Dr. T. Colin Campbell: The Big Problem of Big Business and Big Government in Big Food
Dr. T. Colin Campbell
Jonathan: Hey everyone, Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast and I’m very, very excited about today’s show. We’re welcoming back one of the most influential people certainly in the nutrition world out there. He is an American Biochemist who is the Jacob Gould Schurman, Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, the author of the brand new book, Whole, the very well selling book, The China Study.
He’s also one of the stars of the documentary Forks over Knives, and he is the founder of the T. Colin Campbell Foundation, which you can learn more about at tcolincampbell.org. He is back with us for a second time to talk less about food and more about his experience in the Government and in all these institutions that influence how food is given to us, presented to us, marketed to us, and sold to us. Dr. T. Colin Campbell, welcome to the show.
Colin: It’s a pleasure to be back.
Jonathan: Well, Colin, I so appreciate you making the time to chat here and one of the things that I was so delighted to see after our first show was reactions on the internet about how people were happy to see that we could celebrate our similarities, rather than demonizing our differences. In one area, I thought we could talk about even more that would celebrate our similarities is, just how sick and twisted a lot of the business of food and the Government’s involvement in food has become because you’ve had a lot of personal experience there, haven’t you?
Colin: Yeah sure, I have. I think that altogether I was involved formally in one way or another for about twenty years as either on one kind of expert panel or another, have given testimonies before Congressional Committees or such like that. Yeah, that’s still part of it.
Jonathan: Colin, if you don’t mind, I think a lot of people are very familiar with your work around food but are not as familiar, like you said you have two decades of experience on the politics of food. Can you take us through a little bit of your experience in that arena and some of the things you saw which you didn’t really care for?
Colin: Well, as far as my formal activities were concerned, I was a member of several national academy committees, it’s national academy science committees, having to do with food and food policy and one of them, probably the most noble one was a so called Diet Nutrition Cancer Report of 1982. It was the first, in a sense, formal report on this question concerning diet and cancer that ever had been published. There were 13 of us and we represented different sorts of sub-disciplines of the nutrition cancer field. That one, actually when it was submitted and when it was published, actually was the most sought after report in the history of the national academy science. It surely generated enormous amount of publicity and so forth at the time.
Prior to that, Sen. George McGovern had published on his committee, a report having to do with a lower fat diet, less meat, if you will, recommendations or goals I call them, in regards to heart disease but that report was of course limited to the discussion of heart disease for the most part. Then shortly after that, the Congress was curious about whether those recommendations for heart disease might be similar or different for cancer and when they invited the Chairman of the National Cancer Institute of NIH to give some testimony, Dennis Devitta, he put together a statement, sent it to a couple of us to have a look at it.
He was kind of informing himself about what the National Cancer Institute was doing and he admitted essentially that NCI of DIH, that the Cancer Institute had devoted very little of their funding to the question concerning the role of food and cancer. I think the estimate he had was somewhere around two to three percent of the total funding. That’s about right and in fact the other NIH Institute also had even less for the most part, so that kind of kicked off their interest in learning something about it and when he admitted that NIH wasn’t doing much, they then gave about a million dollars to fund a new study involving an expert panel and that’s what I was on.
We came up with recommendations that were very similar to the recommendations for preventing heart disease and that in turn was really what caught the eye of the public. When you talk about cancer, as you know, it’s pretty contentious. That was one report. The other one I was on, I was on having to do with the cause of genicity of saccharin, it’s actually prior to that, it wasn’t really whether it was important or not. There was yet another one on having to do with how do we label, or if in fact we should be labeling foods according to the content of toxic agents, especially carcinogenic or cancer conducing agents. Still, another had to do with food labeling.
That was kind of a big task too and there were some others that I contributed to, was a member of, but I also was, well, there was one I was recommendation for research, a kind of research to be done which turned out to be quite significant. I was the chief witness to the Federal Trade Commission on their assessment of the early claims about what vitamin supplements might do to prevent cancer and other diseases and that was a three year effort in the docket, quite a long time. Those kinds of activities and others was my experience. They were all very public reports and they were taken fairly seriously to some extent, at least by policy makers.
Jonathan: Dr. Campbell, you mentioned during your experience you saw that sub three percent of funding was spent on investigating the importance of food in disease States. Were there other things you saw that you almost just had to rub your eyes and say, ‘Am I really seeing this? Are we really recommending these types of things? Are really behaving in these types of way?’
Colin: Yes. There’s a bus of things, just got to have to select them out here. If I were to put my finger on one thing… let me just summarize here quickly. The kind of things that I think ought to be done that are now not being done. First off, the dietary guidelines that’s run by the USDA, the Department of Agriculture, it’s actually being run by an agency of agriculture that is livestock based. That’s their main interest by far and so far as the expenditure of money is concerned for them and there’s sort of a revolving door between the chief people at USDA and the livestock industry, just going back and forth.
There’s a lot of very thick political relationship between the private sector and the public sector in that sense, especially it’s troubling for me, regardless of what one’s view is about those foods. The fact of the matter is, when you have industry people coming in and taking over, and going back to the industry, getting around, everybody knows about the revolving door I think, that’s a pretty serious bias.
Jonathan: Colin, that’s the key point and I’m so glad you bring up, which is, regardless of what your position is on what you should or you shouldn’t be eating. It seems like we can agree that people who make money off of selling certain edible substances should not be on the boards of those who are supposed to be objectively recommending what we should be eating.
Colin: Absolutely. I feel very strongly about that, especially when those recommendations are for humans obviously, and for human health, I should say. Some arguments had been made over the years that that committee, which incidentally was first formed in 1980. This is probably a Government committee report and done every five years since. That committee could be the Department of Health, Health and Human Services, for example, and that recommendation is made but there again, there are problems, because in health, in that domain, the people who are sitting on these expert panels oftentimes are coming from the pharmaceutical industry.
On one hand, they’ve got people coming from the food industry in the case of agriculture, in the cause of health and human services, committee people have too much relationship with the pharmaceutical industry. In either case, with the food industry and the drug industry, it’s the same sort of phenomenon, the revolving door practice and all the rest of it.
Jonathan: Colin, is it fair to say that this is not Colin’s hypothesis. You saw this, you were on these boards. You met these people, you literally watched the revolving door. Is that fair?
Colin: Yes. Absolutely and the revolving door, some of the greatest influence comes from rather several candidates nonetheless very powerful. Let me elaborate just a second, when these committees are formed in recent years, maybe the last ten, fifteen years now, when these committees were formed, a Chair is first chosen before the members of the committee are appointed and the Chair that is appointed, ought to be a person who is completely free, of any kind of private sector influence.
Unfortunately, in the case of food, the Chair, for example, of the Food and Nutrition Board that sets the recommended dietary allowance for nutrients, the Chair of that group was arguably one that was powerful consultants for the dairies in the world and at the same time, he was also the Chair of the Dietary Guidelines Committee. I won’t mention his name here, that’s not the point but the fact is, that individual then had a major hand in choosing the members of these respective committees.
That’s where the influence really becomes pretty serious because the people who were chosen for these committees are going to be the people who might be of his persuasion, and certainly of the persuasion of the agency that’s organizing this. I find that very troubling because I had served on a couple of committees, one in particular, when couple of my guests, where the Chair actually in one case was the Dean of the University of Virginia Law School. He didn’t know much about diet, which we were deliberating at the time but he was a lawyer actually, he was a prominent man. He knew how to run meetings. He was very, very good.
I saw that situation where he, in turn, had a pretty strong hand in running these committees and really operated in a very objective way. I liked it a lot. That was some years ago and so, I have made recommendations, actually formally that, future Chairs of all these committees should be people, they don’t have to be people expert in that field. What they have to be is prominent people who know how to run committees and do this and then the people who are chosen for these committees ought to be chosen in a way to represent the various interests, let’s say, in Science or maybe in the public at large.
That’s just one thing and as I said, that’s one of the things the public tends not to see. They’re probably not in the business, in a position to know the prejudices and biases of the Chairs and they’re not in the business of knowing that these Chairs have a lot of influence on their members but I have to tell you that’s a very powerful sort of tool, or way of getting your way, if you will.
Jonathan: Colin, it seems like that is an area that no matter what your nutritional persuasion is, we can all agree and say, it seems like at the end of the day, each of us as individuals really needs to take ownership of our health and what we put in our mouth because if we absolve that responsibility to some Government committee or some advertising agency, they don’t have our best interest in mind.
Colin: Well put, I totally agree with it.
Jonathan: Excellent. Okay, what’s number two?
Colin: Number two is the Food Subsidy Program that the USDA for the most part administers. Food subsidies, I should say, come in various forms and through various Government agencies and avenues, largely in the case of food, is administered through the USDA, as far as I’m aware of and these are subsidies that tend to support farmers to produce food, obviously. Early on, it was done because our country wanted to have some insurance that farmers were kept whole in a sense and not suffer the vagrancies of the weather patterns and stuff like that and so it makes some sense, I think, initially.
Jonathan: It seems like they had noble motives, their intentions going in were good.
Colin: I think so. From my reading of the history, that goes back before my time for the most part but that whole process then became in my view became really corrupted because the amount of money that flows into these various industries or farm groups essentially are going to be subject to political influence big time, I mean really big time. At the present time, for example, about 10 percent of farmers gets a subsidy in the neighborhood, the last I heard of is, 60-70 percent of the total subsidies.
It’s a small group of people getting the majority of the funding and then you look at the breakdown of where this funding is going to, what kinds of food it’s supporting. It turns out, in my view, that 99 percent, if you can believe it, is actually subsidies that’s generated for the dairy industries and also for the grains that’s largely fed to the livestock production. One percent is for fruits and vegetables. I really don’t care what one’s position might be on this in the final analysis but I think one would have to agree, that is a disproportionate sharing of subsidies.
Jonathan: Oh, Colin, I would agree completely. What I just heard you say is that we have 99 percent of our originally well intended Government food subsidies going towards mono-crops and industrialized large farms and one percent going to a more nutrient-dense and diverse fruits and vegetables sourcing.
Colin: Yeah, right. Exactly. You said it well. That’s another area that I find really serious, and this, the dietary guidelines in that. A third thing that I would mention from a higher level, sort of 30,000 foot level, in the sense, is the fact that the National Institute of Health, which is the lead biomedical research agency in the world, by far. NIH is actually is plural, National Institutes of Health, they’re made up of, now I think, 28 different institutes and centers and programs, the major ones being the National Cancer Institute, the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute for example, and so forth and so on. They’re named pretty much for diseases but not in all cases. In any case, we had theses 28 institutes and the last time I checked, nutrition is pretty important in our health.
Jonathan: We can certainly agree on that. I say we get t-shirts made that say “Nutrition is important.”
Colin: Yes, I certainly think it is. I’ve been in this field for many, many years I sort of think it is and I think I could defend it. Well in any case, of the 28 institutes, there’s not one that’s called the Institute of Nutrition. Not one and I have been really at the center of that debate, and that discussion because not only was I recipient of [indiscernible 00:01:33] for many, many years, mostly from the National Cancer Institute. I’d also served on the committees, that we call them study sections, served on committees that pass judgment on which kinds of research should be done, which kind of applications for example that are submitted by other researchers, which kind of applications should be funded.
I was on the committees that determine the priority for funding, if you will. On one occasion, I was the only member of a committee of about fifteen, on the, we called them, of cancer, called chemical caution genicist study session, having to do with basic cancer research, which is also my field. I was the only one on there with a background in nutrition. I was getting most of the applications coming in and I had to participate in all the ones that mentioned anything about nutrition.
I was feeling a little bit overwhelmed in that committee, good committee, great people but I said, “Hey guys, we ought to organize another committee, we are suggesting another committee to be formed that which should focus just on food and cancer [Inaudible 00:18:36].” This is an emerging field. We filed a petition, we submitted it, it went forward. It was approved. Later, it got a different name. We suggested Nutrition Cancer Study Session. Later, when I was invited to give this director’s seminar, that’s just senior members of the Institute that happened for two different administrations.
When I went there, this was after the committee was formed, I posed the question to the director, Why did you change the name? I said, we need the attention for nutrition and he said, “Oh, we have nutritionists there in some of the other programs.” “I said, no, you don’t. I said, [indiscernible 19:17] Devi’s testimony said we only had two to three percent and most of that was used for clinical trials, individual nutrients. That’s not nutrition. Anyhow, I’d mentioned comment like it did irritated him, he said, “Well, if you’re going to talk that way, you can just get out and go back to [Inaudible 00:19:31], if you want to.
Jonathan: Oh no.
Colin: Had a bit of a row about it but, I don’t want to make this too negative but the fact of the matter is it became clear to me, among these senior people, it occurred to me that there was no attempt to actually include nutrition in the discussion concerning the kind of research funding that ought to be given to, how does this work? How does this phenomenon really work? I was just little or no interest. I found that really, really troubling and terribly, terribly important. Somehow, it was erased from me from the priority list of things to do, and it is still is.
Jonathan: Colin, I don’t, maybe you don’t understand either, but help me understand, like to me, that just, is that because food is perceived such as a blunt object? They’d rather focus on more precise measures? How can some of the smartest medical minds in the world say that which we put into our body every single day is not important to understand?
Colin: Yeah, you obviously are going in the right direction because obviously I haven’t had this experience with so many others. Over time I became more and more frustrated with what was really happening and some of the things that I could see happened at very high level and had major influence in terms of shaping what the research part was really about and as well as shaping the practice of medicine and so forth in public education and policies and so, I then…. what was your question, I’m sorry I lost it.
Jonathan: No, no problem. Just how can, we must know that on an intuitive level, if taking a pill affects you, taking a food substance into your body affects you, so, how can it be ignored, how can’t it be taken seriously?
Colin: Actually, it is a very important question for me, at least too because having had these discussions with these people having seen these kind of things, I also was asking the same question. That was the Genesis actually for the second book that I’ve published called Whole because in that book, I really wanted to explore this question in some depths if I could. I don’t like the idea of conspiracies. I don’t like to talk about conspiracies. Some people would say that I do but I don’t. I’d rather leave out the idea that people sitting in a smoke-filled room, making decisions to screw the public.
That’s not my point but what I had come to believe is that there’s a paradigm, or world view, of our thinking that probably influences all of us, whether we’re in high-level, powerful decision making positions or whether we’re workers in the system, or whether we’re the consuming public. We are living in a paradigm of thinking that probably shapes the views of all of us and so that was the basis for the book, Whole. I hope it gets some attention, regardless of what people might think on the other end of the spectrum about what they should put in their mouth.
I want them to think about that idea because therein lies the answer to your question, in my view. We don’t understand nutrition, the way it actually works in the body. If we do tend to, and those who have, we tend do fund studies for research studies, and we tend to practice in the marketplace our information on nutrition on the base of individual nutrients. It’s always been that way, we just…
Jonathan: It’s a reductionist approach.
Colin: It’s a reductionist approach and that’s the way it is. In fact the whole medical system is that. That’s what’s wrong with the medical system, that’s why it’s not working. The medical system is founded on reductionist principles, period and in order to get a feel for how serious this is and how wrong it really is, all one needs to do is to crawl inside of a cell. I spent much of my early career in working [Indiscernible 00:23:29] levels, if you will and we have about ten of those things, or hundreds of those things.
I don’t know who counted them but anyhow, it’s sort of very large number of these cells and one cell can sit on the head of a pin and we can’t see it. A cell is a very, very tiny, tiny thing, it’s not visible to the naked eye, for the most part and within that cell, in each and every cell is a whole universe. If one applies atomic distances and probability of activity, not precise numbers but probability activity, look at the intercellular atomic distances, between things in terms of the architecture, if you take that approach to the cell, what is this thing?
The complexity of the cell is beyond comprehension and it almost look like every single cell is like a universe. Our universe, as we look out to the skies, for example. We have a sense of what the universe is. It’s infinite, it’s big, it’s so forth and so on. It’s almost the same thing for each and every one of these cells, so then that’s one observation. I try to explain and give you examples of that kind of thing, it’s fascinating. In turn, what one also see in this extraordinary complexity, this infinite, extraordinary complexity, nonetheless we see integration of activities.
Anyone can see inside this thing and get all the evidence for that, by simply looking at the way enzymes behave for example or the way that sort of series of metabolic reactions, how they would work and we struggle with that. Oh, my God this is incredible. The way that ourselves have been fashioned over time, to create this kind of response and what’s really impressive about this is that each and every cell basically is always trying to create health. It really is. That’s the fundamental basis and purpose of a cell, is to create health.
Now, all these cells in question have specialized functions, we all know that. They have specialized functions but the template, they operate in the same template in every cell, namely the DNA structure or the double helix. Each and every cluster of cell do whatever their favorite thing is but to do all this is, a portion of the DNA, genome if you will, a portion of it is to express the kind of proteins they need to do their job. Here you have this wonderful template, it’s in all the cells of our body, actually almost all, that they do their special functions. It’s hard to describe with words, you just have to realize that in each cell, there’s something like 1.4 miles of the DNA strand exist in every cell. This complexity is beyond the comprehensible. We can use some numbers to try to impress us and think about it in that way, but there’s more to nutrition than just putting in those single amounts of a given nutrient.
That’s what we’re doing with the nutrient supplemental industry. That’s what we’re doing. We advertise and we say that this and that and something else, I am using the word nutrient at little bit loosely by the way, about the chemicals in plants and all those substances that many of us have this nutritional activity or property. If I may I just like to use that term “nutrient”. There’s countless nutrients operating nearly within the cell and something is there choosing; how much of each to use and how much activity has to be created and how these activities seem to relate with each other, and what’s the end result.
It a vastly different world of experience and it’s not about doing studies to figure out how much vitamin C we should take. That’s helpful at times, if we can sort of have to study this complexity, and that’s where our minds work. We’re limited in that sense. It’s helpful to do the reductionist kinds studies to get some feel for what kind of physical, chemical property that these individual chemicals have. From that basis and understanding, the intercellular physiology from understanding the basic biochemical metabolism scheme and the portion that are applied, it’s understanding that and then we can begin to build, through an inductive reasoning process, we can begin to build what the whole is.
It’s another sort of favorite topic of mine, I argue that we can do reduction research, yes it’s helpful, and even sometimes reduction research can actually produce something that we can use in the short term that’s good for us, aspirin reduces pain, we know that but that doesn’t solve the problem. It takes care of the symptoms, if you will. If you take that kind of approach, and so if you go back and look at the fundamentals and what’s really going on, then we’re in a territory where we’re working with nature, we’re understanding nature, and what nature did.
We can ask some really fundamental questions. The debate that we may have as to what we put in our mouths, and so forth and so on, most of it is on an empirical basis, oftentimes shaped by personal prejudice. This, what I’m talking about is another way of looking the whole question and seeing …
Jonathan: Colin, what you’re saying really resonates with me in the sense that it seems, and I don’t want to get too metaphysical here, but it’s hard not to when you talk about the almost quantum level of complexity and individual universes that make up these individual cells, and it almost seems like an instance of hubris, where we have incredibly smart people, who have an incredible amount of pressure put on them to essentially save and preserve life and to say I don’t have the answer and I haven’t identified the precise mechanism. It seems like we are almost putting pressure on these people to be able to give us reductionist answers and because of that we’ve gotten reductionist answers back.
Anytime anyone says anything like a Holistic nutritionist, or a doctor who practices Holistic medicine, there’s the smirks of quackery, when in reality, to me, that is also just an indication of hubris. It’s like a superiority ‘I can conquer nature’ complex and it seems like what we’re talking about here and also what I celebrate in my work is not a conquering of the body, not a conquering of nature but a symbiotic relationship that makes them both thrive and that’s perceived as “woo-woo”. I disagree with that, I don’t think that’s “woo-woo” at all.
Colin: Yeah, the nature versus nurture. That debate’s been going on since ancient times in various subject forms and it’s still with us. You’re quite right. The question that can be posed, based on what you said and what I said, is how did we get so out of whack, and what we do now? I think this is where some attention to history is really very useful. It has been for me and to go back and look at, let’s say, in my field, the history of protein nutrition, which has been my entire life actually, and I knew a lot of the key figures in this field, even before I guess, or the history of cancer research.
Those two are my favorites and what I know best and I have to tell you that studying history in some detail, getting to know some of the figures who are actually making the decisions, looking at the evolution policies, things like this, it’s very rewarding. It’s also rewarding in the sense that it’s pretty easy to figure out why there’s so much confusion and why we did this and that and everything else and why we got into bad diets, and ideas come and go all the time. It’s basically because of our use of reductionist data, and the reductionist findings.
Somehow believing as we go forward that we might do our little work in a corner of nature and learn quite a bit about it in great detail, but then unfortunately some of us go out and tell everybody else we discovered the world. That’s what happens and so it does lend ourselves for people to choose which of these details they like, and they choose the detail they like based on lot of personal background that they have. I think that is really the source of much of the confusion in the public mindset too, is that, we’ve got so many details now.
You know this as well as I do, you can go to PubMed, which is the collection of the National Library of Medicine, in research reports, and where are we at? Millions, that’s really seriously, three or four million review papers. We can find anything in there we want to find, if we’re talking about details and we can put it together and make ourselves a little puzzle that say, “Hey, we’ve got the answers.” That kind of thing or we can take the details and talk about the details all by themselves and talk about the wondrous things that some of us thinks are crazy. They’re really just crazy. I think it would dare prove, no pun intended, if we just sit back and start to think a little bit about history and philosophy in the context of what we’re trying to understand about health and nutrition, it’s quite constructive.
Jonathan: I couldn’t agree more, Colin. Some of my formal university training is in the field of philosophy and I’ve got to tell you, thinking in that context has sometimes been a little more helpful than just reading 100 more clinical research studies.
Colin: Right. It is, we’ve got to be careful, we ought to be careful and be intro perspective and help correcting as we go forward and read this stuff, hence we can end up with all kinds of ideas and one of the pieces of gravity in this whole thing is money, let’s face it. The lure of getting money, either directly or indirectly and that’s what the way it is.
Jonathan: Yeah. Selling simple, perishable foods, whole foods, there’s really not a lot of money in that. It’s kind of a pain so we’re fighting an uphill battle, sadly.
Colin: Right, it is. It’s a tough sell but we…
Jonathan: Well, Colin, thank you. Thank you so much, this has been just delightful. I think it is another wonderful conversation and I really appreciate you sharing your time with us once again.
Colin: Well thanks so much, and you might send me a copy of this or tell me where I can see or get it, I’ll appreciate it.
Jonathan: Absolutely, Colin. Well, folks, his name is T. Colin Campbell, who you undoubtedly heard of before today’s show. You can learn more about him at his not-for-profit website, tcolincampbell.org, and his new book, Whole just came out and remember this week and every week after: eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Talk with you soon.