American History TV to feature Iowa State lecture on the evolution of nutrition

Ruth MacDonald giving class lecture on nutrition

A C-SPAN crew records Ruth MacDonald's class lecture, which will air on American History TV. MacDonald explained how products such as corn flakes and graham crackers were developed to improve health. (Larger image) Photos by Christopher Gannon

AMES, Iowa – Nutritional deficiency diseases such as goiter and rickets were common conditions in America 100 years ago, but now you rarely hear of such cases.  

Advances in understanding the composition of food and the role of nutrients in health and disease led to iodized salt and vitamin D fortification that have essentially eliminated these conditions, explained Ruth MacDonald, professor and chair of food science and human nutrition, during a class lecture that will be featured this weekend on C-SPAN’s “Lectures in American History” program.

MacDonald traces the history of nutrition information back to the 18th century, when scientists started identifying nutrients the body needed for good health. The discovery of vitamin and mineral requirements occurred rapidly between 1920 and 1950, leading to the new discipline of nutrition science, MacDonald said.

The integration of food, nutrition and health with food marketing has always been a part of American culture. In her lecture, MacDonald shared examples of how products such as corn flakes and graham crackers were originally developed to improve health.

“Using special foods to treat common ailments was very popular, and many food companies got their start with those products,” she said. “This trend continues today with gluten-free, low-fat and high-fiber foods. It may be surprising to know that the Kellogg brothers believed gut health played a role in well-being long before we knew about the gut microbiome.”

Interest in food science eventually led to the development of dietary standards and nutritional labels on products. The Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) was first published in 1943 and included eight nutrients, MacDonald said. By 1989, the RDA was revised nine times and the list of nutrients grew to 27. Even with all this information, MacDonald says most people are not meeting the dietary guidelines.

“There was a time when food did not come with a nutrition facts label,” MacDonald said. “We now have more information about what is in our food and a deeper understanding of how nutrients are related to health, yet diet-related, chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes are on the rise. Trying to create a food system that ensures nutrient needs are met, while balancing the pleasurable aspects of eating, is a major challenge.”

MacDonald’s lecture will air at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Saturday, July, 1, on C-SPAN 3. American History TV features event coverage, lectures and discussions with teachers and historians every weekend. Once the MacDonald’s lecture debuts, you can also watch it here: