Nutritional Sciences

Nutritional Sciences

Now We Are Six

In January, U-M SPH established a new Department of Nutritional Sciences, based on the long-standing Human Nutrition Program in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. The decision to form the school’s sixth department stemmed primarily from growing student interest and a deepening national emphasis on nutrition as a key to good health, says Karen Peterson, chair of the new department.

In particular, the past decade has seen a dramatic increase in research and scholarship in the areas of obesity, chronic disease risks, food safety and security, global hunger and undernutrition, and the environmental and health impacts of food production. “These issues are inherently interdisciplinary and multidimensional,” Peterson explains, “and deep, broad collaboration will be a hallmark of our department.” The department’s curricular and experiential offerings span the gamut from nutrigenomics and epigenetics to the clinical and community translation of nutritional science. As of this fall, U-M students will be able to pursue MPH, MS, and PhD degrees in nutritional sciences.  

Nutritional Sciences in Alaska, ca. 1948

Fresh after receiving her MPH from Michigan in 1948, World War II veteran and Vermont native Penelope Easton set off for Alaska, where she spent two years as a dietary consultant for the Alaska Territorial Health Department. New to the region, Easton seized every chance she could to learn about Native Alaskan culture, especially food. She even grew to “like muktuk”—strips of whale skin and blubber—as the title of her new book, Learning to Like Muktuk: An Unlikely Explorer in Territorial Alaska (Oregon State University Press, 2014), indicates. Decades before “local and sustainable” became buzz words, Easton, now 91 and a resident of North Carolina, realized how vital it is for public health professionals to appreciate regional resources:

“I learned about the Native methods of preserving foods: the drying and smoking of fish, especially salmon; the preserving of berries in seal pokes; and the use of cold cellars dug in the permafrost. When meat and fish were plentiful, Native people consumed large portions. Berries and greens that were harvested in the summer and stored in sufficient quantities kept the people from starvation. 

Hunters and gatherers in the villages gave shares of all harvested food to the young, old, and ill. My orientation to native foodways included information about the eating patterns that I was likely to find in villages, such as a communal stew or soup pot kept hot and available all day with no distinct meal times. Meats and fish were eaten completely, stomach contents, entrails, and all, supplying valuable and scarce nutrients.

Rosehips were a great surprise. Although it was probably true that the tiny seedpods on our old-fashioned roses in Vermont were rich in vitamin C, we never suspected it. Somehow the natives discovered the curative values of the huge red-orange seedpods of Alaska roses. Children often ate rosehips directly from the plants as they ran through the countryside in the fall. Jellies or purees made from rosehips went a long way in preventing deficiencies in vitamin C for hundreds, maybe even thousands of Alaskans.

Livers from fish and other animals were an important part of the native foodways. The willingness of white people to discount the high level of native sophistication was still evident in the post-war, pre-statehood years.”