Nutrition scientists

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Human Nutrition Lab in Grand Forks. Last night, I spoke to about 18 of their scientists at a retreat they were having at the Inn at Maple Crossing up by Maple Lake.

The meal was delicious. Jim and Nan are the innkeepers, and Jim cooked up some delicious salmon.

I learned some things from the scientists. One does most of his work on boron. He is attempting to find out if boron is necessary for bone development. As a part of his research, he recently traveled to Turkey, which sits on 70% of the world's supply of boron.

Turkish officials are interested in this research, of course, for if it can be proven that boron is necessary, there would be a worldwide market for the element.

Also present was a gentleman from Washington D.C. who oversees the Agriculture Department's nutrition research budget. He is originally from New York City ("you couldn't pay me to live there again," he said).

So, I just sat back and listened to some good dinner conversation. One debate centered upon food labeling, and I learned a little bit about how those regulations are changed. It is difficult. Another centered upon whether oats is gluten free or not. Some people think it has gluten (to which one out of 123 Americans is intolerant), others think the gluten comes from particles from other grains which get mixed in due to machinery which isn't cleaned thoroughly enough.

It was enlightening to be amongst some smart people who are at the top of their profession. You don't often hear somebody say, "well, I published a study on that in 1986, and I concluded at the time..."

So, the question became, what in the world did I have to say to them? The director of the lab, Jerry Combs, is a customer and reader of my column, so that is how I got the job of speaking to his employees. He claimed that I fit the "Jeffersonian ideal" for this country, which is that this would be a nation of farmers by day and scholars by night. Jefferson's vision didn't come true, of course--about one percent of our country farms today--but it is nice to know that at least I fit somewhere!

Well, since most of the scientists are from outside the area, I decided to go into a little of this area's history. It seemed to go well. I had notes, but didn't have to refer to them, so I must have internalized my argument ahead of time. I didn't have too many moments where I was grasping for words. And the audience was kindly, accepting and receptive, even though they were very tired after a day of intense meetings.

The meetings centered upon determining a future direction for the research at the lab. What are their priorities? Should they focus on studying this area's crops to see if they have any peculiar nutritional characteristics which might be marketed? For example, one farmer in western South Dakota is selling selenium-rich wheat to Germany for up to $12 per bushel.

Or, should they go after issues of national concern, like obesity? Should they concentrate upon the lab's traditional strong point, which is the role of micro-nutrients in the diet?

I don't envy them their decision. They have enough scientists to do many things, but having overall direction at the lab seems important.

Through the process of preparing the speech and visiting the lab, I feel as if I have made several new friends. I hope to check in with the lab every now and then to see what is up.

The nutrition lab exists in North Dakota due to senatorial seniority. Old Sen. Milton Young, who had been in the U.S. Senate forever, insisted that one of the six nutrition labs built in the country be in North Dakota. However, the existence of the lab here remains kind of a secret to those of us who live here.