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Adventism, vegetarianism and dietary guidelines

When the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) were first proposed in 1980, they were already oriented away from meat and towards plants. As each iteration of the guidelines was produced (at 5-yearly intervals) this trend was reinforced. So much so that, during the development of the 2015 guidelines, there was a discussion among the committee as to whether meat was even a food group. In the end, the DGA MyPlate infographic doesn’t use the word meat (it uses ‘protein’ instead, see later). Add in environmental and animal rights interests, and meat consumption finds itself under unprecedented pressure. But, there may have also been less obvious forces at work, including one that might be surprising – the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Church.

In the beginning

 Around the mid-1800’s there was something of a religious revival in the north-eastern US, spurred on by the establishment of Bible Societies and the dissemination of affordable Bibles that anyone could read. Numerous denominations and sects formed around various interpretations of the Bible. One of these were the Millerites, named after their founder (William Miller). Miller had calculated that the advent of Christ’s second-coming was to be on the  22nd October, 1844. Thousands were swept up by this prophesy, many ridding themselves of their earthly possessions and relationships in anticipation. When it did not materialise, it became ‘The Great Disappointment’. 

Disillusioned Millerites abandoned the denomination. However, a number of small groups tried to salvage something from the Great Disappointment. One group concluded that Christ had indeed descended, but not as far as Earth – he had entered the ‘Heavenly Sanctuary’ and was preparing Judgement, after which he would complete the descent to Earth. Rather sensibly, no firm date was set for the Earthly Advent this time (although it was considered to be imminent). Around 50 believers made up this group, that would later (1863) consolidate around certain ideologies to become the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Church. The ‘Seventh Day’ refers to the distinction of observing the sabbath (7th day) on a Saturday. Today, the SDA are the fifth largest Christian denomination worldwide, with annual revenues in the billions.  

An influential figure and important driving force in the early establishment and later expansion of the Church was the Millerite Mrs Ellen G White. In the period 1844-1863, as the Church was forming, White experienced one to two hundred visions, many of which were witnessed (there were various physical signs associated with them). White was taken to be a prophetess that God was speaking through, and her visions guided the direction taken by the fledgeling  Church.

White’s visions

There has been speculation as to the neurological disorder that White suffered from. The consensus seems to be head trauma-induced epilepsy, with symptoms of complex partial seizures and hysterical dissociative episodes (visions). Today, White would be referred to a neuropsychiatric clinic for diagnosis and treatment. Presumably, Adventists would see epilepsy as merely the vehicle chosen by God to deliver Her message. 

White’s head trauma came in her early teens, when she was hit violently on the head and lost consciousness for a short period, recovered enough to walk for help, then plunged into and out of a coma that lasted three weeks. This sequence of acute unconsciousness, brief recovery then a more prolonged unconscious period is typical of a traumatic brain injury that can lead to complex partial seizures. Hypergraphia (the compulsion to write) is another characteristic, and White published more than 5,000 periodical articles and 40 books (amid some accusations of plagiary).  Ironically, it was this prodigious writing that formed a reference base and a rallying point for disseminating Church principles. White continued to have visions up to her menopause, but none thereafter (a pattern some female epileptics can experience).

Vegetarianism and lifestyle

Central to White’s visions and beliefs was an emphasis on a healthy lifestyle and a vegetarian diet. According to White “fruits, nuts, vegetables and seeds, constitute the diet chosen for us by our Creator.” It was a diet modelled on the Garden of Eden. Meat was eliminated as it came ‘after the fall’, and was considered a stimulant eliciting baser passions and carnality. Meat-eaters were enjoying themselves, and that just wouldn’t do. According to White: “A religious life can be more successfully gained and maintained if meat is discarded, for this diet stimulates into intense activities lustful propensities, and enfeebles the moral and spiritual nature.“ White also had a vision that meat caused cancer. Indulgence in alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, fried food, spicy flavours, pickled food and overeating were also ruled out. It is relevant that the Millerites, and the SDA Church that emerged from them, arose out of the temperance movement.

The Battle Creek Sanitarium

Responding to yet another vision, and to broaden the influence of the Church, White and her husband established what they called the Western Health Reform Institute in a farmhouse at Battle Creek, Michigan in 1866. It was a kind of health retreat in which patients healed themselves with natural therapies and a vegetarian diet. It was also an opportunity to spread Church thinking according to its missionary goals. Battle Creek became Church headquarters.

At first, the Institute was run by Adventist farming wives. However, White soon realised she needed a professional. With remarkable patience, the Church sponsored the schooling and medical training of a young devout Adventist who was working for them as a printing assistant and showing intellectual promise. He was John Harvey Kellogg. Ten years later, on graduating, Kellogg returned to become the Institute’s medical director. His younger brother, Will Keith Kellogg (also an Adventist believer) was appointed accountant. John Harvey changed the name to the Battle Creek Sanitarium (suggesting sanitation), and set about fund-raising and expanding the Sanitarium’s facilities. Within a decade under Kellogg, it went from treating just a few hundred people, to over a thousand. 

The transformed Sanitarium combined aspects of a European spa, various ‘health’ therapies (hydrotherapy that was popular at the time, sun-baths, outdoor exercise, cold-air cures, enemas, a vegetarian lifestyle and 8–10 glasses of water a day), a hospital and a high-class hotel to house the rich inmates and subsidise the poor. A common presenting complaint was indigestion.

John Harvey Kellogg

Kellogg implemented a low-fat, low-protein vegetarian regimen with an emphasis on whole grains, fiber-rich foods and nuts (he was keen on nuts). He prohibited meat not only for its carnality, but also because he considered it unsanitary. Kellogg set up an experimental kitchen at the Sanitarium and, with his brother and wife (Ella), started experimenting with grains and meat substitutes. In keeping with his beliefs, his goal was to create bland processed foods that aroused little enthusiasm or passion. He also wanted to ease the digestion of grains by pre-cooking. His first (accidental) success was a wheat paste that was cooked, dried, rolled and flaked – wheatflakes. There was no added flavour (other than a little salt), and the texture was rather uninteresting – just what he wanted. The wheatflakes were served at the start of the day. He later applied the process to other grains and, most notably, corn.

Kellogg also experimented extensively with nut pastes, developing the first peanut paste that he used as a substitute spread for butter. Later, he would invent rice krispies (rice bubbles). Quite an innovator.

He was also a sociopath. Kellogg was obsessed with stamping out onanism, and invented (and patented) numerous medieval-like instruments to interfere with the practice. His processed food products were part of this objective, he wanted anaphrodisiacs that blunted the libido. He also carried out inhuman sexual mutilation procedures on young victims (circumcision of boys without anaesthetic, for example, to create a traumatising association). 

Breakfast Cereals

Ironically, despite Kellogg’s intention, some wealthy Sanitarium inmates saw potential in the new processed foods – they were convenient for busy housewives, and all that was needed was to make them palatable. A number went on to establish their own companies that marketed versions that included added sugar, flavourings, colourings, malt etc. Will Keith Kellogg wanted to do the same with cornflakes, but John Harvey refused on principle. The younger Kellogg went off on his own, establishing the Kellogg’s Cereal Company without his brother’s involvement, and selling palatable and sweetened cornflakes with great success. 

The brothers never spoke again. 

With this perspective, the Battle Creek Sanitarium can be seen as the birthplace of the breakfast cereal industry, with a history tied to the SDA Church, biblical visions, and grain-based vegetarian diets. Since then, relentlessly successful marketing campaigns (targeting convenience for housewives and sweetness for children) have seen healthy and nutritional breakfasts (e.g. eggs and meats) replaced by nutritionally compromised and sugary fast-foods. The idea that breakfast is the most important meal of the day was one of the marketing campaigns employed. 

The disfellowshipping of Kellogg

To briefly wrap-up the Kellogg story, in 1902 the Sanitarium burnt to the ground. White opposed rebuilding (for a while now, she wasn’t happy with the direction the Sanitarium, or Kellogg himself, had been taking). However, Kellogg and the Board of Directors raised sufficient funds to rebuild and even expand. Meanwhile, Kellogg had become more outspoken on points of theology, and was increasingly criticised by conservative Adventist believers. Ultimately, Kellogg was ‘disfellowshipped’ by the Church in 1907, and the Church’s influence over the Sanitarium was lost. Kellogg declared himself an ‘independent’ Adventist, and continued to run the Sanitarium in the same way until the Great Depression, when there weren’t enough rich people to fund operations and the buildings were sold. 

An Australian connection

In 1873, White had a vision to take the Adventist mission to Australia. Eventually, in 1889 she arrived, bringing with her relatives and members of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. She stayed 10 years and oversaw the establishment of Adventist churches, the Sydney Adventist Hospital, the Adventist Signs Publishing Company, Adventist primary schools, Avondale College and the Sanitarium Health Food Company. 

Now known as the Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing Company (with a New Zealand connection) it remains in Church hands and as such pays no tax in Australia or New Zealand and profits only the Church. The company specialises in the development and mass production of vegetarian processed foods and dairy-analogs, including breakfast cereals, peanut butter and soy milks. Soy milk was developed and promoted by a Adventist missionary while working in China. It is one of the largest ‘food’ industries in the region, and instrumental in advancing the Adventist vegetarian mission. 

The making of Loma Linda University

Around the time that the Church broke ties with the Battle Creek Sanitarium and the Kellogg brothers, White’s attention was drawn to a property in Loma Linda, California that she recalled having seen in another vision.  In 1905, the Loma Linda Sanitarium was established on the site, firmly under Church control. Within a year, it was re-imagined as the Loma Linda College of Evangelists, offering courses in religion, nursing and health, some sciences including social sciences, and in particular cooking and home economics.

Subsequently it became the Loma Linda College, and finally the Loma Linda University (by which it is known today). The university is influential for the vegetarian mission of the Church and for giving credence to the Adventist lifestyle. A large Adventist community has grown in Loma Linda, with the university as a central drawcard. Scientific studies of diet and lifestyle are directed at confirming what Adventists already know.

Interlude

The Church stands apart from other Christian denominations in giving the physical body an importance equivalent to that of the mind and the spirit. Further, it has ambitiously and successfully taken its gospel to the world, through health ministries, educational institutions and the mass production of plant-based foods and meat-analogs. 

The Church has influence through this massive health and education structure. For example, it has recently partnered with the World Health Organisation (WHO), the first time this United Nations agency has partnered with a faith-based organisation. The WHO initiated this partnership to leverage the Church’s hospitals and community health operations.

Vegetarianism is promoted by the Church (although it is not a strict requirement for membership). How influential might the Church now be in steering public discourse on this topic? 

The making of the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

In 1917, an Adventist from Battle Creek Sanitarium and protegé of John Kellogg, Lenna Cooper, co-founded the American Dietetic Association (ADA). Five years later, Loma Linda College started the first Dietitian Training School. Cooper pioneered the dietetic profession and served various roles on the ADA. The ADA is now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and is the United States’ largest organisation of food and nutrition professionals. In the early 1980s, an Adventist became president of AND. Not that long after, in 1988, the AND delivered its first position statement on vegetarian diets (5 of the 9 authors and reviewers of the statement were Adventist vegetarians). The AND continued to deliver vegetarian position statements roughly every 5 years. 

In 2015 they had to retract their position paper because of “inaccuracies and omissions”. A new version was published in 2016 (it is still the current position of the AND). There was no conflict of interest statement by any of the three authors on the publication. However, it can easily be determined that the first author has co-authored 13 books promoting plant-based diets, including a comprehensive book titled “Becoming Vegan”. The second author is Professor of Nutrition at an Adventist university and widely published in plant-based diets. The third author is a director of an organisation campaigning for plant-based nutrition guidelines.

While a publication by conflicted experts in plant-based diets might be considered reasonable by some, the problem is that the publication comes under the banner of the AND, and that organisation would be expected to take a more nuanced and balanced approach. 

The AND website is strongly pro-vegetarian. There is a position paper on fibre. There is no position paper on meat and omnivory. A site search for ‘meat’ returns articles on its dangers (mostly from contamination – Kellogg thinking again), and how to convert from meat to a vegetarian diet. The academy has a record of multiple conflicts of interest with the food and pharmacological industries and, as outlined here, the Church.

The AND has not been able to shake off its origins. Nevertheless, it is an influential body that carries weight when setting dietary guidelines and promoting dietary advice to the public.

The McGovern Report

The US has had the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) since 1980, updated every 5 years. However, from the outset, there were anti-meat forces at work. The 1980 guidelines were heavily influenced by a 1977 report arising from a US Senate Select Committee, known as the McGovern report (after the committee Chair).

This committee of senators held hearings at which organisations with an interest, such as representatives of the livestock industry, cereal industry or the American Heart Association (AHA), made representations. The submissions were collated, and the task of writing the report given to a journalist (Nick Mottern) who had no background in the subject.

It seems that Mottern took a dislike to the cattlemen, who were brash and loud. He much preferred the quiet studiousness of the AHA. The AHA had already decided that saturated fat caused heart disease (at least a decade earlier, but without the advantage of data to support that stance). During the course of synthesising the data into a report, Mottern became increasingly anti-meat. Ultimately, by the end of his report writing, he had become a vegetarian himself. The report reflected that – eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and less meat, egg, and dairy products. 

The report was released in early 1977. The livestock industry reacted predictably. McGovern released an amended report later that year that reached the compromise that lean meat was consistent with health. Mottern was furious and resigned immediately. He started a vegetarian restaurant in New York.

Whether Mottern was Adventist is not known. I have seen it mentioned, but have been unable to corroborate satisfactorily. On the release of the report, an Adventist newsletter praised the report and highlighted that at last officials were seeing things their way. It would be disingenuous if it turned out to be their way because they saw to it.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA)

While the McGovern report was controversial, it was also influential. No great change was made in 1980 when a committee of scientists (this time) produced the first DGA. 

Since then, the DGA have been on a fairly constant trajectory. With every 5-year release, they have become more plant-based.

This is the current US MyPlate infographic. Over 3/4 of the plate consists of plant material. Protein is defined as “meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, eggs, processed soy products, nuts, and seeds”.  Meat has been replaced with a vague, but vegetarian-friendly list. The scientific definition of grains is: The seeds of grasses.

Here is the current Australian infographic. Overwhelmingly plant-centric and processed-food friendly, hunt for the meat.

The 2020 DGA

The 2020 DGA committee was announced in March 2019. They have only just met, leaving little time to review the science and formulate updated guidelines. Perhaps they have already made up their minds. Perhaps they were invited onto the committee because their minds are already made up. There are 20 committee members, and nearly all have conflicts of interest with food, pharmaceutical, or supplement companies. Sixteen are members of the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), perhaps not necessarily a conflict as such, however many processed food and pharmaceutical companies contribute to the ASN, including PepsiCo, Mars Inc., Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Kelloggs and the Sugar Association. Half are members of the AND (the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics discussed previously). However, there is one member with a staggering conflict for a committee of scientists – Professor Joan Sabaté from the Adventist Loma Linda University.

For the first time that we know of for certain, the Church has a believer on the DGA committee.

Joan Sabaté, MD, is Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology in the School of Public Health at Loma Linda. He refers to himself as a “nutritionist and believer” and goes on to say: “The Bible is an authoritative source of information on the design of a healthful diet for man”. He has spent his career promoting vegetarian diets and Adventism.

Believers reject evolution, and therefore evolutionary biology cannot inform their dietary perspectives. Furthermore, by using the Bible as the definitive guide, they cannot be swayed by an understanding of human metabolism or physiology, or by any evidence contrary to their position. To have a believer on the committee is unbelievable.  The credibility of the DGA has been undermined before they even got started.

Sabaté: “Adventism has unique views on food and nutrition. These views are becoming more mainstream within the scientific community. In contrast with other disciplines, the evolution of the nutrition paradigms have, over the years, shifted toward many of the Adventist views.”

The case made herein is that the shift referred to, may not have been a coincidence. Still, the Church might be taking a risk – the tip of a potential iceberg has just been put on public display.


External sources:

I became aware of some of this backstory from the work of Belinda and Gary Fettke. Visit their website, or watch a video. The work here is my own.

Nina Teicholz has provided more details on the 2020 DGA committee here. Nina also reports that 11/14 members of the 2015 committee “had consistently published work in favor of plant-based, low-animal-fat, vegetarian diets, and that many had built their careers promoting these types of diets.

Nick Mottern is a central figure in this story, in many ways everything started with him, but little is known definitively of his background or perspective. I have mostly gone with Nina’s narrative in her book The Big Fat Surprise, on the basis that she interviewed Mottern during her research. So has Gary Taubes, although I haven’t retained the link.

Sabaté has co-authored a recent perspective titled “The Global Influence of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church on Diet”. His main research interest seems to be the health benefits of walnuts (perhaps channelling Kellogg). He presented a more revealing personal view on nutrition and belief at the 2004 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.