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And we decided we're opening the show. I don't think we did.
I have my opening from last time. We could also change it up. We could also skip it. I don't know.
I don't I kind of like coming up with a new tagline every week, but then that's the same as the gimmick on my other phone.
Why don't you just do one? I don't have it, but I'm a start talking and hope that something comes. Yeah, just go. Just use.
Announcer Welcome to Maintenances. I'm Aubrey and this is Michael.
Oh, yes. And we are here to tell you all about the secret histories of dieting, weight loss, wellness and health that you never knew you needed to know.
The secret garden sharing a secret something.
Well, their only secret if you don't like reading academic papers, because usually all the studies is out in the open that most people haven't spent a ton of time thinking about. Yes, except for me, who has spent the last three weeks thinking about fucking snack cookies.
Ridiculous. I can't wait to hear every single thing about snack girls cookies. Just as a disclaimer, this episode is about snack girl cookies, ostensibly, but it's actually about the absurd low fat craze that became America's primary ideology about food for like an entire decade.
I'm super excited to talk about this, in part because that decade was my like childhood and adolescence as a fat kid. So like it, I would imagine, for both of us made a big impression. Right. And it was pretty formative in the way that certainly to this day that I think about food and weight and all of that kind of stuff. And snack wells were a centerpiece of that in my house.
So for people that don't know snack walls, devils, food, cookies were a fat free chocolate and marshmallow cookie that was launched in 1992 by a brand named Snack Wells. And within three years, they were the most popular cookie in America.
Yes, they surpassed Rits and Oreos, which had been at the top of the charts for 80 years.
So I was thinking about this the other night. I was talking to both of my parents were snack wells superfan Suja, and they were saying that it was sort of the first cookie that they could recall. That was a sort of, quote unquote, diet cookie that was not set apart in the separate aisle. Yes, the box looked like Keebler cookies, right. That it was sort of like marketed alongside. It was like a cookie. But this cookie is better for you rather than this is a diet food.
And this is the cookie version of that diet food.
I mean, this is all wrapped up in the uniquely rock bottom image of the 1990s American food culture.
But yet did you did you eat snack with cookies? Did you remember them? Oh, my God, absolutely. So we always had them in our house. Yeah. We were a dieting household through and through. And one of the things that I remember most clearly about snack wells was that there would be many people in and around my family who would be like, I didn't eat lunch or I didn't eat all day and I'm going to eat some snack wells.
That's my treat for not eating. And people were using it in a way that was sort of incentivizing some degree of disordered eating, right? Totally. Totally.
The other thing I will say that I remember about Stockwell's is I distinctly remember as a fat kid being like, OK, these are the cookies that I'm going to have access to, which means I had better totally savor them and love them. And you know what I mean? Like, really make it count. Yeah. The cookie time that I have and I remember eating them and I remember them being so dry. Yeah. That's the only thing that I remember really distinctly about Snaggle.
Yet they're like deeply unsatisfying. Yeah. Did your family worship at the altar of no fat and low fat foods?
100 percent Slim Fast. Yes. Weight Watchers. Yes. Carnation Instant breakfast. No, because it had fat in it. Oh yeah. But we would have a box at all times of potato, but it's like instant potato flakes.
So just like healthy, it's like astronaut food is so upsetting. It was this really weird approach to health.
In order for something to be healthy, it had to be engineered in some way.
And also like this idea that what eating a low fat diet is is eating exactly the same, but just low fat versions of everything. And you'll be healthier, right. That they're really, really low fat pop tarts and like low fat TV dinners and the most, like, distinct food image of my childhood was reduced fat peanut butter. Like, it doesn't make any sense. There's not like some other species of peanut that has less fat.
Right. Like all you're doing is you're replacing about 40 percent of your peanut. Butter with sugar, right? It's sort of this weird Zero-Sum thinking, yeah, you want to find out how we got to this place, I want to know every single thing about Snocross. So the story begins with basically the discovery of heart attacks before, like the 1940s, in the 1950s.
And this happens with most countries that go from being poor to developing relatively rapidly.
The mortality rates shift from infectious diseases to non-infectious diseases.
So for most of American history, people were dying of like cholera and things that you could catch from like dirty water or the lack of antibiotics.
People weren't thinking about cancer and heart disease before the 1940s because, like, those were not on the radar.
Right. There's sort of this idea now. It feels like that like those are new ailments. Right. Because we have failed in some way as a society to like, quote unquote, stay healthy, by which folks usually means faith in. Right. And that misconception feels like sort of pretty fertile territory for diet companies and for folks who are sort of inclined to, for whatever reason, kick up a sense of panic around public health. Oh, totally.
And so heart attacks were actually discovered or heart artery blockage was discovered in the eighteen hundreds by this guy in Berlin who was just really fascinated by corpses and he would just get dead bodies and cut them open.
And the most amazing thing about cholesterol, the waxy substance that blocks arteries, is it like you can fucking see it that like if you take a dead person who has a bunch of heart disease and you open up their heart, you can see like, oh, there's all this yellow shit in there. This doctor in Berlin in the hundreds was like, huh?
Some people have this yellow shit in their heart tubes and some people don't have this yellow shit.
But because, you know, it's everybody's dying of fucking like pneumonia and stuff. People are not interested in heart disease. Right.
But nobody really takes it up until the 1940s when basically America comes out of World War two and they look around and heart disease, heart attacks are the number one killer in America.
One thing that this draws on is because we didn't really know anything about heart attacks, but we're like, oh, we think it's related to lifestyle.
Fats in the diet had actually kind of always been somewhat demonized. You probably know this, that like diets have been around since the eighteen hundreds.
As long as there have been people larger than other people, there have been diets. And pretty shortly after the discovery of calories, they realized that fat has nine calories per gram and protein has four calories per gram.
I think from there it's a very obvious leap to be like, well, fat is more calories, so losing weight requires you to eat fewer calories, therefore eat less fat.
Like it's just like this obvious thing that's kind of like folk wisdom at the time because there's never really anything backing it up.
And so when they start looking into heart attacks and lifestyle, the sort of the obvious thing to look at is fat.
Right? I'm also just thinking about like sort of what are the stereotypes of fat people that existed before the, you know.
Nineteen hundreds will say, yeah, it's all like Falstaff eating a turkey leg and Henry the eighth ray, like I'm pulling sort of extremely sort of like white European examples of this, but like there is just a lot about like people eating fat. Yes.
And also during this period when heart attacks emerge as the number one killer of Americans, there was also this rapid urbanization that happened in America.
So I feel like Americans, probably other countries, too, have always had like a weird, complicated relationship with people living in cities.
And so very soon after this lifestyle hypothesis emerges, you also get this stuff that is completely ahistorical, that like, you know, we used to eat this like rich plant based diet.
And like now that we live in cities and we're shopping at grocery stores, like we've forgotten our roots and like people have looked into the data, it's not fucking true.
People in the hundreds in America ate literally the same amount of meat as Americans in the 1950s.
Americans have always had a really high fat diet.
And there's another way of thinking about this that is sort of like Icarus, right. Which is sort of like, oh, we flew too close to the sun. We tried to argue too much, and now we have lost.
We have fallen. Right. We are disgraced in some way. And that's now showing up in our bodies. Right. It feels bizarre for like a conversation that is ostensibly about science.
I think it's important, like in sort of looking at the origin of the low fat ideology of the 1990s, that it really had the wind at its back. Right.
That there's all these very a scientific ahistorical notions kind of floating around that get picked up by researchers and institutions without realizing that, like, we're just drawing on our preconceptions. So the best example of that is probably there's these early studies that are trying to investigate, like how does cholesterol affect the body, like his cholesterol, good for us or bad for us where they take a bunch of rabid. And they feed them like like all steak diet or like all butter diet to these rabbits, and sure enough, these little rabbits start getting little rabbit heart attacks and then they replicate these studies with like sheep and cattle and horses.
But people start pointing out this is like decades later, people point out that, like, rabbits are not carnivores, like sheep are not carnivores.
So you're feeding these animals, right? Fuckin sirloin steak who, like their bodies, are not set up to metabolize this in the same way that if you fed a lion a diet of entirely carrots, it would probably also die.
Yeah, these animals are not set up for this.
So they try to do this is years later. They try to do the same study with dogs of like feed dogs, a bunch of meat because like they eat meat, they're meat eaters and the dogs don't get heart attacks. The dogs are completely fine.
The thing that jumps to mind for me is I'm like, right, you could also do a study that's like we fed dogs only chocolate for a year and, you know, 95 percent of them died. You know, that's like a dog thing. I know. And also, if people only eat chocolate. Yeah, probably we would die like I don't know.
Have you heard of a guy named Ansel Keyes? Yes, I have.
Tell me tell me what you know, what I know about Ansel Keyes's, that he was responsible or led a team of researchers who is responsible for retesting the BMI?
Oh, they essentially tested in the 70s.
I want to say the three best methods that they had for determining someone's level of body fat.
And those methods were the BMI, which is like weight divided by height, callipers, which are those big like sort of like tongs almost that they use to like grab fat and go.
That's how much fat you have, like where you go. And the other one was water displacement.
And Silkies did those studies and was like basically like the BMI is the best thing we have, but it's not great empirically. BMI.
Yes, he is a giant of food research in the 1950s to the 1980s.
He is one of the first people who proposes what is eventually known as the diet heart hypothesis that heart disease is caused by diet and cholesterol in the heart valves is caused by saturated fat.
He's like the guy that comes up with this fascinating in the 1950s.
He starts doing these studies on dietary fat and heart disease. But in that, just like endlessly atrocious ethics of science at this time, he does a bunch of diet studies on only on men, obviously. Also, he does them in mental institutions. On schizophrenics. Oh, no.
So one of the main pieces of research that starts to solidify this idea that saturated fat is bad for you, it's only on 66 people and it seems like schizophrenic dudes and some of them, if it's a high fat diet and some of them, he feeds a low fat diet and then he tests their cholesterol and then he's like the saturated fat like that. That's the methodology that he starts using.
So the other thing that's happening here is that my guess is that if you are an inpatient psych patient and you have something as profound as schizophrenia, that you are on some wild drugs in the fifties.
Yeah, the other thing that feels like, oh, body, there are some variables here that feel like the real cause of heart attacks is saturated fat and electroshock therapy.
Yeah, it just seems wild to me to be like we figured out what's happening with this group of schizophrenics who are in the room, just like there are so many complicating factors here that you can't possibly universalize that knowledge.
It's extremely funny to me that, like, as you're criticizing the study, there's a little part of me that, like, wants to push back.
Really, it's not that bad because by the standards of the studies we're going to learn about in this episode, this is one of the better ones.
We're going to need so many studies that are so much worse than this. I'm like, well, at least it's a laboratory experiment. Like, at least they're taking decent data, like it only gets worse from here.
Sure. You're like he's a doctor. So that's a step ahead. I'm like, tone it down, Aubrey. This is like the best one that I hear about.
So on the strength of this, like extremely anecdotal and like Jank Bowles study and Silkies then departs on international comparisons.
So basically an Silkies gets two hundred thousand dollars in 1956, which was like a shitload of money to do like a real study. It's called the Seven Countries Study. It's super famous where he's basically going to go to seven countries and get like real data, the diet, heart attack, mortality.
And then he's going to come back with like something definitive. The seven countries are Italy, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, Netherlands, Finland, America and Japan.
Sorry, this feels like a very selective group of countries.
Yeah, it's like, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Japan. Right, right, right, right.
So one of the numbers I came across was that this study has been cited one million times. What this is like one of. The foundational texts in diet and nutrition, like you still find it cited now, oh, the silver lining of this study, the first thing that it does is that it finally proves that heart attacks affect different countries at different rates.
America has more heart attacks than Japan. That was something that there was only anecdotal data for before.
So in that way, it does a really good thing.
But what it also produces is an extremely famous info graphic where he plots the amount of saturated fat in the diet and the rate of heart attacks, as you would expect.
It's like Japan at the very lowest rate that you'd like only fish there. They eat a lot of rice. It's like a super low fat diet and they have like zero heart attacks, basically. And then at the top, you've got America, which has a very high fat diet and a shitload of heart attacks.
And so if you start drawing the line like along this line, there's like all the other countries basically slot perfectly along this line. And so a lot of heart attacks and a lot of fat, a little fat, a little heart attacks if you keep going backwards. Well, zero fat, zero heart attacks. Yeah.
It's inviting you to surmise. Yes. Right. And it's not actually like digging in on are there sort of phantom variables here? Are there other factors at play? And I would also say, like given the cultural conversations at that time, I could imagine that this plays right the hell into sort of a personal responsibility approach to this problem. Did you come across that at all in the research that comes later? Because, I mean, a real reason why this isn't a huge deal when it first comes out is because there's no obesity yet.
Yeah, the panic over obesity, which both of us have grown up our whole lives with.
Yeah, that panic didn't really begin until the late 1980s because obesity rates weren't climbing in the population. This is at a time culturally when, like, you could talk about things like heart disease and hypertension and diet related disease without bringing weight into it.
But so because I know you're like a methodology queen like I am, I think we should talk about these problems with anthology's methodology that people point out like ten minutes after his study is published.
Yes. Tell me the first problem with the data that he collects from these seven countries is that people cannot recall what they fucking ate.
Right. Even if you ask people what they ate yesterday, they can't do like can you can can can you tell me, like, how many, like, tablespoons of peanut butter you had on your peanut butter and jelly sandwich yesterday?
Like, it's almost impossible. People have no idea. I mean, the people who can for sure do that are people who are at the height of their eating disorder cold, like the people who you can count on for real accurate answers to that.
We're weighing like every strawberry. Yeah, right. Honestly, the only thing I remember from yesterday is that I Hard-Boiled a bunch of eggs, and that's how I found out they went bad. Sure. But like, that's my only food memory of yesterday. Like, aside from that, I'm like, what did I have for breakfast? I don't know.
So what people point out is that he was only actually checking. The diets are like testing the diets of people for one point five percent of his respondents.
Oh, no. Also, there were also some weird behind the scenes stuff that apparently in Greece, he was polling people on the island of Crete and the island of Corfu, and he performed the poll in Crete during Lent.
They don't eat meat, eggs, fish, cheese, butter during Lent.
Right. You're polling people on like what did you eat yesterday? And they're saying like, oh, I eat healthy stuff, like, oh, I ate a salad yesterday. And you're like people uncreate, create salads and they're super healthy, but it's like they don't eat that typically.
Listen, Shurman, do your heart disease study on Muslims during Ramadan and you're going to be like they never eat, but somehow they're still alive. And I guess that's also nice.
Yeah, but then I mean these are like the sort of background things. But then the main thing is why did he pick those seven countries? Yeah. So one of the things that comes out immediately when this study gets published in one book, he starts talking about this research is like southern France.
People in France eat cream. They eat a shitload of pork, they drink a shitload of wine, and they have really low rates of heart attacks.
And Watkis, like, admits this.
He's like, oh, it's the French paradox. Oh, it's the one thing we can't explain. But then people start pointing out like, well, wait a minute, West Germany, they eat a ton of pork. They eat like deep fried, like have you had a Viña, Nicole, like Sweden, Norway, Denmark.
You can't just have seven countries that match your thesis. And then like six countries that are like, oh, they're a paradox.
It's like, no, that's that's that's half, you know, just like ignore half the fucking countries in Europe and people have gone back and there's actually data on like, you know, diet studies and heart disease rates for twenty two countries at the time. And if you plot the twenty two countries on a graph, according to fat intake and heart disease, I've seen this scatterplot. It's like a Pollock painting. It just like it's like they're just a bunch of dots.
I came across a really interesting 1957 paper that's basically critiquing this where this researcher points out all of the other things that are. Correlated with heart disease, he says the number of cars sold per capita, the number of cigarettes sold, consumption of protein, consumption of sugar. These are all associated with one common factor wealth. Anything that accompanies a growing mid century prosperity, including meat, sugar, car exhaust and margarine could be causing heart disease. Right. The main thing in any of these correlational diet studies is access to resources, access to health care.
These are things that he didn't look into at all. He didn't do any analysis of the different health care systems of these countries. Interesting. There's also in in 1961, the American Heart Association, which actually had previously looked at Anzac's research and had put out a statement saying, look, we don't really see it. It's just correlational. They said that in 1957 when his study came out in 1961, they put out a report saying that fat is bad and that people should start to reduce the fat in their diet.
What's that disconnect about? The Nutrition Committee of the American Heart Association was chaired by Silkies. No.
If you look at all these different organizations, like there's a eventually a surgeon general's report, there's all these, you know, American Medical Association, blah, blah, blah.
It's like the same fucking people. So it seems like all these institutions are like lining up around this, like, low fat hypothesis.
But it's like it's like seven dudes, the same seven dudes saying the same shit is also a good alternate title for the podcast.
Yes, I feel like that's going to be a recurring theme.
But what's really interesting about the American Heart Association report and the institutional report that start to come out in the 60s and 70s is that they don't recommend a low fat diet for all Americans. They say if you're in a high risk group, if you have high cholesterol, if you have a history of heart disease in your family, then you should eat less saturated fat.
But this is not everybody should eat less fat.
Interesting. This is one Ancel Keys shows up on the cover of Time magazine and they call him Mr. Cholesterol.
And even though the American Heart Association doesn't go this far and Silkie says you should cut fat from 40 percent of calories to 15 percent, this is I mean, this also gets it like the beginning of the stigmatization of weight that comes like obviously comes along with all this. One of the quotes in this time article, he says, People should know the facts. Then if they want to eat themselves to death, let them well know.
It's like, oh, fuck you seriously.
He also I mean, I don't know how much we're, like, allowed to roast him for this, but he also mentions in this time article sort of like offhand, he's like, oh, yeah, I eat a steak with my wife three times a week and like, I have eggs and bacon for breakfast.
It's like if the guy whose entire life's work is built around reducing saturated fat can't reduce saturated fat in his own diet, why does he feel qualified to tell everybody else to do this? Yeah, the whole thing.
I mean, like it's also sort of the logic of anti fat bias is what's happening here. Right. The idea here is if you appear healthy, you can tell people who appear unhealthy to you what to do without scrutiny. Right. That there is sort of this idea that, like your own health is beyond reproach because look at you.
But so this all gets worse in 1977 when for the first time, the U.S. government gives dietary advice.
It's called the dietary goals in the United States.
They say Americans at risk, again, should reduce fat to 30 percent of calories and saturated fat should be 10 percent of calories. And they also said you should increase your carbohydrates from 55 percent of calories to 60 percent of calories. So that's like the official super duper official advice from U.S. government. They also mentioned this is actually the following year, but they also mention that like as a tip, Americans should try to eat thirteen slices of bread every day so that they can get their carbohydrates.
That's like a lot of fucking bread.
I'm sorry I can't proceed with this podcast unless I know if you've eaten your daily life of bread, it's almost like when I should have had like six slices by now. Have you had your Tennyo piece of toast?
So between this dietary goals publication and the sort of like mid to late eighties in this weird, imperceptible way, the recommendation to eat less dietary fat moves from high risk groups to everybody.
No one ever says it like, oh, we're dropping this high risk recommendation. It just becomes like a cultural understanding that everybody should try to reduce fat in their diet to the extent possible.
So the American Heart Association by 1981 is recommending that men limit themselves to three hundred milligrams of cholesterol and women limit themselves to two hundred twenty five milligrams of cholesterol, which is one egg. And the National Institutes of Health starts recommending that all Americans over to.
Reduce their fat consumption over to. Yeah, if you're under the age of two, you can eat whatever you want. Apparently under two, if it's possible, use the Slim Fast version or formula.
And then in the midst of this miasma of just like everybody trying to reduce their fat, we get a 1984 TIME magazine cover story that has the headline.
Sorry, it's true. Cholesterol really is a killer. And so all of this information is sort of telling us that we should change the way we eat, right. Cholesterol bad.
We should eat less cholesterol. Find this study that you know, it's true. It's confirmed. We now know the cholesterol is bad. This is not a diet study. It's a study on drugs.
It's a study in which a bunch of people are given a statin that reduces their cholesterol and they have fewer heart attacks.
It even says like paragraph three of the article, it says researchers decided to use a drug rather than diet to lower cholesterol because it would have been virtually impossible to control or measure the diet of so many men over so long a period.
It's a great people can't eat a fucking low fat diet that long, right.
It feels like the headline here is just like, hey, we found a medication that works to lower your cholesterol. Yeah, not like sorry. It's true. We proved this totally other thing.
It's basically like this drug lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart disease. So never eat eggs.
There's also on just a fundamental level, the the dietary advice that everybody is sort of coalescing around is that you shouldn't eat more than 30 percent of your dietary consumption of fat. Right. You should reduce it to less than 30 percent. But there's never been a study that shows that eating less than 30 percent fat reduces heart disease.
There's no evidence that reducing your fat to that level will reduce heart attacks because nobody's ever been able to do it for that long. Yeah, there's actually a 1987 New York Times article. It says Studies have shown that people who eat foods low in animal fat and cholesterol have less cholesterol in their blood.
However, there is no proof that dietary changes can actually reduce heart disease before we're telling people to change their diets and reduce heart disease. Shouldn't there be some evidence that this works?
It also feels sort of like bizarre wishful thinking. Like I'm curious if anybody tried to do any, like here's what it would look like to eat this way of guidance for folks or imagining of that, because honestly, like, if you have a whatever, a bowl full of spinach. Right. Like raw baby spinach with salad dressing on it, that is like 90 percent fat, even though it's a tablespoon of two of salad dressing and a big pile of spinach.
That is not by anyone's definition, as far as I know, an unhealthy meal. I'm hearing this advice and you're like, OK, I guess I got to eat more salads. And you're like, well, no, actually, salads are pretty fatty or fat free cookies, for example.
But then, I mean, I feel like the real thing that did it was in 1988, we get a surgeon general's report basically says, like in black and white, everyone should reduce fat to the extent possible.
Yeah, this is a quote from the actual surgeon general. The report marks the first time the government has identified reduction of fat intake as the number one dietary priority of the nation. I've read this report. It's been a minute since I read this report, the Koop report. The thing that I found really fascinating about it is that it's looking at and sort of trying to make a run at these population level determinants of health through these individual sort of mandates of like when you go to the grocery store, you should buy this rather than what if the government subsidized these kinds of foods or stopped subsidizing these other kinds?
And it also I mean, I think the central sin of this report is that they didn't think of unintended consequences.
So are you familiar with Marion Nestle? Yes, absolutely. This is a Marion Nestle Stann account. Like I've read her books. I've been reading her blog for more than a decade.
She's one of the most preeminent, like food and politics researchers in America.
And she was actually one of the advisors on this report.
And what she says later, and I think this is a huge mistake.
She says the rationale, like we knew that we wanted people to eat less saturated fat. We knew the different types of fat we knew about, like HDL and LDL cholesterol, et cetera.
But we thought that was too complicated.
So what we wanted to do was just tell people to eat less fat and then people would end up eating less saturated fat. That's not how people work, and that's especially not how capitalism works.
Yeah, I think that they just didn't think that, like, companies would take this advice and the media would take this advice and oversimplify it and basically exaggerate it to the point where it's going to make everybody sicker. Totally.
And also, like, if you're reducing fat in your diet, saturated fat remains the cheapest kind of fat to get into your diet. Yeah. What are the chances that when people are cutting out fat that they're cutting out like French fries? They can get for 99 cents at a drive thru, right, like there's like convenience elements of this. There's cost elements of this. There's where does food show up in your sort of daily life? Where's the like?
Where do those stimuli pop up and when do you reach for them? Right. Yeah. Like, there's so much going on here that the idea that you could just say cut all the fat, like I get where they're coming from. And also in retrospect, I'm like, no, of course, that didn't work.
So in in 2003, Marion Nestle gives an interview to PBS where she talks about this kind of like at the end of the low fat craze.
And she says, well, nobody realized, or at least I certainly never would have guessed was it the food industry would substitute vegetable fats for animal fats in such a profound way and would also substitute sugars for fats and keep the calorie content of their products exactly the same.
The best example is the snack well, phenomenon snack. While cookies were advertised as no fat cookies, but they had almost the same amount of calories. In fact, if you go to the store today and look at Oreos, they have a reduced fat Oreo cookie that has, I think, six calories less than the regular Oreo cookie.
It's lower in fat, but it's higher in carbohydrates.
And so I think all of this dovetails with really the expansion of the obesity epidemic and the construction of the obesity to make that Americans were getting fatter. Stigma against fat people is severe. People were desperate to lose weight and the diet industry was becoming a thing at this point. And the food like mechanics reduced fat.
This and, you know, fortified with that was also becoming a thing and was playing on people's desperation to lose weight. And I think that the authors of this report thought that they were putting it into a country where people were just like, I guess I should, you know, like this to reduce heart disease. But people were not interested in reducing heart disease at this point. They were interested in being thin.
Yeah. God, that's so tricky because you're like, oh, this is such you're coming from such a pure place. You know, it's like, oh, Marion, you did, sweetie.
Totally, because, OK, I'm just going to put out these recommendations that are going to help people reduce heart disease. It's going to be really precise. It's really scientific. And here we go. Like and we've really considered all the options. And you put it out into the world. People are like, it'll make you thin. And you're like, no, that's not the OK.
You know, immediately after this report comes out, you know, this is when we get the flood of low fat products onto the market. We also get, like a lot of magazines and newspapers took this up like Prevention magazine, which is not like as much of a deal now, but was huge, like a really, really influential women's magazine in the 80s and 90s.
Basically, they had like diets where they would say like how to switch from low fat to no fat.
Absolutely. My recollection from, again, like 90s diet for kids was I remember being in middle school very distinctly and being very excited to eat some fat free Yoplait yogurt. Out of curiosity, at the time that I was sort of like, you know, continuing to hone my lens on, like, what are calorie counts, what are, you know, what's the sugar content, all that kind of stuff.
And I remember being completely shocked at how much sugar dude was in fat free yogurt.
So it's also just like this really tricky thing where it's sort of like, oh, my God, all of these, like, very sweet, well-intentioned people really thought they were going to stick it to corporations and get people out there. And actually the corporations were like, somehow this only makes you stronger.
It's like, oh, so I gave you a homework assignment for this episode. Should we do that?
Yes. Oh, my God. Let's do it. I'm so excited. OK, so in preparation for this episode, I went to my local grocery store and bought a box of snack wells, devil's food cookies.
And we should say, like as a disclaimer, that the fat free version, like the one that we're going to talk about that was introduced in 1992, no longer exists for reasons that we will get into.
So what we have in front of us is a box of it just says on the box, forty percent less fat, but it's not clear. Like what? It's forty percent less fat then.
OK, OK. Well are we going to do this. I got twelve in front of me. I'm, I'm cutting into my bag. I realize I probably should have done away with cellophane before this got these look really disappointing.
We should also say that the company's net worth is no longer owned by Nabisco. It's like one of these corporate whatever. It's passed hands a couple of times and they've changed the recipe.
And when we looked at these online, the reviews are universally negative. You go on and on. It's like all one star reviews, like people fucking hate these cookies.
So I got mine on Amazon because I couldn't find them in any grocery stores, which feels like a pretty good indicator. Yeah. Where Snack Wells is at today.
But when I found them online, the average review was one and a half stars, just like it's a chocolate cookie.
Like how much do you have to screw it up to get one and a half starts.
Oh, all right. So here we go. All right. I got one for you.
Got it right. Oh, was really chewy. There's like a layer of chocolate cake cookie kind of vibe. Yeah. And then a layer of extremely springy marshmallow on top of that, you know, like gummy bear chewing and then the whole thing is dipped in some kind of chocolate flavored coating. Oh, it's not that bad. I thought it would be worse. The cake layer tastes like it's like just barely being kept together. I don't know if your guys are sort of falling apart.
Yeah. Yeah. Like the baker in me is like they needed more egg, but that is that that has as much fat as the leading brand. Aubrey So yeah, sorry waps, but it has like a grating.
I mean I guess that's the sugar in the marshmallow. But there's like you can taste like grains, like grains of something in it, like that bottom layer, the cake layer.
It's not quite sawdust texture. Right.
But it's also not far off, you know, not sawdust, you know. Yeah I know. Honestly, I've had worse dorber cookies. Sure. Yes. You know, but if the question is like, would I get these of my own accord? Absolutely not.
Totally. I have like a weird aftertaste now. It's like super duper chocolaty.
So I wonder. Hang on.
I want to look at the ingredients on the dude. I know. I wrote them down. What is it. Seventeen ingredients.
This is like the science words label. Yeah. Oh totally. Here's what I have for my ingredients in order. Wheat flour, corn syrup, invert sugar which I choose to believe just means gay sugar. Yes, hydrogenated vegetable oil which is coconut and or palm oil, then coconut powder, then glycerin and then just leavening.
Yeah, that's what I have seen. Action where the ingredient. But OK but so now we know.
Now we know. So apparently at Nabisco first of all they launched the snack well brand specifically to capitalize on this when they were designing the cookies, they called it Project Zero because they wanted zero fat like they set out to make a zero fat cookie.
Another thing I found it, old marketing digestives like how the snack was. Cookies were marketed and they talked about how diet food at the time was fucking terrible.
It was like, you know, these Weight Watchers things and like slim fast shakes. And most of the low fat stuff at the time was like fruit based. And this was the first time that it was like a chocolate, low fat product, like a low fat product that looked like a normal product like that hadn't been seen before.
There's like so much wishful thinking that goes into the creation of diet foods. Right. Which is sort of like the idea that you could lose a bunch of weight and eat foods that are as decadent, if not more so. Yeah, you could lose weight, you could have a healthier heart and you could eat these chocolate marshmallow sawmill's cookies.
It's also I mean, I think it's also like we've totally forgotten about this now. But snack was cookies were one of the first snack products that were marketed to adults.
They like snacks, you know, seems like gummy bears and stuff like things that kids would eat. And this is really the beginning of like the snack industry, the idea of like, you know, 3:00 p.m., you're at work. You want to have like a little nibble that is like a marketing category didn't really exist yet.
And so another reason why the snack was cookies went so far as because they were they had like a year of lead time of like telling people that, like it was OK to snack on something if you're an adult.
Totally fascinating. Well, and also, like now there are like whole like as you're talking about this, I'm like, oh, right. There are whole ad campaigns now around adult snacking. Right. That's like grab this 100 calorie pack of. Yeah. Ullman's instead of the donut in the break room at work or the hungry, grab a Snickers ad campaign right where you're like, that's not Snickers isn't for hunger.
Everybody wanted to mention that because they they deliberately made the package of snack well cookies smaller so that first of all, it would be under two bucks, which they really want it to be cheap.
And secondly, they didn't want it to be seen as like a family package of stuff. Like they talk about how, like you buy Oreos and there's like forty eight of them. And it's very clear that it's like supposed to be in the cupboard. It's like a family thing that you bring out after the family is eaten dinner or something. But these were supposed to be like individual. You were supposed to get them yourself and take them to work with you.
And so part of this thing of like eating the whole box, it's not clear that like they intended for that to be the outcome. But like, the box was much smaller.
Twelve cookies in a box was kind of an innovation.
That's what they're counting on, is like some level of binge eating, whether or not that's the language that they have for the framework or whatever, like they're designing something to be eaten in a single sitting or a couple of settings by one person.
This is also the beginning of what researchers called nutritionism, which I think is like taking over the U.S. food supply.
This idea that the healthiness or unhealthiness of a product is related to whether or not it has a specific thing, the idea that like, well, it's low in fat, so it's healthy for me or like it's high in omega 3s. This is something that is deliberately pushed by food companies so that they can put a like a nice label on their product.
Like the really infamous one was that there used to be a little nutrition label on the front of the Lucky Charms box that said, look.
He charms boosts immunity. I don't know how the fuck that came up, like I think with four or five with like vitamin A or some shit like something like, you know, Americans are not getting like rickets at, like large rates.
But it was like a way of being like, oh, well, it boosts immunity. So, like, of course, I can have a bowl of Lucky Charms for breakfast.
It's this idea of like it's very binary understanding of health that is completely like it benefits nobody other than food companies. Right.
It's a little bit like the sort of like freak out about gluten that happened maybe ten years ago. Right. Like, everyone's going to get gluten out of their diets, that there was green brain and wheat belly and all of those sort of diet, both totally. Our brains are going to hang on to one thing. We're all freaked out about both our mortality and our appearance. And here's one element. Omega 3s or gluten or sugar or carbs or fat or whatever it is that you can then just hang on to that allays all of those fears.
I think the grossest example of this is the complete corruption of the American Heart Association, that they start allowing brands to pay them to put heart healthy stickers on the front of their packages. Do you remember these?
It's like a little heart logo with a white checkmark. Those were paid. I mean, you still have to match, like you still have to meet some basic criteria.
Like it's not they're not putting it on literally anything, but like they started putting it on any product that was low fat. So in the 90s, you could get a heart healthy sticker on Frosted Flakes, marshmallow crisps and fucking Pop Tarts. Right.
It was on like every cereal. That's what I remember. Yeah. Oh yeah. Me too. Yeah. Yeah.
But like, that's a completely absurd understanding of health. Oh yeah. You know, Honey Nut Cheerios are low in fat, so they're good for you and they're just like pure refined grains, like try to make cereal in a kitchen.
Like cereal is not a food. It's like you can only make it on an industrial scale.
I love reading these old accounts.
I found like all these like industry trade publications where this is bananas. By 1995, there were 1914 new low fat products hitting the market at almost 2000.
New products that are market is low fat on the market in 1995. Wow. And this is from a Times op ed, like after all this is over, it says, by the mid 90s, a flood of low fat products entered the food supply, non-fat salad dressing, baked potato chips, low fat sweetened milk and yogurt and low fat processed turkey and baloney.
Low fat baloney is like its own ring of hell grows. What's he just.
Oh, I like almost hope that it's like sawdust because then it can't be like it put it just ground up newspapers. Yeah. There's also do you remember this is like deep cuts dude. There was something called the McLean Deluxe, like McDonald's had a low fat hamburger.
I don't remember this. I remember. I remember getting it. How was it? I don't know. I think I liked it just because I like McDonald's stuff. As a kid, I wasn't like a discerning customer at like twelve years old.
There were also Taco Bell had tacos called border lights. Oh, I definitely remember border lights.
Kentucky Fried Chicken had skinless chicken. It was everywhere.
That was also like the point at which in my house all of those products shifted over to the low fat version of whatever it was. Oh yeah. Me too. Yeah. Low fat, reduced fat cheese.
Oh no. That stuff.
What a bummer. It's like toothpaste. Oh yeah.
It's really fascinating in retrospect, given how sort of our conversation about nutrition has progressed. In the meantime, the idea was you should still be buying stuff from the middle of the store. Yeah, yeah. You should still be buying shelf stable stuff in boxes. It should still come from General Mills or Nabisco or whatever. But you have to get the reduced fat version of that thing. It was also a time when, like, people were like, don't eat nuts, don't eat cheese, don't eat avocados.
Oh, my God, don't eat avocados. Right. Yeah. So it's also fascinating to see how much of this is like how far the pendulum swings by 1995 snack.
Well, if it had been a standalone company, it would have been the third largest food company in America.
And this is a really fascinating moment where, like my kid brain is catching up to my adult understanding of things, right.
Where I'm like, I for sure was just like, oh, my family just really liked this brand.
Oh, yeah. That's that's how I thought before I started researching this. Totally.
I did not think like, no, this was like a really concerted sort of marketing effort. It was sort of the perfect storm of like public health recommendations and then corporations and like sort of the food industry and diet industry seizing on those all of this stuff. Like, of course, it's all of those things. And it isn't just like my dad really likes marshmallows, but that's not what it was. You remember the ads, remember the cookie man ads?
I don't remember anything about the advertising from Stockwell's.
I think we don't remember it because we were too young and the marketing was aimed at adults. So I found a compilation on YouTube of the ads that they ran for snack.
Well, the central premise is a. They're in such high demand that stores are running low, and that's actually fucking true. Stores would run out and there's like apocryphal stories of people who would follow the delivery trucks to the store.
Like if they were out driving and they saw a delivery truck, they would follow it to the grocery store so that they could get it because you could not get these cookies anywhere.
This is like the Beatles of snack food. It's ridiculous. Just like people like screaming and following them or maybe a better comparison of the Furby of snow.
It's like, so what was was there like a peak of Stockwell's popularity?
Do we know? It's actually fascinating. 90. It's like 92. It introduces 95. It peaks by 1998. It basically doesn't exist anymore. Interesting.
And I don't know, like how much this contributed to it. But during this time, these studies start to come out about what is now known as the snack wealth effect.
So they do these studies where they bring people into a room and there's like a bowl of Eminem's and they're like, oh, yeah, I have as many as you want.
We're waiting. We'll call you in later. And there's a scale under the bowl so they can see how many Eminem's you eat. And for one group they say, oh, have some Eminem's. And for the other group they say, oh, they're low fat. Eminem's their new have as many as you want. And the people that get the low fat Eminem. But you don't exist, by the way, they eat 30 percent more than the people who have the regular Eminem.
The logic or the you know, the theory of this is that there's there's so much shame around food. These don't produce the same amount of shame. Yeah. You feel like, oh, I ate the whole box of cookies, but like, it's no fat, so it's OK to eat the box of cookies. And so it's not really something that people like reckoned with in the literature, the way that foods affect emotions. But it seems like that's a big part of the snack effect.
Totally. And like from a corporate perspective, right. From a profit motive perspective, if people are eating 30 percent more of your product, they are giving you 30 percent more money. Yes. Like that. At some point or another, they will continue to buy your product at a higher rate if they are eating more of it.
Right. And there's also there's studies of this, too.
What's weird is, despite all this, the sheer scale of this low fat craze, Americans didn't eat like that, much less fat. They just ate more. Like if you look at daily calorie consumption, it increased by something like 400 calories per person during this period. Really? Yeah, and that was almost all carbohydrates as a percentage. We ate less fat, but like we ate the same raw amount of fat.
I mean, my theory on this is that it's just satiety that, like, you eat a box of fucking snack cookies and you are not full.
You're just going to eat more like an hour later as if you haven't eaten anything because this food is, like specifically designed to go straight through you. Like, there's no fiber in it.
There's nothing in it that would like trigger all of the hormones that are like telling you, like, I'm done eating now. It triggers all the hormones that say I'm not full.
Well, and there's also the whole sort of like world of food science right around snack foods and sort of packaged foods like the use. Yeah, there is a whole little industry of people whose job it is to make these irresistable. Yes. Yeah.
Every product wants you to buy the most. Right. And so, you know, by 1995 it peaked. By 98, it's basically cratered. And there's this hella shady New York Times article in 1998 with the headline Nabisco Gives In As Consumers Shun Snack Wells Demanding Taste.
And it's about how in 1998, snack wells started adding fat to the cookies because they tasted like shit and nobody wanted to eat them unless they were desperate to lose weight.
Yeah, there's not as much fat as there would be in like an Oreo, I guess. But like, there's some fat because fat carries flavor.
Yeah, totally. 2002. 2003 is when the low fat craze really ends.
And you when you read the academic articles, they have this sense of like wonder and mystery. They're like, well, you know, I don't know why, you know, it really took us these like extra years to really drop the low fat craze.
And it's like Atkins. Yeah.
It's not like Americans are like reading their copy of the Journal of the American Medical Association and being like, I believe I shall change my diet like, no, it was another fucking fad diet.
You guys like.
It's not another fad diet promising essentially the same thing. Yes. If you eat this way, if you do this thing, we will make you thin. You will be healthier by every measure. No measure. Yeah, right. The sort of the way that these conversations about health happen around diet are super duper duper imprecise. Right. People aren't like we started out talking about this as like an issue of like heart disease, which is a very specific conversation.
And the bigger these conversations get and the further they veer into diet land, the further they veer away from like useful data, useful practices. Right. Like precise information, all of that. It just becomes every idea about health and beauty and desirability. And size and everything, like they all get sort of collapsed into one another. You know, we've clearly moved on from the low fat ideology, but the meta ideology of this stuff, I don't know if we've grown that much.
Like it's really difficult to do research on this because a lot of the books about the rise of the low fat craze are written by people who are pitching their own diet.
Gary Towel's, who wrote the infamous What If Fat Doesn't Make You Fat?
Article that basically launched the Atkins diet in The New York Times in 2002. He has now become this weird like eat nothing but bacon guy. I read his book, but like, you have to sort of like cut out the parts that are like and that's why sausages are the best right now.
Like, I don't know, Gary. And then there's other I read another book by Nunatak Holds.
It's all about how fat is good for you. And we should all be eating like a super high fat diet. And like there's actually some interesting data behind that, whatever. It's just it's difficult to get historical information about the stuff from between. Every single source is trying to tell you that like, no, no, no. The new thing is like fat is good, right? Like, it's simplistic to say fat is bad, but like, actually fat is good.
And it's like that actually sounds just as simplistic to me.
And the fears that we are trying to allay or the the solutions that we're trying to find as individuals are also pretty simplistic, right? Yeah.
You're afraid of dying. You're afraid of not having good health. You're afraid of, you know, whatever the things are, what you're doing in that moment, what you're looking for, arguably, when you reach for a box of snack wells or for any of these sorts of things is a way of allaying your own anxiety that may or may not have any relationship to what it actually does to your body or to your health. Right. That has infinitely more to do with your feelings about your own body and your emotional state than it does to do with anything related to the science behind these products, the nutritional value of them.
It's it's much more individual like this quest for like this food is good and this food is bad in this diet is good in this diet is bad, negates how much individual variation there is. Like I know people that are on low fat diets and they love their low fat diet and it gives them energy and it makes them happy. And like, I'm not interested in taking that away from them. Like if you're on a low fat diet, then, like have a blast.
Like if it's healthy for you and it's healthy for you. I don't see any reason to say that, like, oh, it's bad for everybody. In the same way, I don't see any reason to say it's good for everybody.
And I know people that are like super duper low carb, like the people that have managed to keep Atkins for like a decade. Like, I know those people and they're happy with their diets.
Yeah, like if it works for you, it works for you. And you should have access to accurate information. Right.
As you're making the decision of like what kind of food you want to eat, what kind of like if you want to subscribe to a model of a diet that someone else created. Right. I think that's part of what makes this also tricky is that folks are looking for very direct, very clear cut and very tested solutions. Yeah. That, for the most part, don't actually exist in the universe kind of way that we want them to. They're sort of you have to do the obligatory thing at the end of this episode where you, like, read through all the literature reviews that have like tested the low fat diet compared to other diets.
I can read you excerpts like there's been there is one and there's one. There's one of two and five. There's one in 2015 where it's like they test like the South Beach Diet and a low fat diet and Atkins and whatever. And most of these studies find like no real difference.
Like, you know, you look at the actual data on each one of the diets and like every diet study finds the same thing, that some people gain weight on the diet. Some people have nothing, and some people lose weight on the diet. Yeah, there's no real evidence that like a low fat diet in general, like on a population level does anything.
And let me end with like this extremely long, but extremely good. Quote from an laberge, who's a professor who's written about the history of the low fat diet craze. She says low fat recommendation's competed with the reality of grocery stores and restaurants filled with fattening foods of all sorts and decreasing cost and increasing availability of food of all sorts. Food became widely available 24/7. Americans eat more processed food. The changing social structure, for example, the to work or family or the single parent family and the families ate out more often.
Low fat made living and eating difficult, requiring both health care practitioners and patients to be counterculture. For some Americans, eating low fat meant denying local or ethnic heritages. Following a low fat diet was also expensive, inconvenient and in fact, elitist. One had to avoid most restaurants and most foods sold in grocery stores. The result was two cultures, fat and low fat.
Yeah, this is this is the problem with every single fad diet is that it competes with the reality of people's fucking lives.
Yeah, I just all yoga teacher who would say that everyone should be upside down for like one hour a day, like doing a headstand or a handstand. I think about it all the time because like she might have been right.
But also, like, I can't fucking do that. I can't do that in the office. I can't do that at home. It's not going to happen.
So it's kind of irrelevant whether she's right or not because it's going to work for anybody. We clearly need to come up with something that will actually work for everybody.
And the fact. If this doesn't work, that you're hungry and, like, pissed off and bingeing and tired and emotional all the time, that actually is like pretty relevant to whether or not we should recommend this to people. That's not some like footnote.
So much of the sort of like dietary information that gets tossed out is sort of like assuming that humans are some kind of like processing plant. You put something in at the beginning and the same product comes out every time rather than like, no, there are workers who work in the plant and sometimes they get sick and sometimes the machinery malfunctions. And also it's a person it's not a fucking processing plant.
And so, yeah, if you like your low fat diet, you can keep it. If you like snack of cookies, eat them. If you don't like them, don't eat them. Just like eat what's right for you. Yeah. Eat things that you like. If you eat a whole box of snack cookies, you're not a terrible person. Right? Totally don't share other people's diets, especially don't give unwarranted diet advice to people. You do not know that well because their bodies are different from yours 100 percent.
And if you see a snack delivery truck, follow it to the store.
Yeah, it might be your only chance. It's the last one in America, but.