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Experiments on Fermented Food

Before the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee met in Fajara, Gambia, in a long meeting from late November until early December 1952, Paul Gyorgy (1893-1976), the renowned specialist in the physiology of nutrition who isolated riboflavin and discovered vitamin B6, wrote some comments on the provisional agenda regarding malnutrition and protein consumption in mothers, infants and children.[1] Gyorgy was at this time professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He stressed how clinical and experimental studies had made it clear that protein deficiency was the most prominent factor in malnutrition, with kwashiorkor and related conditions a notable example in poor countries. However, he considered that protein deficiency was not the only factor and argued that increased protein intake could not be the only possible health measure in preventing or treating those forms of malnutrition. He compiled experimental research carried out with laboratory animals between 1950-52, and after a detailed review of the latest historiography, he concluded that the fermentation of food might, under special circumstances, increase the biological value of foodstuffs, even of a low protein diet. Studies conducted in Jamaica and Guatemala showed that rats fed with fermented mixtures had statistically significant weight gain compared to animals kept on the corresponding unfermented diet. Thiamine, pyridoxine, riboflavin and pantothenic acid supplements had no effect on the growth of either of the two groups of rats used in the experiments. Fermented food was used practically everywhere in the Tropics, and Gyorgy cited “fermented fish” and “fermented beans” as foodstuffs used for research on the action of fermentation on protein metabolism. Neither the nitrogen nor the vitamin B12 contents of the food mixtures were found to be substantially different in the unfermented and fermented mixtures, and thus this could not explain the difference in growth promotion by the two food mixtures.

In the course of the animal experiments, the choline equivalent was determined in various samples by using them to supplement a high fat and low protein diet. Together with studies using food mixtures of “authentic” composition in unfermented and fermented states, this research was supposed to illustrate one of the possible directions in which animal experimentation was oriented at that time. The overall problem was indeed malnutrition associated with protein deficiency, and the question of the possible contribution of the FAO and other organisations to the study of and fight against malnutrition in mothers and children throughout the world.

Paul Gyorgy requested that the Expert Committee take up and put those experiments into a working scheme, forming a permanent working group that not only had to convene once a year but had to remain in constant close contact, under the auspices and with the assistance of the FAO and the WHO. Younger staff, not yet members of the Expert Committee working in those fields were called on to become attached to the Expert Committee by contributing scientific research and reports covering the subject. Such reports would help not only to maintain contact among the researchers, but might also act as an incentive and stimulus.

The problem of how to secure the necessary financial resources for an ambitious world-wide research program dealing with the problems of malnutrition in mothers and children throughout the world appears to be of secondary importance. It is more pressing to formulate first a workable plan. It may be rightly anticipated that financial support will then become available without great difficulty through foundations, research councils and perhaps through the Technical assistance Program. Clinical, public health and experimental problems have to be dovetailed and coordinated throughout the whole world. I offer the enthusiastic cooperation of our own laboratory, with special reference to animal experimentation.41

  • [1] Gyorgy, P., Comments on the Provisional Agenda with special reference to itemsNos. 5 and6, Joint FAO/WHO Nutrition Committee, 1952.
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