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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Title: Legacy of Wilbur O. Atwater: Human Nutrition Research Expansion at the USDA-Interagency Development of Food Composition Research

Authors
item Beecher, Gary - ARS - RETIRED
item Stewart, Kent - VPI - RETIRED
item Holden, Joanne
item Harnly, James
item Wolf, Wayne

Submitted to: Journal of Nutrition
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: February 27, 2009
Publication Date: December 4, 2008
Citation: Beecher, G., Stewart, K., Holden, J.M., Harnly, J.M., Wolf, W.R. 2009. Legacy of Wilbur O. Atwater: human nutrition research expansion at the USDA-interagency development of food composition research. Journal of Nutrition. 139:178-184.

Interpretive Summary: Wilbur O. Atwater is the father of modern food composition research. His initial studies established the basis for the U.S. nutrient database that currently lists concentrations for more than 120 components in 6,000 foods. This database is available on-line, at no cost, to all the world. This paper details the development of the current technical approaches to developing and improving nutrient composition data and the collaborations across government agencies that led to the establishment and further refining of this valuable national resource.

Technical Abstract: The systematic chemical analysis of foods for human consumption in the United States had its origin with Wilbur O. Atwater. This activity began in the 1860s while Atwater was a student at Yale University and continued through his tenures at Wesleyan University and the Storrs (Connecticut) Experiment Station. These activities moved with Atwater to the USDA in Washington, DC and ultimately to the Henry D. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, MD early in the 1900s. During the first half of the 20th century, food composition activities were guided by the discovery of new essential nutrients and the need to measure and tabulate their levels in foods. Later in the century, the association between diet and chronic diseases was recognized. As a result, collaborations were established between other food- and health-related government agencies, the food industry, and many universities. At the same time, computer and communication technology greatly advanced, which became integral to laboratory instrumentation and allowed data in the National Nutrient Databank System to be available electronically. Simultaneously, accuracy of analytical data came under scrutiny and a new paradigm was established to improve accuracy in collaboration with governmental metrology units worldwide. Advances in computer technology and the increased focus on accuracy of analytical data subsequently led to the development of quality indicators for all food composition data. Recently, increased availability and consumption of dietary supplements has resulted in the development of new collaborations with government agencies, several industry groups, and universities, broadening food composition efforts.

Last Modified: 4/20/2014