John Robbins of Baskin-Robbins Family Busts Dairy Industry Myths and More

Once heir apparent to the Baskin-Robbins family ice-cream business and fortune, John Robbins was prompted by a few events he could not ignore to decline his inheritance and instead live with his wife in a single-room log cabin where they meditated for hours a day and gave birth to a son they named Ocean.

He described these events last night in the telecourse Living the Food Revolution, which I will attend each Wednesday over the next four weeks. Among these light-bulb moments were the sudden cardiac arrest and death of his 54-year-old uncle — a partner in the ice-cream corporation and a big eater of the frozen dessert — and his dad's acquisition of a severe case of type 2 diabetes. Robbins Senior swore up and down that these health problems were completely unrelated to ice cream. "He had to believe that," Robbins Junior says. "He had by that time sold and manufactured more ice cream than any human being on this planet. He didn't want to think that the product he was selling would hurt anybody, much less precipitate in any way the death of my uncle, his partner. But I had to think about it, and I decided that there was a connection."

Decades later, in 1998, Robbins wrote the best-selling book Diet for a New America (he's now penned several others), in which he details the reasons a plant-based diet is better for our health, better for the planet, and better for our relationship to the universe. Now he and his son Ocean are leading ongoing initiatives to educate Americans on how they can heal themselves and the world through their food choices. That might sound dramatic, but if you consider the environmental, human labor, and health costs of our current food system, it's not.

"We pay less per capita in this country on food than any nation in the world," Robbins said last night, "and more per capita on health care than any nation in the history of the world."

Later he explained why our doctors aren't routinely prescribing health-promoting plant-based diets as a form of medicine or preventive medicine.

"The average physician gets two and a half hours of nutrition coursework during four years of medical school," he said. "We expect our physicians to be experts in human health. Actually, that's not the medical model. That's not what they're taught. That's not what they practice. That's not how they live. What medicine is about, actually, is about diagnosing and treating disease. We call it health care, but it would actually be more accurate to call it disease care. We have a disease-care system."

The former ice-cream empire heir also demythologized the common belief that milk product consumption is essential to human health. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the absorbability of calcium from leafy green vegetables was significantly higher than that of milk products. Brussels sprouts' calcium was 64 percent absorbable; mustard greens, 58 percent; broccoli, 53 percent; turnip greens, 52 percent; and kale, 50 percent. Cow's milk straggled behind at a mere 32 percent.

"It is widely not perceived as a myth that we need dairy products to get our calcium. Of course the dairy industry does a tremendous amount to promulgate that belief. There is no data to support it. It is ironic that they've gotten away with bamboozling people to the extent they have about it... Everyone has seen their ads — the milk mustache and everything. They put a tremendous amount of money to put them in everybody's face so often... [These] ads have always implied that [milk's calcium] is the best absorbed, the most bio-available. But it isn't."

The disconnect between dairy consumption and calcium absorption is backed by living human examples as well: As Robbins pointed out, the same nations that consume the most dairy — Finland, Sweden, the United States, and England — also have the highest rates of osteoporosis.

"There is a certain blend of amino acids [in animal protein] that is acidic," Robbins explained, "and the body responds to that acidity by needing to neutralize, to buffer it so that the pH of blood and of other systems in the body can remain exactly where it needs to be.

"So to buffer it, you will remove calcium or magnesium from bone structure, because those are highly alkaline minerals, in order to use them to buffer and neutralize the acidity that dairy products bring. So what happens is these acid-forming proteins that come from animal products, including dairy, leach calcium out of the bones. And this is why there is a direct, incontrovertible connection between animal protein consumption and osteoporosis. Those people that consume less animal products have less osteoporosis."

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