Olympians owe gold standard to a 19th-century chemist

As he prepared to chase Olympic glory, swimmer Michael Phelps held to an amazing daily ritual. Each morning, he sat down to a training table breakfast that staggers belief: three fried egg sandwiches garnished with mayo, cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion; an omelet; a bowl of grits; three slices of French toast topped with powdered sugar; and three chocolate chip pancakes just to fill in the empty corners.

Phelps reportedly consumes a whopping 6,000 to 8,000 calories a day when he’s swimming those endless laps that have made him a champion. As monstrous as that breakfast menu appears, it’s a good foundation for a competitive athlete — high in protein and loaded with the fat and carbohydrates needed to propel Phelps’ lanky, muscular body through the water during his grueling training regimen.

Today, the science of nutrition has become a key component of all athletic training. But even for those of us who aren’t preparing for the Olympics, our daily lives are regulated by nutritional information. As the saying goes, we are what we eat — and now we can understand why.

Since the second half of the 19th century, scientists have known how the major components of food —fat, carbohydrates, and protein — are used by the body. In the 20th century, the vitamins and minerals vital to human nutrition were identified. If we choose to look at the federally mandated nutrition facts label appearing on most prepackaged food, we can tell fairly accurately what the impact on our bodies will be from everything we stick in our mouths.


How did this surfeit of waistline-saving (or guilt-inducing) information come to be? In America, we can trace its origins to one man, Wilbur Olin Atwater, a 19th-century agricultural chemist whose research laid the groundwork for the science of nutrition in this country.

The son of a Methodist minister, Atwater was born in Johnsburg, N.Y., in 1844. He completed his undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University in 1865 and earned a Ph.D. in agricultural chemistry at Yale in 1869. His doctoral thesis on maize represented the first modern chemical analysis of a food conducted in the United States.

In 1873, Atwater landed a position as a chemistry instructor at Wesleyan. Two years later, he made history by establishing America’s first state agricultural experiment station at the school. He started working with local farmers on fertilizer trials and conducting experiments on field crops. However, Atwater soon began to shift direction, focusing his research on the composition of foods and human nutrition. Atwater’s first research paper, published when he was 34, dealt with the measurement of the fat content of foods.

Atwater’s work gradually won recognition for himself and the emerging field of nutrition. From 1879 to 1882, he analyzed the nutritive value of fish and invertebrates for the U.S. Fish Commission, and he did similar studies on meat for the Smithsonian Institution. In 1885 and 1886, he evaluated workers’ diets in Massachusetts by analyzing data collected on the foods they ate.

Atwater’s landmark research showed that cheaper sources of fat, carbohydrates and protein can be just as useful to the body as more expensive ones. Atwater’s studies helped plant the term “calorie” firmly in our collective consciousness, and they underscored a fact that still reverberates in America: On the whole, we eat too much fat and sweets and don’t get enough exercise.

In 1896, Atwater published the definitive collection of data on the foods we eat. “The Chemical Composition of American Food Materials” spelled out the fat, carbohydrate and protein content of every type of food that had been analyzed to that point, along with the “fuel value” (in calories) of each. The tables were expanded in 1899 and reprinted with minor changes in 1906. The findings stood until 1940 and served as the model for today’s USDA Agriculture Handbook No. 8, a catalog of the nutritive value of American foods relied on by dieticians and nutritionists.

Atwater died on September 22, 1907, leaving a legacy that still influences the health of Americans. His careful studies of nutrition and those that followed helped spur federal policies that have done much to alleviate childhood hunger. We see reflections of his influence on the labels of products in our grocery stores, and we’re beginning to see nutritional information on the menus of restaurants. Today’s familiar food pyramid, a quick and easy visual guide to the recommended daily intake of food, is a tribute to Atwater and his successors.

Although Atwater achieved great things, he was never boastful about his abilities. “I have a strong faith in what may be accomplished by energy and devotion to any cause even when one’s abilities are not great,” he once wrote. “I am not gifted with any remarkable talent in any direction. Years ago I made up my mind that whatever I accomplished must be the result of plodding and not of genius and so I work along in my moderate way.”

It’s clear that Atwater sold himself far short in that self-assessment. The man was certainly persistent, but he also possessed the genius of knowing how to devote his talents to the betterment of people’s daily lives — even those going after Olympic acclaim.