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ARS' commitment to feeding people.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's ultimate mandate has always been to ensure that the nation has a safe, adequate food supply.

We cannot forget that food does not originate on a cardboard tray or in a plastic container. Food does not just happen. It has to be grown by someone, packaged, and brought to a market to be purchased for your dinner table.

But "safe and adequate" goes far beyond simply having enough bushels of wheat, tons of tomatoes, or gallons of milk available to meet consumer demands. It also means producing a variety of foods that, collectively, provide all the nutrients essential for a balanced diet.

Congress recognized that need in 1893 when it first appropriated $10,000 "to enable the Secretary of Agriculture to investigate and report upon the nutritive value of various articles and commodities used for human food with special suggestion of full, wholesome, and edible rations, less wasteful and more economical than those in common use."

That put USDA squarely in the middle of nutrition research. And, as USDA's chief scientific agency, ARS bears primary responsibility for pursuing this mandated research.

The first need is for precise knowledge of what the human body needs for optimal growth and health. Thanks in part to ARS research, we now know that age, sex, and other factors make a decided difference in people's nutritional needs.

But a hundred years ago, when modem nutrition research was in its infancy, it was commonly held that minimum nutrient requirements were all the same as long as the subject was human. Actually, those early requirements were predicated on meeting the nutrient needs of adult males.

ARS research has come a long way toward refining that early and erroneous presumption.

In the 1950's, ARS accumulated much of the data for women's dietary requirements. Now, ARS is focusing on the very specific nutrient needs of people at both extremes of the age spectrum.

The elderly are the single fastest growing segment of our population, and we need to know what they should be eating to maintain optimal health and quality of life.

At the ARS Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, many new findings suggest that modest dietary modifications may greatly improve the health status of the elderly. For example, researchers have found that vitamin E and other antioxidants enhance older people's resistance to disease by stimulating their immune systems. Increased vitamin C may protect them against cataract formation.

The special nutrient needs of pregnant and lactating women, and of preborn, newborn, and young children are intensively studied at the ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center at the Baylot School of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

And at the ARS Western Human Nutrition Research Center in San Francisco, California, scientists are looking at the American diet as a whole, to see if particular populations or regions might be lacking essential nutrients. Such knowledge is important for making widespread dietary improvements.

With ever more sophisticated methods and instrumentation, ARS continues to reach for more precise measurements and understandings of what food components are essential to human health.

Scientists at the ARS Human Nutrition Research Center in Grand Forks, North Dakota, recently found that the human diet needs to include 3 to 5 milligrams of boron per day. Adequate boron not only contributes to building healthy bones and maintaining proper brain function, but may also help prevent osteoporosis.

At the ARS Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center in Maryland, our scientists have now discovered that too little of the mineral chromium in the diet may lead to many cases of adult-onset diabetes. Chromium studies at the Beltsville center date back to 1969, when researchers there first recognized chromium's role as an essential element.

But knowing what nutrients we need is only one side of the coin. Its opposite side is finding out what foods contain what levels of those essential nutrients. ARS has a special mandate to develop the standards and methods for determining the exact nutrient composition of foods. The results of such studies help provide guidance for improving crops' nutrient values.

Back in the 1940's, the first big project at ARS' U.S. Plant, Soil, and Nutrition Research Laboratory in Ithaca, New York, was a study of fertilizer's effect on the carotene content of tomatoes. Carotene is a precursor to vitamin A.

Today, an ARS researcher is busy breeding a new tomato that could easily be in the same range of vitamin A content as sweetpotatoes, ounce for ounce, or provide nearly half the vitamin A of the average carrot.

Other research projects to improve the nutritional quality of foods stretch from developing soybeans with higher levels of sulfur-containing amino acids, making soy protein more complete, to developing leaner meats through genetic and management techniques.

So, after nearly 100 years of effort, progress continues toward a more complete understanding of human dietary needs. And ARS continues in its long-term commitment to feeding people...better.

R.D. Plowman


Agricultural Research Service
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Title Annotation:Forum; Agricultural Research Service
Author:Plowman, R.D.
Publication:Agricultural Research
Article Type:Column
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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