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Hans Konrad Biesalski: Nutrition scientist with an interest in fine arts

Konrad Biesalski is a flute player and licensed physician who sees the exchange between humanists and natural scientists as very enriching. Professor Konrad Biesalski is very concerned with the human face of medicine, which is why he chooses to combine nutrition with medicine in his work at the University of Hohenheim. His 60th birthday in April this year sparked off his recent efforts to try to dispel some of the common misunderstandings that people have about nutrition. He is a man of many interests, which also include evolutionary biology.

Official recognition and important job titles mean little to him. Invitations to conferences and to give talks are, for him, mere passing acknowledgements of his craft. Professor Biesalski says that retirement holds no fear for him. He has just turned 60 and he plans to retire in about five years’ time. His interest in literature, music and the arts will be all the fulfilment he needs. Once retired, he fully intends to continue writing books, “perhaps I will also write a cookery book, as I love cooking,” Biesalski tells us. However, he does not intend to give up science completely. He is far too curious and still hopes to uncover many things. “A scientist who is not curious, runs the risk of missing out on a great deal,” said Biesalski.

Fascinated by evolutionary biology

Prof. Dr. Hans Konrad Biesalski © Biesalski

"At the moment I am very interested in evolutionary biology," said Biesalski, a native of Marburg. He is particularly interested in finding out how far nutrition niches influence evolution. Biesalski mentions one of many examples: In a niche with orange-coloured fruit, an essential source of vitamin A, all living organisms that can see trichromatically, i.e. can differentiate red from green, have a clear advantage. Organisms that can only see two colours have a much lesser chance of differentiating the bright orange vitamin source from the green leaves. "It is a matter of debate whether trichromatic vision is an important driver of human evolution," said Biesalski summarising the current state of research. Biesalski also hopes that evolutionary biology will, by way of the niches, help him to find out "why there are considerable differences between Asian and Caucasian metabolisms", or "why enzymes can act in completely different ways, leading to a lesser or greater risk of disease".

Biesalski, who has a great deal of practical experience in medicine, spent an entire year looking at issues relating to nutrition niches. In 2007, he became a member of the Wissenschaftskolleg (Institute for Advanced Study) in Berlin where 40 international researchers from a broad range of disciplines are given the opportunity to concentrate, free of constraints and duties, on projects of their own choice for one academic year. Biesalski refers to this opportunity as hugely enriching, particularly as far as the exchange between the natural sciences and the humanities is concerned. For example, he was able to debate the importance of colours in paintings with Horst Bredekamp, an art history professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Biesalski explained that a person looking at a colourful painting of a dish full of juicy fruit will find it very appetising. The same painting or photo in black and white will be just another wall hanging that goes largely unnoticed. “The communication between the humanities and the natural sciences I experienced during my year in Berlin mean that I tend to look at things from two different perspectives a lot more than I did before,” said Biesalski adding that the experience also made him more self-critical.

A journalist who specialises in nutrition

Biesalski has been hoping for a wider exchange of ideas between the humanities and the natural sciences for a long time, and would love to see more courses in the theory of science, as he believes that “this makes communication a lot easier”. For his particular area of expertise, he would love to see journalists who specialise in nutrition, a kind of combination between a nutrition- and a communication scientist. “There are already specialised medical journalists, which is the reason why less rubbish is published about the medical sector,” said Biesalski adding, “in our field a scientific information system on nutrition is clearly lacking.” Without an association to deal with these issues, no-one will complain about the fact that “anybody who can eat food can be a nutrition scientist and is taken as competent in the field”.

Hans Konrad Biesalski with one of his five grandchildren playing the flute at a courtyard concert with the “Hohenheimer Bläser” musicians © Biesalski

At a recent press conference (Hohenheimer Pressegespräch) at Hohenheim, Biesalski and a panel of internationally recognised experts offered their own solution to the problem: “It is our objective to provide information that is based on facts and that is scientifically correct.” No advice, no recommendations, no trends, but pure knowledge in order “to straighten some issues out as far as the broader public is concerned,” is how Biesalski put it. During the press conference, Biesalski spoke about vitamin D deficiency in Germany. He plans to hold other press meetings to talk about vitamin A and beta-carotene. “We want to see proper scientific reporting on nutrition problems”, which according to Biesalski also involves providing information about groups at risk of unhealthy nutrition, for example the children of welfare recipients. “No matter how educated you are, you are unable to feed a child healthily when you only have 2.27 euros per day.”

Biesalski is of the opinion that the nutrition sciences have succeeded not just in reporting about pure deficiencies, but are also trying to understand the importance of vitamins and micronutrients in the development of diseases. His major research activity focuses on just this issue. As a physician, he believes that the nutrition sciences are part of medicine. Biesalski is interested in application because “our target is human beings”, said Biesalski adding that he sees applied nutrition science as the true nutrition science.

Nutrition equals quality of life

Does the expert eat healthily himself? “My credo is that the only way to eat healthily is to have a balanced, mixed diet that tastes good. Each individual must decide for him/herself what they consider to be a mixed diet.” According to Biesalski, nutrition is first of all related to quality of life, and food is there to be enjoyed. Biesalski himself seems to know how to enjoy life. As an active flute player he has always been fond of music. “Playing the flute gives me the peace of mind I need,” said Biesalski showing that the connection between mind and nature is also close to his heart in his private life.

Hans Konrad Biesalski, born in 1949 in Marburg, initially studied physics at the University of Mainz, finally graduating in medicine in 1979 at the Universities of Bonn and Mainz. In the same year, he was also licensed to practice medicine. He worked as a scientific assistant at the Institute of Physiology and received his PhD in 1981. He habilitated in 1987 at the Department of Physiological Chemistry at the University of Mainz on the topic of vitamin A in the inner ear. In 1993, he was appointed full professor at the Institute of Biological Chemistry and Nutrition Science at the University of Hohenheim where he has been head of department since 1995.

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