The history of food, diet and nutrition


Our ancestors collected food from the nature in order to survive, and it can be noted that humans have more than two million years of certain dietary habits. It is believed that the preparation of meals began more than 500,000 years ago. The oldest descriptions of food and meals, as well as their effects on health are described by the ancient Egyptians, and are dated 3200 BC.

The connection between food and health is well known throughout the human history. All the so-called “non-scientific” facts from ancient history to the 18th century created the basis for the modern science of nutrition.

The discovery of fire, writing and the science of nutrition are very young indeed compared to the age of our species. The modern science of nutrition is approximately 200 years old, considering that it starts after the pioneering work of French chemist Lavoisier.

The history and the development of food and nutrition can be roughly divided into three important periods: the pre-agricultural age, the age of agriculture, which began 10,000 years BC, and agro-industrial age that began some 150 years ago. When this time span could be squeezed in a year and assuming that the man appeared on January 1 st, the agricultural age would start in the second half of December, and the agro-industrial age would start on the evening of December 31 st.

The pre-agricultural era begins three million years ago, it is characterized by the collection of food, hunting and fishing, as well as developing tools and activities. In the beginning, the food is eaten raw, but after the discovery of fire humans used cooked food also. The search for food and collecting food play a major role in the bio-cultural development of man: hunting, preparing food and gathering around the fire, contributes to the development of socialization, and food and nutrition become integral part of the community. Towards the end of this time the food was eaten raw, cooked or fermented, and various items were used for collecting, handling, maintenance, preparation and feeding: shells, turtle shells, wood bark, and later on clay pots.

The era of agriculture is based on the cultivation of crops and domestication of animals which then become a major part of human food. During this period, agriculture was gradually developed on fertile soil, almost simultaneously in several places in the world, the Mediterranean, the Middle and Far East, resulting in human settlements, nations and empires. On the European continent we see the domestication of wheat, oats, peas, lentils, flax, and animals like dogs, pigs, goat, sheep and cattle, and people everywhere introduced various tools for working the land. Throughout the discovery of the New World and the development of trade, man distributed a variety of plants and animals in every corner of the world. Since that time Europe has become customized to the cultivation of corn, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, peppers, sunflowers and tobacco.

By the development of capitalism in the early 16th century, a new way of thinking evolves based on the discoveries of the Renaissance and the Reformation, the “new agriculture” spreads it’s wings and whose main goal is to increase grain production and diversification of food consumption. The need for growing more crops is strictly connected with the production of more fertilizers, more animals and more animal feed. The interdependence of cultivated plants and animals has increased manifold.

The agro-industrial era began some 150 years ago. Rigorous experimentation and new discoveries in chemistry, biology, microbiology and mechanics during the 19th century influenced the development of agriculture as a science as well as its main branches: genetics, nutrition (in the broad sense, which here includes the concept of the entire process of assimilation and energy in a living organism, and not limited to the human diet) and hygiene (to protect plants from disease and insects).

Agro-industrial era is characterized by a combination of agricultural and industrial activity – machines are introduced in agriculture, the production of food and raw materials is increased, the building of roads and railways increased the transport of goods, there was a sudden development food industry, particularly due to the creation of refrigeration chains, preservation of food products, and new households appliances (eg. refrigerator).

Under the industrialization pressure, the basic agriculture products converted to agro-industrial products: new technologies are now frequently used in food production such as canning, concentration, extraction, etc.

In 1804 Nicolas Appert discovered a new method to extend the shelf life of food – sterilization, and the first industrial plant was built in France in 1860. The scientific background for the sterilization process was given by Pasteur, and his pasteurization method is now used in various fields of human activity, not only in food preparation.

In the late 19th century, Nestlé produces the first condensed milk, and J. Liebig makes the first meat extract and concentrated soups. It was 1869 when The Mege-Mouries manufactures the first margarine. Little by little, agro-industrial products replaced agricultural products (eg industrial butter replaces the butter from domestic production). FastFood is the most recent agro-industrial product, these are semi-finished and finished products that drastically reduce the activity of preparing food in the household.


The development of the nutrition science

Nutritional science began with modern chemistry and its founder Antoine Lavoisier in the late 18th century. The basis for the new science of human nutrition was laid down through the knowledge of general chemistry (identification of elements and compounds), the development chemical analysis, biochemistry, physiology, and scientific, quantitative testing of old and new theories and ideas. The development of the nutrition science was largely dependent on the development of analytical chemistry and general physiology.


Before Lavoisier: naturalistic era – from Hippocrates to Lavoisier

The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 BC) knew that the same food and drink cannot be given to the healthy and sick people. Cornelius Celsius in the 1st century is considered the treatment of patients with diet the hardest, but the best part of medicine.

Galenus (131-201) teachings literally dominated the European medicine more than a thousand years. He was known by prescribing fasting in the treatment of many diseases. Anthimus (511-534) describes hundred foods in the book “Epistula de Observation Ciborum”.

Sigmund Albich, a Czech physician, wrote one of the first books on dietetics “Dietetics for Old Men”. The Italian physiologist Sanctorius (1561-1636) weighed all the food he consumed for over thirty years, as well as body fluids. He also writes a discussion about metabolism.

John Mayon (1641-1679) finds that muscular work depends on the combustion of some chemical compounds. The English physician William Stark tried on himself the harmful and non-harmful foods.

Many folk remedies, and some food was used to treat diseases. Abut the year 1550 it was already known that citrus fruits prevent and cure scurvy. The traditional folk remedy for vision problems was cooked liver (from domestic and wild animals). Dried seaweed and dried sea sponges or their ashes obtained by incineration were the old folk remedy to treat goiter.

1746 – James Lind, an English physician, performed the first modern controlled clinical study using different potential antiscorbutics. Lind divided twelve scorbutic sailors into 2 groups, and each group was administered by a different therapy. Sailors who got lemons and oranges after 6 days were nearly healed, while the second group, treated with dilute sulfuric acid or vinegar, showed no improvement even after two weeks. In fact, at that time it was the opinion that scurvy can be treated with citric acid from citrus fruits. But as citrus fruits spoiled during longer voyages, in exchange were used stronger and more stable acids such as dilute sulfuric acid and vinegar (acetic acid). It was also thought that scurvy was exclusively a sailors disease, and that it does not appear in other people.

1750 – Scurvy was first treated with lime juice.

1768-1771 James Cook’s (1728-1779) sailors must eat sauerkraut and citrus fruit to prevent scurvy, though no one at that time did not know how these foods prevented scurvy.


Modern Nutrition – Chemical analytical era

1777 – The most important experiments of Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) are directly linked with the development of nutrition. Lavoisier proved that the combustion process involves a combination of various chemical substances and oxygen, and that plant and animal respiration is a slow combustion of organic matter using oxygen from the atmosphere. Lavoisier and Pierre-Simon Laplace prove the connection between heat and CO2 that occur in animals. Lavoisier measured oxygen consumption and CO2 release in man, and realized that they are increased after the consumption of food and physical exertion. These experiments lead him to the conclusion “La vie est donc une combustion” – “Life is so the combustion process.” Unfortunately, his life was ended by the French Revolution guillotine.

1812 – After the discovery of the chemical element iodine, a French chemist suggests the use of iodine in the treatment of goiter. The idea soon falls into oblivion since the elemental iodine did not show any effect.

1816 – Francois Magendie concluded after animal experiments that “the diversity of food is especially important in hygiene, and this diversity is achieved by our instincts.”

1823-1827 The English chemist and physician William Prout (1785-1850) isolated hydrochloric acid from the stomach of man. He believes that food is composed of three basic components: proteins, fats and carbohydrates, and recognizes that these substances should be taken with food daily.

1830-1850 – Rickets is treated with fish oil and butter.

1833 – American William Beaumont realizes that the already known hydrochloric acid is secreted in the stomach after a meal.

1838 – Swedish chemist Jons Jacob Berzelius (1779-1848) discovers proteins. He is considered, with Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry.

1839 – French chemist Jean Baptiste Boussungault conducted the first nitrogen balance study. Such balance studies with various substances are carried out even today, eg. the retention of calcium in the body at high dietary intakes or when using supplements.

1839 – Dutchman Gerrit Mulder develops a protein theory. He believes that “animal products” (the proteins albumin, fibrin and casein) originate from the same “protein” radicals, and that they differ by their share of phosphorus, sulfur, or both elements.

1842 – Justus Liebig (1803-1873), German chemist, an experienced expert in organic chemistry and influential scholar, worked on the food chemistry and connected it with physiology. By observing muscles he found out that they have no carbohydrates and fat, and concludes that the energy for muscle contraction must come from the decomposition of protein. He believed that the only real nutrients are proteins, or the only ingredient that is able to build and replace active tissue, and provide the body with energy. This theory was later challenged by many chemists.

1842 – Budd treats night blindness with fish liver oil.

1850 – Claude Bernard reveals the pancreatic secretions and the emulsifying ability of bile, and so determines they play an important role in digestion and in the absorption of fat. He concludes that the central role in digestion can not be attributed only to the stomach, as was the opinion of his contemporaries.

1850 – After nearly 100 years of uncertainty in the treatment of scurvy, A. Bryson concludes that citric acid has no anti-scorbutic activity.

1866 – Englishman Edward Frankland developed a technique for directly measuring the food and urea energy of combustion. He determined experimentally 1 gram of protein gives 4.37 kcal. By reviewing the experiments of his colleagues Frankland concludes that most of the energy for muscular work must come from fats and / or carbohydrates, and thus challenged Liebig’s protein hypothesis.

1880-1900 – The discovery of many microbes, hygiene and sanitation are gaining in importance. At this point of time it was believed that the most common nutrition diseases were caused by microorganisms or their toxins. By 1885 the modern science of nutrition dealt mainly with proteins and energy metabolism, but in the next 60 years the gradually discovered factors in food (vitamins) were finally connected with the development of various diseases. Scientists focused research on the following diseases: anemia, beri-beri (polineuritis), rickets, night blindness, goiter and others.

1887 – American Wilbur Olin Atwater (1844-1907), inspired by the German school of Carl Voit, set the American standard for protein at 125 g / day. The standard for German workers was 118 g / day, and Voit considered that vegetarians, despite remaining in nitrogen balance, exhibited “inconveniences”. Many experts considered that the essential daily protein intake must be greater than 100 g / day. But after a few years, Atwater concluded that this numbers were outrageous, and recommended the implementation of controlled studies to determine how nutrients affect the metabolism and muscular work. Atwater reviewed his own research and his concern grew up over findings that the U.S. population consumed too much food, especially fats and sweets, and did not exercise enough.

1890 – Ralph Stockman treats anemia with subcutaneous injections of iron citrate and iron sulphide capsules and obtained very good results.

1894 – The German physiologist and hygienist Max Rubner (1854-1932) quantitatively determined the calorific value of protein, fat and carbohydrates, whether they were spent in a living organism, or simply burned in a calorimeter. He experimentally proved that the heat of warm-blooded animals was the energy from the food nutrients.

1896 – Atwater (1844-1907) and E.B. Rosa determined the calorific value of many foods and thus created the first caloric food tables. Atwater conducted food analysis, quantifying food ingredients, determined the energy output of physical activity and food digestion. In 1896 Atwater and colleagues published a compilation of 2600 chemical analyzes of food, in 1899 the publication was augmented by another 5000 analyzes. The second edition of the chemical analyses of food was published in 1906 and included the maximum, minimum and average value of moisture, protein, fat, total carbohydrate, ash and energy value. The main objective of Atwater in the preparation of these tables was to teach the poor how to achieve the appropriate level of protein in the diet.

1899 – Atwater and EB Rosa built the most accurate respiration calorimeter for the study of human metabolism. We recommend Atwater and Rosa’s (1899), Atwater and Benedict (1905), and Benedict and Carpenter’s (1910) papers to anyone who is engaged in research in the field of nutrition and physical activity, because this papers are actual today with their detailed technical data and experimental procedures which can be used for measuring energy consumption. Atwater definitely confirms that the First law of thermodynamics applies to the human body as well as the substances around us. Atwater’s comment dated 1895. sounds like it is spoken just now:

“Food is a material that, when put into the body, is used to form the tissue or to create energy, or both. This definition includes all the usual materials of food, since they build tissues and produce energy. It includes sugars and starches, because they produce energy and form adipose tissue. It includes alcohol, because it gives energy, though it does not form tissues. Food does not include creatine, creatinine, and other nitrogen extracts from meat, as well as theine and caffeine, because they do not serve in the formation of tissues, or to obtain energy, although they may in some cases be a good asset to the diet. ”


Biological era – from the beginning of the 20th century onwards

Thanks to the advances in biochemistry and physiology nutrition throughout the 20th century studies the role of macro and micro nutrients (vitamins and minerals). Scientists have used various combinations of purified nutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) to cause nutrient deficiency in animals in order to identify the missing nutrient. In the first half of the 20th century nutritionists discovered amino acids and essential fatty acids. In the second half of the 20 century emphasis was placed on exploring the role of essential nutrients and discovering ways in which vitamins and minerals act on enzymes and hormones. Large epidemiological studies of the 60’s and 70’s showed the effect of carbohydrates, fiber and fat in the development of diseases such as diabetes, constipation and atherosclerosis (civilization diseases).

1902 – German chemist Emil Fisher (1852-1919) was one of the greatest chemists of modern times. He takes credit for many merits in the field of nutrition, he is responsible for the detection of active ingredients of tea, coffee and cocoa. From 1882 until 1906 he discovered the structure 16 aldohexoses stereoisomers, with the most important sugar glucose. He sintetized glucose, fructose and mannose, he discovers adenine, xanthine, guanine which belong to the family of purines. He also contributed significantly to the understanding of protein and amino acid isolation – Fisher synthesized peptides, polypeptides and proteins, and discovered the peptide bond. In 1902 Fisher is awarded the Nobel prize for Chemistry for his work on clarification and synthesis of proteins and carbohydrates. Together with Frederico Hopkins he discovered the primary importance of amino acids as the basic components of proteins.

Englishman biochemist and physiologist Frederick Hopkins (1861-1947) was a pioneer in the study of vitamins, he was the first scientist to isolate tryptophan and glutathione. In 1929 Hopkins received the Nobel Prize for research in nutrition deficiency disease.

1904 – Upon completion of his own studies Russell Chittenden (1856-1943) denied the high standards of protein set up by the U.S. and German schools. His statement is notable:

“People did not become rich because they eat more protein, but eat more protein and more expensive high-protein foods because they can afford them.”

Chittenden maintained nitrogen balance at 60 g / protein per day, which is less than half of the then recommended standards at that time. But interestingly, the researchers throughout the 19th century considered that the human body absorbs intact proteins, that are then transformed into the required form. Although it was known from the beginning of the 20th century that pancreatic juices contain a substance trypsin that dissolves proteins, these degradation products were not too interesting for nutritionists that time. In fact aminoacids were considered to represent an excess of proteins that break down and become unusable, and are therefore excreted from the body.

1905-1950 – The intensive search for “food factors” (vitamins) and other food ingredients and their effects on human health.

1912 – The thirty-year quest for vitamin thiamine (B1) is finally concluded. The thiamine deficiency beriberi occurred in most parts of Asia, all the way to Japan. While Japanese doctor Kanehiro Takaki believed that the cause of the disease was insufficient protein intake, Dutchman Christian Eijkman (1858-1930), who was working in Jakarta, was looking to find a microbial cause. Eijkman was very persistent and methodical and very quickly ruled off the microbial cause. He analized the inconsistent results of experiments on chickens, and found out that servants were sometimes feeding chicken with cooked rice. He concluded that the main problem was in the cooked rice, and started to study this food. Eijkman learned very quickly that the military used polished rice, because brown rice spoiled quickly in the tropical conditions (resulting in rancidity). He finally discovers that the real cause of beriberi was a lack of a substance that was located in the rice bran. This later led to the concept and discovery of vitamins. Eijkman was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology medicine in 1929. Other researchers continued Eijkman work, and especially significant Gerrit Grijns, who stared in 1901:

“The absence of natural food substances leads to serious damage to the peripheral nervous system. These substances are distributed differently in food, and are very difficult to isolate because they are unstable. These substances can not be replaced by other simple molecules.”

In 1905 the Dutch researchers in Indonesia showed that beriberi was caused by the consumption of polished rice which lacked a thermo-labile component. Many tried to isolate this component from rice, and the first who succeeded was a polishman Casimir Funk (1884-1967). He discovered the substance which lack caused nutritional polineuritis, and he first introduced the term “vitamin”. Funk draws attention by his work on vitamin deficiency diseases – he is in fact responsible for the coin “vitamin”, and later he postulates the existency of another 3 vitamins: B2, C and D, which he claimed that are necessary for normal health and disease prevention. Funk believed that small amounts of vitamins that are naturally present in a variety of different foods can prevent poor growth and some diseases.

1912 – Norwegians Alex Holst and Theodore Frohlich discovered vitamin C.

1912-1914 – Elmer McCollum and Marguerite Davis discovered vitamin A. In 1913 scientist at Yale University discovered this compound in butter.

1918 – The concept of “protective foods” is developed: milk, fruit and vegetables become the first protective foods.

1919 – Francis Gano Benedict (1870-1957) assisted by Atwater, during a 12 year period conducted more than 500 experiments in Atwater-Rosa’s respiratory calorimeter – studies that targeted energy expenditure at rest, during physical activity and after consuming food. Benedict also published studies on the physiological effects of alcohol, muscle work, the effect of mental effort on energy metabolism, he studied the metabolism of infants, children and adolescents, the metabolism of starvation, also the metabolism of athletes and vegetarians.

1919 – Benedict and Harris published the “metabolic standards” – tables based on gender, age, height and weight used for comparison of healthy and ill people.

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936), russian physiologist, was involved in the physiology of digestion, and discovered the conditioned reflex. An important scientist in the field physiology of digestion was also Claude Bernard (1813-1878), which explored the function of the pancreas in digestion, and showed that the level of plasma glucose can vary in healthy individuals, and many of his findings were later useful in the study of diabetes, and liver function studies.

1922 – Nobel prize Laureate Frederick Grant Banting (1891-1941), Canadian physician and Charles Herbert Best (1899-1978), Canadian physiologist, led by J.J.R. MacLeod found the pancreatic hormone insulin, the discovery that is considered to be one of the most important medical advances of that time. Until then, millions of people around the world who suffered from diabetes could not be treated, and their prognosis was very poor.

1922 – Edward Mellanby discovered D, Americans Herbert Evans and Katherine Bishop discovered vitamin E.

1923 – Fortification of table salt with iodine to prevent goiter was introduced for the first time in Switzerland. England and U.S. enriched milk with vitamin D for the prevention of rickets.

1926 – George Minot (1885-1950) and William Murphy (1892-1979) treat people suffering from pernicious anemia using “liver food.”

1926 – D. T. Smith and E. G. Hendrick discovered vitamin B2 (riboflavin), and the same vitamin was first synthesized in 1935.

1929 – Discovery of essential fatty acids.

1933 – Lucy Wills discovered folic acid.

1934 – Paul Gyorgy discovered vitamin B6 (pyridoxine).

1935 – Vitamin C was the first vitamin synthesized in the laboratory (ascorbic acid).

1937 – American Conrad Elvehjem discovered the vitamin niacin.

1941 – The first edition of the U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) .

1947 – Synthesis of vitamin A.

1948 – Discovery of vitamin cobalamine B12.

1950’s – Hygiene develops, and also food technology, labeling of food, the nutritional needs were quantified by age groups for men and women. The vitamins are discovered, and the science of nutrition continued the investigation of biochemical effects of food continues on health, and biochemical exploration of other aspects of human nutrition begins.

1950 – 1970 – Some huge studies are conducted the reveal the connection between illnesses and food consumption. Agricultural research is aimed at increasing the production of meat and milk, pigs are poultry are intensively farmed. Food becomes cheaper and more accessible in developed countries. Food industry and multinational companies are booming, supermarkets offer a never seen before variety of food products. Confectionery, sweets, cakes, biscuits, butter and milk are made available to everyone, and there is a major change in eating habits. There is a growing need for simplifying the process of preparing meals in households, so there was an increasing demand of kitchenware and appliances, especially the refrigerator. The purchasing power increases, as wee as the demand for food that is prepared quickly. It is now possible to obtain seasonal produce throughout the year. Cooling chain literally allows the transfer of food halfway around the world. Food is packed in new packaging – cans, plastic containers, vacuum and modified atmosphere packaging – thereby the shelflife is extending. A variety of foods that were previously prepared for hours and days are now available everyday.

1963 – FAO and WHO created the Codex Alimentarius Commission, whose mission was to develop food standards, and safeguarding the health of consumers. The Commission was made up of food technologists, toxicologists, and among other things, the Commision sets the international regulations for analytical methods, food labeling, toxicological aspects of food, etc.

1980’s and 1990’s – developed countries, U.S. and European countries produce surplus food, but there is the growing problem of hunger in the developing countries. Also the developing countries accept Western culture and the Western diet.

1988 – The Quetelet’s index or body mass index (BMI) is first used for the definition and diagnosis of malnutrition, according to the Belgian mathematician Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874).

1992 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has officially announced the food pyramid – Food Guide Pyramid, which was supposed to help the American food choices, achieve good health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

The investigations are of course continuing today, but while the classic nutrition in the middle of the last century has been primarily preoccupied with the problem of hunger, rationalizing food in war, and prevention of nutritional disorders, the science of nutrition of today trends to determine the significance of individual food components (fiber, cholesterol, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals) and diet on health and disease.


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