Why meat prevents scurvy
Roald Amundsen was a polar explorer in the early part of this century. Unlike Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated expedition to the antarctic, Amundsen’s philosophy was to eat what the native eskimos ate. Whilst Scott took tinned food and biscuits on his expedition, Amundsen ate pemmican, cloud berry jam, and slaughtered half of his huskies for fresh meat when they were no longer required to pull supplies. Scott’s rations were not calorically adequate for the journey and his team lost a lot of weight. Despite taking lime juice with them, they died, disasterously of malnutrition and scurvy.
Fresh raw meat contains very small quantities of vitamin C. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, another polar explorer who ate like the eskimos, was never troubled by scurvy. When two of his team became sick with scurvy, he discovered they had been secretly eating a cache of Western foods like biscuits. He cured them on an all meat diet. Stefansson was the original carnivore – after his expeditions in the arctic, he became convinced it was entirely possible to live on a diet of nothing but meat, and remain in excellent health, and in fact negate many of our common health problems like headaches and aches and pains (sound familiar?). Stefansson – whose diet included such delicacies as raw calves’ brains and other organ meats, checked himself into the Bellevue hospital for a year to be observed in order to prove an all meat diet to the world. He succeeded, and spent the rest of his life eating a diet of meat. In his old age, he married a younger woman who tempted him with sweet desserts. He gave in to her persuasions, and suffered a stroke. Having had this setback in health, he went back to his all meat diet and lived for over another decade, into his eighties.
Meat contains virtually insignificant amounts of vitamin C, yet arctic explorers have long known its ability to prevent scurvy. The average sailor’s diet, by contrast, consisted largely of carbohydrate in the form of biscuits, and little protein – weevils not withstanding – as well as significant amounts of alcohol, all factors known to increase the risk of developing scurvy.
Despite the fact that fresh meat was well-known as a practical antiscorbutic among civilian whalers and explorers in the Arctic, at the time of Scott’s mission to the antarctic, the prevailing medical theory was that scurvy was caused by “tainted” canned food, and it wasn’t until 1932 that the connection between vitamin C and scurvy was established.
I have read many passages here and there extolling the virtues of fresh meat in preventing scurvy, one is even quoted in Nourishing Traditons, where this capacity is attributed to “some unknown factor” in the meat.
In fact, meat not only prevents scurvy because it contains tiny quantities of vitamin C, it prevents it because it bypasses the need for vitamin C.
Vitamin C is required to form collagen in the body, and it does this – despite being described everywhere as an antioxidant – by oxidation. Vitamin C’s role in collagen formation is to transfer a hydroxyl group to the amino acids lysine and proline. Meat, however, already contains appreciable quantities of hydroxylysine and hydroxyproline, bypassing some of the requirement for vitamin C. In other words, your vitamin C requirement is dependent upon how much meat you do not eat.