of pounds of methane per year.
Today, there are fewer herds of cattle, but those cattle are producing more methane. The question is, “How come they’re making so much more methane today than they were back then?” If we leveled out that amount, could we actually make a difference? The answer is yes, we could. Why are they making more methane? Antibiotics.
We are injecting all of those cattle with antibiotics. Back in 1968, they were being raised on farms, which had alfalfa, clover, and grass. That’s what these cows ate. They got the nutrients they needed to stave off infection from the various plant products available to them on the farm.
Today, those cows are not on the farm; they’ve been moved to something called a CAFO—concentrated animal feeding operation. They’re all throughout Nebraska and Kansas and Oklahoma. In these CAFOs there’s no place for the cows to roam or obtain food other than what is provided by the ranchers, which happens to be corn shipped from Iowa.
The reason this happened was because, back in 1971, former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz said we have to make food cheap. In order to do that, we have to create monoculture, because of economies of scale. That’s ultimately what changed the farm culture in America. We moved the cows to Kansas, and we moved all the corn to Iowa.
Then there was no manure to carbon fix the soil in Iowa. You had to spray the ammonium nitrate, which creates nitrous oxide, which is way more heat trapping than methane ever was. All the cows on the CAFOs have to receive antibiotics because they’re not getting the essential nutrients to maintain their ability to stave off infection.
Those antibiotics have basically killed the cows’ intestines. Nature abhors a vacuum. What moves in instead? The methanogens, which are resistant to those antibiotics, moved in. That’s why the cows are making more methane. The methanogens have taken over. Could we fix that? Could we undo that? If the cows ate what was on the farm, yes.
How are you going to do that? Put them back on the farm. That’s regenerative farming, where we carbon fix the old way, the right way, the way that made sense for thousands of years since the advent of the concept of agriculture, and undo the harmful food processing. Yes, the insecticides play a role, but so does the method of food production we have undertaken in the United States.
Ben Grynol: In one sense, Earl Butz is involved in instilling these incentives for monoculture, with a focus on quantity, quantity, quantity. Then there’s food. You’re taking away the symbiosis you get in an ecosystem with multiple types of plants, animals grazing on that land, cattle putting carbon back into the soil to get all of the organisms and bacteria growing.
Monoculture produced a ton of quantity, which is amazing. We fed a lot of people. But the downside is the quality went down so much that we’re now seeing the health implications from this food years later. It’s not something that is as easy to fix, because people say, “Well, we would love to get back into regenerative farming, but it’s too hard.” Then we just keep focusing on going down the path of monoculture. As we’ve seen, it has detrimental effects on the food production system.
Health and Agriculture Are Not Separate
Dr. Rob Lustig: You’re not old enough to remember this, but I am, unfortunately. Once upon a time we paid farmers not to grow certain crops. We did it for two reasons. One reason was because we didn’t want a glut; that strategy maintained higher prices when there was lower availability. The second reason was because that allowed farmers to take some of their land to lie fallow so that the soil could be regenerated, allowing for an improved topsoil layer. That’s how we managed farming back in the 1960s.
It worked, but food prices were high. They were artificially high, to some extent, but they were also high because we were starting to subsidize corn, wheat, soy, and sugar, which meant that all the other items were taxed, because if you’re subsidizing something, that means you’ve got to tax everything else in order to make book.
We already had a problem in terms of where the money was being allocated. In 1971, Richard Nixon realized that fluctuating food prices caused political unrest. Making food cheap became his goal and his contribution to Johnson’s war on poverty. America developed the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) during the Nixon years. It was also during the Nixon years that the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was expanded. The goal was to put something in people’s bellies, because that was better than starvation. Anything counted.
Was that a good idea? The whole country thought it was a good idea—until it wasn’t. Now we’re basically paying for the downside of that alteration in policy. The farmers today, the ones still around, will say this was a great policy. Many small farmers got knocked out of the box because it was all about monoculture, and only the big guys could play. Earl Butz said, “Row to row, furrow to furrow, get bigger, get out.”
This worked for a select few farmers, and that’s why there are now very few private farms in America’s Heartland. They’ve all gone away. In the process, we’ve also turned soil into dirt. The only way to make it productive is to spray nitrogen fertilizer on it. Now you’ve got this whole vicious cycle. How do you fix that? You have to make food better. You can’t make food better in dirt.
Ben Grynol: The principal-agent problem and all the moral hazard that comes with this is multi-tiered. In one sense, there are the producers, many of whom don’t own their land. Their incentive is to just produce; they’re not incentivized to actually take care of the land. Even if we assume that switching costs is easy, they are not incentivized, because they’re not vertically integrated.
When we start to think about the incentives from a subsidies perspective, from a monoculture perspective, the producer is incentivized to focus on profits over environment and profits over doing the right thing for long term health. It just keeps going.
Then you have the internal collusion that happens either between these companies or between independent agents during different parts of the process. That leads to a lot of complications. You put it so well in Metabolical. If we went upstream in food production, to address this problem, it’s a fraction of the cost of everything we pay in the healthcare system right now.
Dr. Rob Lustig: That’s right. Ultimately people see these as two separate silos. They see agriculture, and they see health. They’re not separate; they are two subsets of one silo. If you combine those two silos together on a spreadsheet, you would recognize that the current attempts to rob Peter at the agricultural level are paying Paul at the healthcare level. The farmers are not interested in the healthcare side. The healthcare side is not interested in the agricultural side. They don’t even understand how food ultimately impacts health. They only know that lack of food impacts health. They don’t see that the food has become toxic.
That’s the question I posed back in 2017 to the director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, which is part of the WHO and of the UN, Jose Gonzalez Da Silva. I said, “Which is worse? No food or bad food?”
He didn’t have an answer. The obvious answer would be no food, because no food starts wars. Wars have an end. Then the no food stops being a problem. I’m not saying we should all go to war. I’m saying that with bad food, the problem is insidious. Terrible things start happening and you don’t even realize the reasons for it. Ultimately it ends up costing way more in terms of lives, the economy, and healthcare expenditures. Taking care of chronic metabolic disease that came because of our lousy food is breaking the bank in virtually every developed and developing country.
Then we have the social determinant of health. Rich people can afford better food, and poor people can’t. That’s creating the social inequities that are tearing the country apart. Bad food, I’d argue, might actually be worse.
Money, Morality, and Incentives
Ben Grynol: Let’s play out the scenario. If we’re Bayer, we own Monsanto and we’re incentivized to grow a ton of food. But we’re incentivized to make a ton of money in pharmaceuticals because we do both. You know that the thing that you do helps get more people sick. You’re making money on both ends. You’re kind of caught in this dilemma where the worse you can do in the food production system—and I’m speaking very hyperbolically about this—the better you do in the pharmaceutical industry.
You just want it all to happen, because you’re going to make a lot of profit, which you need because you acquired a company, and also billions of dollars in lawsuits. What do you do?
Dr. Rob Lustig: They must have thought that it was a good trade. If they had thought that those billions of dollars were going to actually cut into their profits, they wouldn’t have taken on the purchase of Monsanto. They analyzed this and decided there was still more money to be made. It was a chemical company; it was a medicine company. It wasn’t a food company. But now it’s a food company.
Now they’ve got food and medicine. There’s another company that is in both food and medicine: Nestle. Nestle was always a food company. Now they’re going into diabetes drugs. What’s the conflict of interest there? That’s not moral hazard, that’s immoral hazard. You’re creating the market to, basically, benefit off of other people’s misfortune.
Ben Grynol: DuPont, too, was traditionally a chemical company playing in different parts of the food system—all of the issues with PFOA and Teflon—but in 2019 spun off a company called Corteva, which is in the egg, seed, and fertilizer game. They have all of these subsidiary arms, when they are traditionally a chemical company. This is where it gets to be very challenging.
As consumers, we don’t know. We can say, “Eat real food,” all we want, but when you think you’re doing well and you’re eating real food and you don’t realize that your food has things like pesticides in it, that it’s not all food, it’s very hard to get away from some of these considerations in the food system, because it’s so deeply ingrained.
Dr. Rob Lustig: This isn’t a new concept. The tobacco industry also did this, back in the 1980s and ’90s. Philip Morris morphed into Altria, which acquired Kraft and General Foods. RJR Reynolds acquired Nabisco. They were selling tobacco, but they were also selling food. Why was that? People stopped smoking.
When you stop smoking, what do you do? You start eating. That addiction pathway is still lit up. That’s one of the reasons people continued to smoke—to keep their weight down. As soon as they stopped smoking, they started eating. Why wouldn’t they want to be in on that? The industry calls this diversification, but you have to really look at when a company is basically playing both ends. There’s definitely immoral hazard to be seen there.
Ben Grynol: It gets very challenging. There are things we do not see and will not know are happening within the food production system.But some things we can avoid, and there are others that are a lot harder to avoid. When giving guidance for how people can access and eat real food, we agree we don’t want to eat Twinkies. But when you think you’re eating certain foods, like spinach, that grow in the ground, they would also be the most prone to things like pesticides.
Ben Grynol: What can people do? What are some frameworks for thinking about real food and what we consume?
Dr. Rob Lustig: The short answer is that the consumer is in the dark. The food industry wants them to be in the dark. They don’t want them to know what’s going on. They don’t want to actually have to list what’s going on with the food. Unfortunately, the US government makes that easy for them because the nutrition label is useless. It tells you what’s in the food, but not what’s been done to the food. Does it say anywhere on a nutrition label the level of pesticides that are in that box or in that package or in that jar? No. Would you like to know? I think people would like to know, but it’s not listed. Why is it not listed? Because then nobody would buy it.
The government decided they were not going to list those because that’s not what’s in the food. It’s what’s been done to the food. That’s key. This is part of the problem. The government has made it very easy for the food industry to hide the ball. Are there ways to fix that? Well, fixing the nutrition label would be a very good start, but then you’d basically have to tell people what’s been done to the food. That’s not even on the table right now, even though that’s what I say needs to happen. Metabolical is the call to actually fix the food label so that consumers can be properly apprised.
The nutrition label is useless. It tells you what’s in the food, but not what’s been done to the food. Does it say anywhere on a nutrition label the level of pesticides in that box or package or jar? No. Why is it not listed? Because then nobody would buy it.
An example of this was what happened with Proposition 65 here in California. It was basically all about GMOs. It ultimately got voted down because the food industry made a huge push that this was unnecessary. Actually, it is necessary. But the food industry doesn’t want to go there, for obvious reasons. What else can we do? There are now organizations, like the Environmental Working Group, that are quantitating this for you.
But it’s hard to carry an Environmental Working Group book in your back pocket. Yes, it’s online, but you have to subscribe to it. Perfact, a company for which I am the chief medical officer, is trying to help people in the grocery store by letting them get the barcode of the product. It will tell you not just what’s in the food, because you can read that on the side, but what’s been done to the food. There ultimately will be ways to do this.
I’m also working with a food procurement service called Foogal that will let you put in what you want, and basically will filter out all the stuff in the store that you don’t want so you can only purchase the stuff you do. We’re trying to get insurers to pay for that because that will convey health rather than disease. Food is medicine, but, unfortunately, food can also be poison. The insurer doesn’t want to pay for the poison. They only want to pay for the medicine. That has to then be determined by an independent third party, which is what Foogal would be.
There are potential ways of doing it, but ultimately the consumer is in the dark, and until consumers demand better, they will continue to be in the dark. That’s why education is so important—not because you can affect one person at a time. That won’t work. What you have to do is affect one Congressman at a time. The problem, of course, is that so many congressmen today take money from the food industry to keep things exactly the way they are. This is in part due to an organization called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. It’s a bill mill that is paid for by Big Oil, Big Pharma, and Big Ag. They want things to stay the same.
The consumer is in the dark, and until they demand better, they will continue to be in the dark.
All four of those, by the way, are guilty of immoral hazard. That’s why they want things to stay the same. This is the problem in our society today. The corporate environment wants to make money off the backs of the electorate, keep them in the dark, and keep them placated and narcotized with lack of knowledge. That’s what we’re trying to fix right now.
Ben Grynol: When people grocery shop, they might follow certain principles. They focus on real food. They stay away from the aisles, where products are highly processed. Almost all food is processed in some way, because the definition of processing includes taking an apple from the tree.
Dr. Rob Lustig: Unless you’ve picked it yourself, it’s processed. It goes that far. There are different levels of processing, to be sure. My colleague and good friend, Carlos Monteiro, who is a professor of public health at the University of Sao Paulo Brazil, has introduced, and also now verified, an instrument that he calls the Nova System. Instead of telling you what’s in the food, it tells you the degree of processing of the food.
There are four classes of processing. The best way to explain this would be with an apple. Class one, according to Carlos, would be an apple. Class two would be apple slices in a package. Class three would be sweetened apple sauce. Class four would be an apple pie.
They’re all apples, but they’re also not. They all contribute to different levels of health versus disease, even though the prevailing ingredient is apples. In fact, by the time you get to apple pie, the prevailing ingredient is not apples. That’s the point. When you start mixing ingredients, you get into ultra-processing. There are ways to figure out what’s what. He’s shown—with a set of very elegant epidemiologic studies in Europe, South America, and in the United States—that diseases start with that class four. The amount of food you eat in that class four is what contributes to cardiac disease, diabetes, cancer, and all-cause mortality. The other classes actually seem relatively devoid. It’s that class four, that ultra-processed food category.
But those are the foods that are marketed heavily. Those are the foods that have a logo. Those are the foods on the shelves rather than in the crisper or refrigerator section of the supermarket. Those are the foods that have to be avoided.
People say, “Walk around the edge of the supermarket” That’s right, because the class four foods are shelf-stable. They have been stripped of their fiber and have had preservatives added, the primary one of consequence being sugar, in addition to emulsifiers, potassium bromate, BHA, BHT, et cetera. These are all on the shelves; they’re not in the refrigerator sections of the supermarket.
Ben Grynol: Class four is where branding comes in. You’re being marketed or sold to. We know that it’s very difficult to escape a lot of these obesogens. Eating more foods in class one is completely different from eating foods in class four. If you see an apple the size of a basketball, maybe question whether or not that is an apple you should consider eating.
Dr. Rob Lustig: Another thing you can do is look at color. Tomatoes, for instance, have a chemical in them called lycopene, which has gotten some notoriety because it’s supposed to help vision, especially as you get older. Red tomatoes have lycopene. Orange tomatoes tend to be much larger, and people tend to buy those because they look bigger, juicier, healthier. They’re actually relatively devoid of lycopene. They’ve been bred to be that way.
In fact, a lot of the nutrients we want out of our produce—the polyphenols, the flavonoids, the nucleic acids, the choline—don’t taste very good. A lot of the growers have bred various strains of different produce to be devoid of those, to have more sugar in them, and to hide those notes. In the process, these become less nutritionally valuable.
That requires, unfortunately, a reeducated palate, which has to be done on an individual basis. There’s no sort of government program to reeducate the palate. People just need to understand that certain foods are supposed to taste a certain way, and if you’ve never tasted a real tomato, you might not know what a real tomato tastes like. You might opt for the crap your entire life.
Ben Grynol: Brussels sprouts are meant to be bitter, not sweet. If you’re eating brussel sprouts that taste like raisins, you’re probably on the wrong trail.
Dr. Rob Lustig: Exactly. That’s yet another layer of this. That really does require some intensive training on the part of each individual person on the planet. Good luck to us.