Back to school: Why history offers lessons for nutrition’s future

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition

Cicero: A hero to history teachers the world over
Cicero: A hero to history teachers the world over
Understanding how our ancestors ate and appreciating what nutrients we need from an evolutionary perspective is finally getting the headlines it deserves – the nutrition industry should take note.

As the Roman philosopher Cicero once said, “Not to know what happened before you were born is to be forever a child”​.

My high school history teacher had this phrase emblazoned on his wall. I think he made the poster himself, such was his desire to drill a sense of perspective into our young minds. It worked; Cicero’s words came back to me recently as anthropological evidence suggested that the dawn of agriculture had a detrimental effect on our health.

Researchers from Emory University reported in the journal Economics and Human Biology​ that the dawn of agriculture about 10,000 years ago may not have been the best move for us as a species.

“Early agriculturalists experienced nutritional deficiencies and had a harder time adapting to stress, probably because they became dependent on particular food crops, rather than having a more significantly diverse diet,”said Amanda Mummert​, a graduate student in anthropology.

This was followed by a comment from Emory anthropologist George Armelagos: “Humans paid a heavy biological cost for agriculture, especially when it came to the variety of nutrients. Even now, about 60 percent of our calories come from corn, rice and wheat.”

Short-term gain, long-term pain?

There are lessons we can learn here, and luckily some pretty sharp minds are listening and becoming teachers. Readers of NutraIngredients-USA will be familiar with the triage theory of Dr Bruce Ames​, for example.

Dr Ames’ theory centers on the premise that natural selection favors short-term survival over the long-term. Therefore, our short-term survival is achieved by prioritizing the allocation of scarce micronutrients. In other words, to stop us falling over from a lack of iron in the heart, for example, iron is pulled from non-essential sources.

However, sacrificing the non-essential sources has a longer term effect, so goes the theory, because many of these sources are ultimately associated with the development of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and so on. In other words, keeping us alive for today may increase our risk of developing chronic diseases 5, 15, or 50 years down the line. The effects may not truly manifest themselves until the next generation.

The concept is that a disease like diabetes is analogous to scurvy: Both are caused by a nutritional deficiency that may occur over decades not months.

What I am saying is nothing new – other people have said the same – but what excites me is that we may soon be presented with “fact-based evidence science” ​to support such ideas. It combines cutting edge nutrigenomics with manipulation of ‘time’.

Is this the future?

Guy Miller, MD, PhD, executive chairman of Ampere Life Sciences, explained recently​ that we have to accept our diets have changed dramatically in less than a century and questioned whether we could adapt biologically.

The answer, as far as Dr Miller is concerned, is ‘no’.

Providing some proof of this has led Ampere scientists to focus on the concept of ‘biological time’, which is relative to the organism’s lifespan and not the same as a ticking clock.

Ampere’s technology reportedly accelerates the biological time to enable them to generate the kind of data that would normally take over 5 years to collect in about 90 days. And this could open our eyes to our true nutritional needs – which nutrients do we need, and which can we consider to be essential? This would basically redefine what we consider to be ‘vitamins’.

According to Dr Miller, there are at least 200 ‘vitamins’ but less than 1,000. And they're all derived from plants.

I am far from being the only one watching this space: In September 2010, Unilever gained access to Ampere’s platform​ and exclusive rights for the development of innovative consumer products.

Coming of age?

These are less than a handful of examples to support my point, but it is clear to me that it is not just humans who are evolving – our understanding and appreciation of nutrition is, too.

Nutrition is a relatively young science. Some may consider it to be a child. By looking backwards, it will not remain a child for long.

Cicero was onto something.

Stephen Daniells is the senior editor of NutraIngredients-USA and FoodNavigator-USA. He has a PhD in chemistry from the Queen’s University of Belfast and has worked in research in The Netherlands and France. He has been writing about nutrition and food science for over five years. And yes, he graduated high school with an A in history.

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1 comment


Posted by Mirella,

excellent article!!!! Congratulations!

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