A Short History of Nutritional Science
An excellent series of papers by Kenneth J Carpenter
He takes the story from the 18th Century up to 1985. On the one hand it’s a pity he stopped there, on the other if he’d continued he would have needed another ten parts and still only have covered half the subject.
One major point that stands out is how often in previous history “science” has rushed blindly off down a blind alley and had to backtrack. The post-Keys low fat mania is not a new phenomenon.
They don’t necessarily guillotine “savants” any more but they can still make them lose their jobs (or try to, see an earlier post on Dr. Anna Dhalqvist.)
The leading German organic chemist of the time, Justus Liebig, now comes into the picture. He too had become interested in the subject of “animal chemistry,” and wrote that Dumas must be wrong because it was well known that pigs would fatten when fed on potatoes that were rich in starch, but contained only a negligible level of fat. This meant that animals must be able to convert carbohydrates to fat even though the conversion required “reduction” rather than oxidation.
That was around 1840. That knowledge appears to have gone (temporarily) missing 120 or so years later.
Here’s one I didn’t know, from 1910
Babcock challenged him to feed breeding heifers ingredients all from a single cereal grain, and to compare the result with a diet made up from mixed cereals.
Hart agreed and, with a group of colleagues, used sixteen 6-mo-old heifers and constructed three rations each based entirely on either corn, oat or wheat products, and balancing the proportions of ground grain, gluten and straw to obtain the same energy value and proximate analysis. A fourth ration was a mix of the other three. The trial was begun in 1906 and continued for two full reproductive periods; the results are summarized in Table 3 . The heifers receiving the all-wheat ration quickly lost condition and performed extremely badly, with none of their calves surviving and two of the cows also dying before the end of the trial. In contrast, the corn-fed heifers maintained their condition and had healthy, strong calves, with the results from the other treatments being intermediate
Results are here
There are obvious parallels with wheat-fed people.
It is interesting in view of the importance of their discoveries that McCollum’s young colleagues at Yale told him that he was foolish to accept a position in which he would be working in nutrition since, “the subject was already worked out, with nothing remaining to be discovered!”
This was in 1910, and in 1945 Oxford University likewise decided to disband its Nutrition group. Sadly typical of the attitudes of some still working in the field. “Now we know everything we can go home” – yet current dietary recommendations appear to be achieving seriously minor improvements in some individuals while being central in the “epidemics” of metabolic diseases such as obesity and cardiovascular disease, including Type 2, in the rest of us.