For Nutrition Research, Women in Grand Forks, North Dakota Are Licking Their Plates Clean

updated 04/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's dinner time at the Human Nutrition Research Center in Grand Forks, N.Dak., and the table manners are like something out of Animal House. Over here, a middle-age woman sucks every fleck of food off the lid of her stew bowl. Over there, a grandmotherly type picks up her plate and licks it clean. Then she does her silverware. "Our manners are atrocious," grins Clementine "Clem" Cooley, 68. "But you know what? We don't care!"

What looks like some Emily Post nightmare is actually serious scientific research. These 13 women, aged 48 to 82, are all in the employ of the federal government. Current pay is $30 a day plus free room and board. In return the volunteers must eat every morsel of the three hospital-type meals a day that they are served (the menu repeats every nine meals). So seriously is this clean-plate credo taken that they rinse their empty bowls with water and—ugh—drink the resultant broth. "The dog couldn't do any better," brags Clem as she licks her knife clean.

These human guinea pigs must also put up with near constant testing. Their blood samples are taken once a week; their urine is analyzed, and even their feces are bagged in plastic, freeze dried and later minutely studied. All outside food consumption is prohibited, and the ban includes such seemingly innocuous activities as chewing gum and licking postage stamps. Indeed, when the ladies from HNRC head into Grand Forks for a movie or a shopping trip, they are accompanied by student "chaperones" who make sure they're not indulging in an extracurricular snack or the unauthorized disposal of precious bodily wastes. (For unavoidable emergencies, the volunteers carry discreet containers with them.) The four married women have left husbands behind; the others are widowed or divorced. Sex is taboo for the duration.

The point of all this is to study the effects that various nutrients have on metabolism and health. "We don't use rats for this kind of study," explains HNRC physiologist Henry Lukaski, "simply because rats are not human. We can learn more about ourselves by studying people." The subjects, who live on the University of North Dakota campus in the HNRC's attractive living quarters, are under observation for six-month periods. Their scrupulously controlled diets are designed to be rich—or poor—in various trace elements. Last winter, when these women were under observation, the dietary roles of boron and magnesium were being investigated. HNRC Director Forrest H. (Frosty) Nielsen says that preliminary results suggest that supplementing a boron-low diet with an amount of boron commonly found in diets that are high in fruits and vegetables induces changes in post-menopausal women that can help prevent calcium loss and bone demineralization. "This," says Nielsen, "has obvious implications in the prevention of osteoporosis.

"Trace-element nutrition is a relatively new field, sort of like vitamin studies were in the '30s," says Nielsen. "And it's expensive. Each human study costs about a million dollars for staff, volunteers and materials." The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has four similar research centers in the U.S., hopes to use the information to establish the recommended daily allowance of various trace minerals.

In existence since 1969, the Grand Forks Research Center at first used exclusively male groups. But that changed in 1985, after scientists started conducting tests with women. "It was our first group where no one left," says Patti Lazarus, who recruits volunteers for the HNRC. "There seems to be a greater commitment in women volunteers, tremendous enthusiasm and a sense of adventure. Men don't bond as well. The women laugh all the time. This," she adds, gesturing around the dining room, "is like a metabolic sorority house."

The HNRC finds most of its volunteers through newspaper advertisements. Like Liz Payne, 48, from Fort Myers, Fla. She and her husband run a bookstore. "We sell the Chicago paper, and I saw the ad there," she says. Payne joined up "just to get away." Despite the chaperones, tests and monotonous menus, she finds it "more a vacation than a confinement," she says. Norma Fountain, 64, from Salem, Ore., agrees. She has eight children and 16 grandchildren, and—speaking for the many—she says, "The best part is having the freedom to enjoy things here. With no brood around," she adds, "you don't have to cook meals and clean house all the time."

The volunteers live in private rooms with shared bathrooms and their own radios, TVs and telephones. Their recreation facilities include a lounge with fireplace, a workshop, and stereo, computer and piano rooms. Their days revolve around tests, often beginning at 6 a.m. But for much of the time they are free—under the watchful eyes of their chaperones—to shop or take courses at the university. There's time to read, write or, like Joyce Brewer, "knit my daughter six sweaters." The only real problem is the food. Eating the same nine meals over and over again becomes monotonous beyond description. Everything must be devoured—including the dreaded lime-green Jell-O which, says Clem, "reminds me of some toilet disinfectant." Even the constant testing pales by comparison. "The easiest thing for the volunteers to get used to is the toilet routine," says Lazarus. "The hardest is not having a Twinkie or popcorn while watching TV."

One odd thing, though: After six months away from their families—six months of sewing, creative writing and self-improvement—even the staunchest anti-housework types find themselves softening. Like Norma Fountain, the woman with 16 grandchildren. "I'm looking forward," she admits, "to cooking again." Maybe it's something they put in the Jell-O.

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