The Past, Present, and Future of Nutrition and Cancer: Part 1-Was A Nutritional Association Acknowledged a Century Ago?

Nutr Cancer. 2017 Jul;69(5):811-817. doi: 10.1080/01635581.2017.1317823. Epub 2017 Jun 8.


Professional interest in the association of diet and nutrition with cancer first appeared in the early 1800s, if not before. Yet, progress in understanding this association over the past two centuries has been exceedingly slow and confusing. Without addressing this confusion, progress in using diet and nutrition information to prevent and even to treat cancer, will remain uncertain. To better understand this issue, the present paper is the first of two to explore the history of the diet and cancer relationship prior to a 1982 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on Diet, Nutrition and Cancer. This report was a milestone in the nutrition and cancer history because it was the first science-based, institutional report on this topic. But, based on the evidence cited in that report, it could be inferred that this topic was relatively new, perhaps beginning around 1940. While it attracted great public interest, it also generated great controversy, some of which was a natural response from affected industries. Exploring the history prior to 1940, therefore, might provide clues on the present-day confusion concerning the relationship between diet and cancer. This investigation asks three questions. First (the subject of this paper), was the relationship of nutrition to cancer even considered prior to 1940 and, if so, what was said? Second (the subject of the upcoming paper), assuming that nutrition was seriously considered, why then was it ignored or forgotten? Third, has the forgotten information contributed to the contemporary confusion surrounding the relationship to cancer? The answer to the first question, considered here, is that, yes, nutrition as a possible cause of cancer was not only hypothesized, it was a major topic for discussion in some quarters. But it also was a topic struggling to be heard among the authorities who had most of the power and influence in the professional cancer community. This paper documents that history and the corresponding struggle for this message to be heard. One figure, Frederick Hoffman, founder of the American Cancer Society and prodigious researcher, led much of that effort during the period of 1913-1943, but his contributions have remained almost totally unknown.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Diet / history*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / etiology
  • Neoplasms / history*
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*