Why didn’t Eskimos get scurvy even though their traditional diet is only meat & fish?

Much of what we know about the Eskimo diet comes from the legendary arctic anthropologist and adventurer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who made several daredevil journeys through the region. Stefansson noticed that the traditional Eskimo diet consisted largely of meat and fish, with fruits and vegetables (the usual source of vitamin C) accounting for as little as 2% of total calorie intake. Yet, the Eskimos did not suffer from scurvy.

Scurvy was recognized as far back as the ancient Greek healer Hippocrates. It plagued the crusaders. But its real death toll came as European sailors started voyaging farther and farther from home, starting in the 1500s. Living for months on end without fresh fruits and vegetables, sailors died in droves from the disease – during some years in the British Navy, more men succumbed to scurvy than died in combat.

Vitamin C can be found in a variety of traditional Eskimo staples, including the skin of beluga whales (known as muktuk), which is said to contain as much vitamin C as oranges. Other reported sources include the organ meats of sea mammals. There are speculations that Eskimos could get Vitamin C from berries during the summer months.

Stefansson argued that the native peoples of the arctic got their vitamin C from muscle meat that are raw or minimally cooked. Harsh cooking destroys Vitamin C. The extremely cold environment also protected the Eskimos from food poisoning by bacterial e.g. food poisoning by E. coli, streptococcus infections, etc. so that eliminates a concern.

Though Vitamin C is naturally vast in fruits and vegetables, Vitamin C is most present in the liver and least present in the muscle. However, since animal muscle provides the majority of meat consumed in the human diet, animal products are not a reliable source of Vitamin C.

Here’s a table showing the relative abundance of vitamin C in various foods of animal origin (raw), given in milligram of vitamin C per 100g of food:

vitamin C, eskimo, scurvy, meat diet

 

Find out more about What is Vitamin C, and the effects of Vitamin C deficiency and toxicity.

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