A brief history of nutrition:

To better understand nutrition, its best to turn back the clock and start at the beginning. Viewing nutrition from a wider lens allows us to see the evolution of our understanding of nutritional science and helps us put into context the understanding that we have today.

At the base of our research, we’ve leveraged a great four-part series, written by Kenneth J. Carpenter, which delves into the history of nutritional science. This series goes into much more depth than we will on this page, but we’ve cited all four of his articles here for further reading if you’re interested [1],[2],[3],[4]. In addition to Carpenter’s work, we’ve also included a history of the food and drug administration (FDA).


Scientific activity (more than just conjecture) in the nutritional space began in 1785 [5].

  • Nutritional science began in 1785 after what is now called the "Chemical Revolution" - when elements of the periodic table were first discovered.
  • Early nutritional research involved the study of respiration, metabolism, and nitrogen rich foods.
    • Respiration research was preliminary at best - it was thought that breathing was only useful for cooling down the heart.
    • Atoine Lavoisier was a french chemist and biologist. He is known today as "the father of modern chemistry."  He studied respiration and was able to measure oxygen intake and carbon dioxide outtake in guinea pigs, leading him to believe that respiration was actually a slow combustion process. He was beheaded in the French Revolution.
    • Nitrogen, now known to be highly concentrated in protein, was only thought of as "animal matter." Eventually, Claude Berthollet found that decomposing animal matter released ammonia gas, comprised of three volumes of hydrogen and one volume of nitrogen.
    • François Magendie, a French physiologist, isolated the necessary elements of basic nutrition, including the nitrogen found in protein.
  • It was discovered that starches in the body could be converted into fat. Before this discovery, it was commonly thought that you had to eat fats to gain fat. This was the first clue to understanding how humans store energy.
    • Justus Von Liebig, a German chemist known today as the "father of organic chemistry," found that plants and animals have the ability to make complex molecules from more simple molecules, which explained how sugars and starches translated into fat.

1885 – 1912

Packaged foods were initially made to extend the number of items a grocery store could offer. The now closed A&P grocery chain was thought to have created the first line of branded packaged foods with its line of tea [8]. Branded products meant product consistency that consumers could trust. In those days, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not exist and packaged foods did not state their ingredients or have nutrition panels.  In fact, it was not until 1990 that the FDA mandated that all packaged foods have ingredient lists and nutrition panels [7]. Nutritional science also made great strides during this period.

  • Protein was discovered to be broken down by stomach acids into amino acids, the building blocks of biological proteins.
  • Food energy value research defined the calorimeter, leading to the modern practice of counting calories!
    • Proteins and carbohydrates were found to contain 4 kcalories/gram and fats were found to have 9 kcalories/gram.
  • Vitamins were discovered and isolated, providing the solution to many nutrition-based diseases.
    • The discovery of "Beriberi," today known to be a lack of Vitamin B-1, saved millions of lives.
    • The discovery of "Rickets," today known as a lack of vitamin D, is another example.

1912 - 1944

During this period, brands became mainstream as industrialization and modernization of factories continued to accelerate. Uniformity became the standard.

  • This era saw the isolation of additional vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and other essential micro-nutrients necessary for survival.
  • It was discovered that proteins are made up of 20 amino acids. In addition, it was discovered that 9 of these amino acids are not produced by the body and need to be eaten regularly.
  • Trace minerals, which are necessary to prevent disease, were discovered. This led to the fortification of common foods: cereals with added riboflavin, bread flour with folic acid, salt with iodine, etc.
  • Preliminary diet research showed that restricting caloric intake increased life span.


1945 - Present day

The focus of research began to switch from fixing nutritional deficiencies to fighting over-consumption. As of 2011-2012, more than 1/3 of all adults and 17% of children are obese [9]. Obesity rates are expected to increase in the next 10 years as the obesity epidemic continues to grow [10].

  • It was discovered that micro-organisms are a key part of a healthy diet. This led to the probiotic type foods that are common today.
  • Another group of nutrients, minerals, were discovered (selenium, chromium, zinc, etc.).
  • Essential fatty acids like Omega-3 and Omega-6 were discovered.
  • The Food & Drug administration (FDA) began requiring food additive manufacturers to test the safety of the additives before adding them into products [11].
  • In 1980, the first dietary guidelines were released by the FDA and began to be updated every 5 years [12].
  • The modern day nutritional label was was required to be placed on food packaging in 1990.
  • In 2003, trans fats contents were required to be shown on the nutritional label.
  • Although malnutrition continues to be a serious problem (45% of deaths among children under 5 are linked to undernutrition [13]), obesity has become more prevalent than undernutrition – 462 million people worldwide were underweight in 2014 compared to 1.9 billion people that were either overweight or obese [13].
  • In 2016, an updated nutritional label was created by the FDA. It bolded calories, emphasized serving size and required added sugar to be called out on the label. This updated nutrition label will be rolled out in 2020.

Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols; Wartella EA, Lichtenstein AH, Boon CS, editors. Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Phase I Report. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2010. 2, History of Nutrition Labeling. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK209859/


[1] Carpenter, K. J. The Journal of Nutrition 2003, 133 (3), 638–645.

[2] Carpenter, K. J. The Journal of Nutrition 2003, 133 (4), 975–984.

[3] Carpenter, K. J. The Journal of Nutrition 2003, 133 (10), 3023–3032.

[4] Carpenter, K. J. The Journal of Nutrition 2003, 133 (11), 3331–3342.

[5] Carpenter, K. J. The Journal of Nutrition 2003, 133 (3), 638–645.

[6] Carpenter, K. J. The Journal of Nutrition 2003, 133 (4), 975–984.

[7] Affairs, O. of R. Inspection Guides - Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) Requirements (8/94 - 2/95) https://www.fda.gov/ICECI/Inspections/InspectionGuides/ucm074948.htm (accessed Mar 6, 2018).

[8] RUHLMAN, M. I. C. H. A. E. L. GROCERY: the buying and selling of food in america; ABRAMS APPLESEED: S.l., 2018.

[9] Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of Childhood and Adult Obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. JAMA. 2014;311(8):806–814. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.732

[10] Bass, R.; Eneli, I. Postgraduate Medical Journal201591(1081), 639–645.

[11] Affairs, O. of R. Inspection Guides - Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) Requirements (8/94 - 2/95) https://www.fda.gov/ICECI/Inspections/InspectionGuides/ucm074948.htm (accessed Mar 6, 2018).

[12] Fooducate https://www.fooducate.com/app#!page=post&id=57A32269-8B2D-7EF6-48CE-A29E619C9AE8 (accessed Mar 6, 2018).

[13] Malnutrition http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/malnutrition/en/ (accessed Mar 6, 2018).

[14] Nikolaos Katsilambros (2011). Clinical Nutrition in Practice. John Wiley & Sons. p. 37. ISBN 978-1-4443-4777-7.








Antoine Lavosier (1743-1794)
Antoine Lavosier (1743-1794)
Claude Berthollet
Claude Berthollet (1748 - 1822)
François Magendie (1783 - 1855)
François Magendie (1783 - 1855)
Justus von Liebig (1803-1873)
Justus von Liebig (1803-1873)