Bruce German, Ph.D.
If you were to ask a group of younger people what goiter is and whether they were worried about it, you’re likely to be met with a lot of blank stares.
Bruce German, Ph.D., a food chemist and professor who is director of the Foods for Health Institute at the University of California, Davis, often poses that question to his undergraduate students. He then looks out across a sea of befuddled faces.
But to German, that lack of awareness, in some ways, reflects a magnificent achievement for human health. The very reason so few of them give essential nutrients a thought is because their introduction into our diets has been so thoroughly successful. For example, salt was processed to be fortified to contain iodine (also known as “iodized” salt) long before any of them were born.
Dr. German recently spoke on a panel about health and well-being in November 2013 at the Global South Summit in Nashville, Tenn.
In an interview with Food Insight, he traced what he calls the “First great era of nutrition”: The discovery in the 20th century of essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids, as well as their functions. He said nutrition was one of the first sciences to take a “reductionist” approach, or “taking foods apart into molecules” and then removing individual components from the diet to determine whether they were truly “essential” to human health.
“That’s a wonderful scientific achievement by any criteria,” German said. “But with that knowledge in place, how was it brought to practice? Did we educate everybody so that they could dose themselves [with essential nutrients] very appropriately, or did we industrialize it, bring it into the food supply in an invisible way to make sure that everybody got what they needed?”
The answer, German said, was the latter approach. Essential nutrients were brought into the food supply in abundant but sometimes imperceptible ways, such as the addition of iodine to salt to resolve the public health outbreak of goiter and prevent future occurrences. Concerns about overconsumption of those nutrients were minimal because excess amounts are simply excreted from the body harmlessly.
But in the 21st century, he said, a one-size-fits-all philosophy has its pitfalls—namely, that an otherwise beneficial “overdose” of essential nutrients can go hand in hand with overconsumption of calories, which contributes to a different public health threat: Obesity. Solutions, he said, need to become more personal, with individual food strategies based on people’s differing genetics and metabolism.
The Foods for Health Institute aims to add understanding to “the basic core mechanisms of prevention as a means to improve health, and also to increase the value of agriculture [in delivering those benefits],” German said.
They are working to find answers by looking at evolution and how humans have developed protections against diseases and other threats through natural selection and nutrition. The most striking example of this, German said, was the development of lactation in mammals. The evolution of milk and lactation, he said, has led to “nourishing mammalian infants completely and comprehensively … We’re disassembling lactation to understand how it works.” The ultimate goal, according to German, is “prevention,” which he defines as “improving the health of healthy people so they don’t get a disease.”
If his vision is borne out, then we can expect to see other diseases and health conditions join goiter and countless others as struck from the list of humanity’s ever-present worries.
For more information on the use of food processing technology to address public health, visit “Feeding the World Today and Tomorrow: The Importance of Food Science and Technology” (Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 2010)