The National Institute of Nutrition was born in 1918 as a small beri beri enquiry unit at Coonoor. It was created by the Indian Research Fund Association under the leadership of Sir Robert McCarrison. In (the year) 1925, it was transformed into deficiency diseases enquiry and rechristened as Nutrition Research Laboratories which has now blossomed as National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) (in the late 1950’s) and is under the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). It is one of the oldest institutes under ICMR.
Some of the research areas undertaken during the formative years were (are studies) related to agricultural aspect of nutrition, nutritive value of food, diseases related to nutrient deficiencies like pernicious anaemia, scurvy, beri beri, urolithiasis etc.
Dr V N Patwardhan was the first Indian Director. He took over (the position) in (the year) 1947. During his tenure, new dimensions to research were added. Some of these are experiments to understand the mechanism of action of Vitamin D, nitrogen metabolism in humans with respect to source of protein, studies on B Complex vitamins, nutritional oedema and pellagra. In the year 1950, studies on toxicity of Lathyrus sativus were conducted.
The Nutrition Research Laboratories was shifted to Hyderabad in (the year) 1958 and shortly afterwards Dr C Gopalan took over as Director. His contribution to develop the laboratories is exemplary. He expanded the scope of the then existing research areas as well as added new divisions. He was a great visionary and institution builder.
A very valuable publication the “Nutritive Value of Indian Foods” was published by him along with other scientists. Dr Gopalan also initiated work to develop the recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) for Indians, strategies to control and prevent Vitamin A deficiencies related blindness. Studies on kwashiorkor and marasmus were carried out under his guidance. He is also credited with introducing postgraduate certificate course and applied nutrition courses. He founded the Nutrition Society of India in 1968.
The National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (NNMB) was established in 1972 and the Laboratory Information Services Centre (LAISC) in 1976. In 1978, the Department of Toxicology, headed by Dr P G Tulpule, was upgraded as Food & Drug Toxicology Research Centre to take up research in food toxicology, safety, drug toxicology and drug nutrient interactions.
The Government of India launched the supplementary feeding programme to improve child nutrition in rural areas and urban slums. NIN’s studies indicated that undernutrition among pre-school children was not only due to protein deficiency but also due to energy deficit. Subsequently micronutrient deficiencies were also reported, particularly for Vitamin A, which led to Vitamin A prophylaxis programme. Another micronutrient, namely iron nutriture, is one of the core area of the institute’s work. Studies to understand iron absorption have led to identification of food that can enhance iron absorption. Guava, which has high Vitamin C, is one that significantly enhances iron absorption. It is also known from studies done at NIN that phytates in food interfere with nutrients absorption.
Iodine deficiency in population is known to result in cretinism and can impact cognitive performance in children. The iodized salt developed by NIN is an important contribution (of the institute to population) and is one of the foremost examples of the institute’s contribution to translational research.
Subsequently iodine and iron fortified salt has been developed to mitigate iron and iodine deficiencies. NIN has executed memorandum of understanding with many salt manufacturers with condition that 20% of the manufactured salt should be made available to public through the public distribution system at a price fixed by the government. Recently the Bureau of Indian Standards has framed guidelines to ensure quality of salt. Presently the DFS has been introduced for use in Mid Day Meal programme (MDM), Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and Public Distribution System (PDS).
Food fortification is an important tool to combat micronutrient deficiencies also known as hidden hunger. Technologies for fortification of wheat flour with iron and other essential micronutrients have been transferred to the industry. A new method for estimation of Vitamin A by using Dried Blood Spot Technology was developed and is extremely useful to identify Vitamin A deficiency in the population.
Maternal & Child Nutrition
Mother’s undernutrition has adverse impact on birth outcomes. Such children are at risk of growth retardation, infections and poor mental performance during growth. The stunted children and adolescents as they grow up are undernourished and the adolescent girls become mothers who are undernourished and perpetuate the cycle of malnutrition across the generation. NIN has made significant contribution to improve maternal health and nutritional status and is at present assessing micronutrient status among children in a particular cohort and relating the nutritional status to certain outcome variables like cognitive performance in children.
The institute is consulted by Andhra Pradesh Foods for producing ready to eat foods for children and at present evaluation of certain recipes, that are intended to be used in supplementation feeding programmes, are under way.
Contribution to National Nutrition Policy and Programmes
The institute conducts surveys in pre-school children, nutritional monitoring in 16 states, including district level surveys. The outcome of these surveys have helped formulate National Nutrition Policy and prioritize nutritional programmes. The national programme for distribution of iron and folate, to pregnant and lactating women and children, to combat nutritional anaemia is based on research carried out at NIN.
Food supplements given to women in the later part of their pregnancy have shown to improve birth weight of infants. Maternal mortality in India is several fold higher compared to developed countries and the strategies suggested is to identify high risk pregnancies in rural areas and provide appropriate services. This strategy has been currently included in the national programmes like reproductive and child health programmes.
Food & Drug Toxicology Research Centre
The Food and Drug Toxicology Research Centre is dedicated to investigate food-borne illnesses, survey for environmental contaminants, tests for adulteration and overall food safety. Work on fluoride toxicity and its modulation by certain trace elements like calcium and magnesium have been carried out further. Certain metal ions like strontium, silica can accelerate fluoride toxicity in undernutrition. Active work on lathyrism is another core area that is being perused at the centre. Rapid PCR based diagnostic kits for accurate and rapid identification of select food-borne pathogens have been developed under public private partnership with Bioserve Technologies at Hyderabad. Pesticide toxicity is one more area of research being perused at FDTRC. Work on mycotoxicosis has come from research activity of the centre since its inception in 1978.
The centre has established three National Data Bases on food safety namely knowledge, attitude, behaviour and practices on food safety, total diet studies to assess exposure to certain food contaminants and consumption of processed and non-processed foods in India. All these three studies are nation-wide studies and for the first time studies of this magnitude have been conducted. Recently the centre carried out and submitted document on risk assessment of trans fat and conducted national level consultative meeting. Based on the recommendations, the Food Safety & Standards Authority of India has passed regulatory measures to control TFA levels in foods and has made labelling mandatory.
The drug toxicology centre has documented pioneering work in drug nutrient interactions, dietary approaches to prevent cancer, manage type 2 diabetes. Commonly consumed spices like turmeric, alliums, ginger demonstrated chemopreventing properties. Spices like fenugreek and diet prepared from sorghum, maize, have shown to be beneficial in managing hyperglycemia in people suffering from Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus.
The Advanced Centre for Pre-clinical Toxicology, which is part of FDTRC, was initiated in 1999 and since its inception has tested several recombinant products (the first recombinant vaccine namely anti rabies, interferon, tetra valent vaccine) and herbo mineral preparations.
National Centre for Laboratory Animals (NCLAS)
This centre has been set up by NIN with generous support of Department of Biotechnology. The centre has developed new mutant rat model to study diabetes and obesity. NCLAS also provides regular training in animal handling and other techniques involved in animal use and care. An excellent state of art primate experimental facility has been established.
National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (NNMB)
The National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau has evaluated nutrition programmes and conducted repeat surveys. Need based special surveys are also taken up by NNMB. Beneficial effect of DFS and beta carotene fortified rice (ultra rice) had been studied in the community.
Tribal Health Forum
Recently ICMR established dedicated centres to evaluate overall tribal health and improve their nutrition. NIN is one of the centre as well as Central Reference Laboratory (CRL). Nutrition and health status assessment of Nicobarese population of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Baiga and Bharia tribes of Madhya Pradesh and Chenchu tribes belonging to Adilabad district in Andhra Pradesh was undertaken. The Nicobarese had high prevalence of hypertension and low HDL. The Baija and Bharia had micro and macronutrient deficiencies leading to high prevalence of anaemia, stunted growth and underweight.
Revision of nutritive value of Indian foods
Currently activity is on to estimate many more nutrients and non-nutrients in foods sampled from all regions of India. Efforts are also on to assess the nutrient retention factors. This is an important database which will help researchers and policy makers to calculate the actual intake of nutrients through food.
This is an important activity of the institute and the division of Extension and Training leave no stone unturned to carry forward the findings from lab to land. The staff of this division hold exhibitions in various parts of India, maintain the Nutrition Museum, conduct training programmes and the MSc nutrition course with the support of NTR Health University. The division also brings out several publications, including popular ones, for the common man to disseminate information on nutrition.
The beri beri unit established in 1918 at Coonoor has metamorphosed into a centre of excellence and magnificient institute. This was possible due to the selfless efforts of all the staff members from then till date, support by government, Health Ministry, Indian Council of Medical Research and various grant agencies.
Last but not the least subjects communities, who co-operate in experimental and field studies, made possible all our research programmes. (The animals who have dedicated and sacrificed their lives for us to understand the fundamental mechanisms in nutrition deserve profound appreciation and gratitude.)
Lastly, I wish to recall the words of Sir Robert McCarrison, Founder Director of NIN "In the study of the science nutrition lies the greatest hope for the future of medicine".
Dr.Kalpagam Polasa is a Director Incharge & Head, Food & Drug Toxicology Research Centre, National Institute of Nutrition (ICMR), Hyderabad. Areas of her research include food safety and hygiene, nutrient drug interactions, nutrition and cancer, anti-mutagenesis, genetic and environmental toxicology and pre-clinical toxicology. She has three decades of research experience with more than100 publications to her credit. She has guided many PhD students in the areas of nutrition and microbiology. She was team leader for the Indo –Australian workshop on Nutraceuticals and Functional Foods held at Wollongong, Australia in 2008. She serves as food safety expert to Bhutan. She is a member of a many prestigious scientific bodies like the Nutrition Society of India, Indian Pharmacological Society, Association of Microbiologist of India, Environmental Mutagen Society of India, Indian Association for Cancer Research Society of Toxicology and Indian Dietetic Association. She serves as a committee member in many national bodies and is a Visiting Scientist at Institute Curie, Paris, France; Sylvius Laboratories, Leiden, Netherland, Michigan State University, USA. She is a Certified GLP Inspector of NGCMA (DST) and Member of Editorial Committee in various International and National Journals. She was a University Ranker in M.Sc and received Young Scientist Award, Nutrition Society of India in 1989. She was given the prestigious IFN award to undergo training in Research management and Communication at Taipei, Taiwan. She is a member of scientific committees of Ministry of health, FSSAI, BIS and ICMR.