This is the second in a series of Medium posts. They start here. Excerpted from All Natural: A Skeptic's Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier, from Rodale, which comes out January 29th.
Part II: The great white hope
German began by asking what a food would look like if it was precisely designed to make us healthy. Such a food would be a Rosetta stone with which to crack the code for dietary health. No plant would do as a model because evolutionary pressure tends to favor plants that can avoid being eaten, and plants have honed their expertise in defending themselves by building poisons. The model food would have to be just the opposite: Something that wanted to be a meal, which gained evolutionary success by being eaten, something shaped by constant Darwinian pressure to satisfy all the needs of mammals. That ur-food, of course, was milk.
“In milk you have the Darwinian engine of your dreams,” German said. “You’ve got a mother who is literally dissolving her tissues to make milk—whatever is going into it is costing her—so if it’s not helping the infant, evolution should weed it out. But if she creates something that enhances the infant’s chance of survival, that provides a tremendous boost to the chances of it spreading. You let this engine run for a few million years and you end up with this complex, almost magical substance. It’s a spectacular gold mine for science.”
When I asked German to show me what the research looked like he took me to a room that one of his colleagues had set up. This room looks a lot like your high school chemistry lab might have, only more so: more pipes and cables swooping up past hanging fluorescent lights, more battered machines cluttering the faux-wood lab benches, more substances that could blaze or boom, along with stern prohibitions against blazing and booming taped to the walls. One read, in a red font that crammed exclamation marks into every letter, danger invisible laser radiation avoid eye contact or skin exposure to direct or scattered radiation. Acronyms and arrows crowded a blackboard, stuffing leaked from an old chair, and a dozen lab coats burdened a coat tree. Grad students drifted in and out. A mass-spectrometry machine, which looked as if it might have come from the engine room of a steamship, dominated a quarter of the lab, shrouded in hissing ice clouds. A wooden sign hung above, carved with the words, “Spectrometry for the masses.” The machine was essentially a scale, but a scale so precise that it could determine the type and number of atoms in a milk molecule by weighing it.
“It’s like weighing a battleship to see if there is a fly on the deck,” German said, shaking his head in admiration for his colleague who had built it. “Carlos Lebrilla: He’s an absolute wizard.”
On the other side of the room was a freezer containing hundreds of tubes, beakers, and vials of milk. Milk from humans, gorillas, mice, and seals scabbed like white lichen to the glass. The milk research is still in its infancy, but already these samples have shown German and the scientists working with him just how far astray our nutritional assumptions have taken us. So far the study of this complete food has revealed that much of what we thought we knew about nutrition was 180-degrees wrong. The reason this excites German—“Sometimes this stuff gets me so excited I can’t sleep at night,”—is that this failure of dietary theory presents the opportunity for a Copernican revolution in nutrition, an opportunity for a better theory that changes our conception of how the universe works.
Excerpted from All Natural: A Skeptic's Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier, from Rodale, which comes out January 29th.