Nutritional discoveries from the earliest days of history have had a positive effect on health and well-being. The word nutrition itself means “the process of nourishing or being nourished, especially the process by which a living organism assimilates food and uses it for growth and replacement of tissues”. Nutrients are substances that are essential to life, which must be supplied by food.
Today more than ever, obtaining nutritional knowledge can make a big difference in lives. Air, soil and water pollution in addition to modern farming techniques, have depleted soils of vital minerals. The widespread use of food additives, chemicals, sugar and unhealthy fats in diets contributes to many of the degenerative diseases of the day such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis and osteoporosis. Here is a brief history of the science that offers the hope of improving health naturally.
400 BC: Hippocrates, the ‘Father of Medicine’, said to his students, “let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food”. He also said “a wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings.”
400 BC: Foods were often used as cosmetics or as medicines in the treatment of wounds. In some of the early far-Eastern biblical writings, there were references to food and health. One story describes the treatment of eye disease, now known to be due to a vitamin A deficiency, by squeezing the juice of liver onto the eye. Vitamin A is stored in large amounts in the liver.
1500s: Scientist and artist Leonardo da Vinci compared the process of metabolism in the body to the burning of a candle.
1747: James Lind, a physician in the British Navy, performed the first scientific experiment in nutrition. At that time, sailors were sent on long voyages for years and they developed scurvy (a painful, deadly, bleeding disorder). Only non-perishable foods such as dried meat and breads were taken on the voyages, as fresh foods would not last. In his experiment, Lind gave some of the sailors sea water, others vinegar and the rest limes. Those given the limes were saved from scurvy. As Vitamin C was not discovered until the 1930s, Lind did not know it was the vital nutrient. As a note, British sailors became known ‘Limeys’.
1770: Antoine Lavoisier, the ‘Father of Nutrition and Chemistry’ discovered the actual process by which food is metabolized. He also demonstrated where animal heat comes from. In his equation, he describes the combination of food and oxygen in the body, and the resulting byproduct giving off heat and water.
Early 1800s: It was discovered that foods are composed primarily of four elements—carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen, and methods were developed for determining the amounts of these elements.
1840: Justus Liebig of Germany, a pioneer in early plant growth studies, was the first to point out the chemical makeup of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Carbohydrates were made of sugars, fats were made up of fatty acids and proteins were made up of amino acids.
1897: Christiaan Eijkman, a Dutchman working with natives in Java, observed that some of the natives developed a disease called beriberi, which caused heart problems and paralysis. He observed that when chickens were fed the native diet of white rice, they developed the symptoms of beriberi. When he fed the chickens unprocessed brown rice (with the outer bran intact), they did not develop the disease. Eijkman then fed brown rice to his patients and they were cured. He discovered that food could cure disease. Nutritionists later learned that the outer rice bran contains vitamin B1, also known as thiamine.
1912: McCollum EV, while working for the US Department of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin, developed an approach that opened the way to the widespread discovery of nutrients. He decided to work with rats rather than large farm animals such as cows and sheep. Using this procedure, he discovered the first fat-soluble vitamin, i.e. vitamin A. He found that rats fed butter were healthier than those fed lard, as butter contains more vitamin A.
1912: Casimir Funk was the first to coin the term ‘vitamins’ as vital factors in the diet. He wrote about these unidentified substances present in food, which could prevent the diseases of scurvy, beriberi and pellagra (a disease caused by a deficiency of niacin, vitamin B3). The term vitamin is derived from the words ‘vital’ and ‘amine’, because vitamins are required for life and they were originally thought to be amines—compounds derived from ammonia.
1930s: William Rose discovered the essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein.
1940s: The water-soluble B and C vitamins were identified.
1940s: Russell Marker perfected a method of synthesizing the female hormone progesterone from a component of wild yams called diosgenin.
1950s to the present: The roles of essential nutrients as part of bodily processes have been brought to light. For example, more became known about the role of vitamins and minerals as components of enzymes and hormones that work within the body.
1968: Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, created the term orthomolecular nutrition. Orthomolecular is, literally, ‘pertaining to the right molecule’. Pauling proposed that by giving the body the right molecules in the right concentration (optimum nutrition), nutrients could be used by people to achieve better health and prolong life. Studies in the 1970s and 1980s conducted by Pauling and colleagues suggested that very large doses of vitamin C given intravenously could be helpful in increasing the survival time and improving the quality of life of terminal cancer patients.
1994–2000: Have you ever wondered why vitamin bottle labels and nutritional websites include a phrase saying that their products and information are not intended to diagnose, cure or prevent any disease? These also usually state that their health claims have not been evaluated by the food and drug administration (FDA). Here is why—the Dietary and Supplement Health and Education Act was approved by Congress in October 1994 and updated in January 2000. It sets forth what can and cannot be said about nutritional supplements without prior FDA review.
While this law limits what vitamin manufacturers can claim about preventing or curing diseases; its passage has been a major milestone in the natural health field. It acknowledges millions of people who believe dietary supplements can improve their diets and bestow good health. It opens the way for people to obtain the information they need to make the best nutritional choices for themselves. In January 2000, tthe FDA clarified that supplement makers will state that their products can improve the structure or function of the body or improve common or minor symptoms. Allowable statements include things such as ‘maintains a healthy heart’, ‘helps you relax’, ‘is good for symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)’, ‘strengthens joint structure’, etc. Overall, due to this law, vitamins, herbs and nutrient manufacturers have greater freedom to say what their products can do to improve the health.