The science of nutrition can be said to have any number of starting points: Wilbur O. Atwater’s 1869 analysis of the nutrient composition of corn, for example, or British Navy physician James Lind’s discovery that citrus juice can prevent scurvy in the first recorded nutrition clinical trial in 1747. But most researchers recognize the beginning of nutrition science as the 1910 isolation of the first vitamin, vitamin A.
Since then, 13 vitamins and 15 minerals have been identified as essential dietary components for optimum human nutrition and health.
The federal government became directly involved in the vitamin and mineral content of our diet at the beginning of World War II. The spark for federal authority was that one-third of all U.S. recruits were not acceptable for battlefield training because they were nutrient deficient. Many were suffering from pellagra, a disease caused by inadequate niacin (vitamin B3). About 3 million people in the United States had pellagra, with more than 100,000 deaths, between 1906 and 1940.
To solve the problem, the U.S. government called for voluntary niacin fortification of bread. By 1943, the first War Food Order required that all flour sold in interstate commerce be enriched with several vitamins and iron.
These regulations more or less coincided with the issuing of the first Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for vitamins and minerals. U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritionists expanded the guidelines in the early 1950s to include the number of recommended servings of each food group to make it easier for people to get RDAs of each nutrient.
This approach only reinforced the federal government’s responsibility to develop and gather knowledge about exactly how much of what components are in foods. Generating this information and collecting it in food composition databases became important responsibilities of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) when the agency was created in 1953.
Today, businesses, researchers, and individuals around the world depend on these databases for accurate and objective nutrition information. (See “Building a One-Stop System for Food Data.”)
Food composition data provides the basis for calculating the numbers required on the Nutrition Facts labels that must, by law, be on every food product before it can appear on store shelves. While large companies may be able to afford to do their own composition analysis on new foods, many small companies rely on the information in the ARS food composition databases.
When human nutrient requirements were being established, ARS research played a major role in setting the majority of the recommendations. Although we know all the essential nutrients, new functions for them continue to be discovered. ARS research has shifted to nutritional health maintenance and chronic-disease prevention, since the largest share of health costs and deaths in the United States are now related to chronic disease.
Why else does ARS have the responsibility for nutrition research? The food in our diets is a product of agriculture, making agriculture the basis for our nutritional status. The relationship between agriculture and human nutrition is far more complex than it was thought to be 100 years ago. Then, most research was concerned with increasing yields so that everyone had enough to eat. Few considered whether breeding or growing practices could influence nutrient content.
Today ARS has research projects for improving the nutritional qualities of crops and livestock through breeding as well as production, storage, and processing practices. ARS scientists are also providing scientific evidence to answer questions such as whether genetic modification alters nutrient composition or how weather extremes impact nutrient content. Recent data suggest that increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide reduces some nutrients in crops. Since much of our harvests are shipped overseas where nutritional status is lower than in the United States, there is keen interest by business and governments in keeping nutrients levels from decreasing.
This issue of AgResearch spotlights ARS’s human nutrition program and our various food composition databases. Because of these efforts, Americans have more information than ever before about what is in their food and what they need to eat for optimum health.
National Program Leaders for Human Nutrition