Thursday, July 14, 2016

Unexpected Hero of the Seas: Sauerkraut

What's the first thought that comes to mind when I mention sauerkraut? (For me, it was hot dogs.) Whatever it is, add to it medical breakthrough. Surprising, right? No, I'm not referring to some crazy fad diet. I'm referring to both a medical condition that haunted our sea-ferrying ancestors as well as a scientific process that we continue to this day. The disease was scurvy, and the process was that of scientific trials.

Scurvy, it just sounds like a pirate word. In reality, it was a horrific affliction that by some accounts was responsible for nearly 2 million painful deaths between 1500 and 1700. While the numbers of who died from scurvy are up for debate, it was clearly a horrific disease. We know now that scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C, but at the time, it was a complete mystery.

In 1747, the physician James Lind decided to tackle the challenge of scurvy. He did so using a method familiar to us, but was revolutionary at the time. He ran, by some accounts, the first recorded medical trial. Here's how it went down:

On the 20th May, 1747, I took twelve patients in the scurvy on board the Salisbury at sea. Their cases were as similar as I could have them. They all in general had putrid gums, the spots and lassitude, with weakness of their knees. They lay together in one place, being a proper apartment for the sick in the fore-hold; and had one diet in common to all, viz., water gruel sweetened with sugar in the morning; fresh mutton broth often times for dinner; at other times puddings, boiled biscuit with sugar etc.; and for supper barley, raisins, rice and currants, sago and wine, or the like.

He then clustered the sick sailors into pairs and gave each set a different treatment:

Two of these were ordered each a quart of cyder a day. Two others took twenty five gutts of elixir vitriol three times a day upon an empty stomach, using a gargle strongly acidulated with it for their mouths. Two others took two spoonfuls of vinegar three times a day upon an empty stomach, having their gruels and their other food well acidulated with it, as also the gargle for the mouth. Two of the worst patients, with the tendons in the ham rigid (a symptom none the rest had) were put under a course of sea water. Of this they drank half a pint every day and sometimes more or less as it operated by way of gentle physic. Two others had each two oranges and one lemon given them every day. These they eat with greediness at different times upon an empty stomach. They continued but six days under this course, having consumed the quantity that could be spared. The two remaining patients took the bigness of a nutmeg three times a day of an electuray recommended by an hospital surgeon made of garlic, mustard seed, rad. raphan. , balsam of Peru and gum myrrh, using for common drink narley water well acidulated with tamarinds, by a decoction of wich, with the addition of cremor tartar , they were gently purged three or four times during the course

And, as we know know, the winning treatment would be the citrus fruits because they are in vitamin C:

The consequence was that the most sudden and visible good effects were perceived from the use of the oranges and lemons; one of those who had taken them being at the end of six days fit four duty. The spots were not indeed at that time quite off his body, nor his gums sound; but without any other medicine than a gargarism or elixir of vitriol he became quite healthy before we came into Plymouth, which was on the 16 th June. The other was the best recovered of any in his condition, and being now deemed pretty well was appointed nurse to the rest of the sick.

You can read excerpts of Lind's findings here and here. It needs to be noted that Lind was hardly practicing anything resembling modern medicine. Looking at the conclusions of articles like this one and this one shows plenty of flaws in Lind's reasoning and practice.

By now you should be asking: but what the heck does this have to do with sauerkraut?!

So the "experts" agreed that certain foods could keep from contracting scurvy. But how do you keep oranges and lemons fresh while at sea? As this post curtly points out: you don't. This led to yet anther experiment:

With no real [non-spoiling] cure available, the British crown outfitted four captains during the 1760s with various potential cures in an attempt to find a reliable method to prevent scurvy through trial and error.

Captain James Cook, one of these four captains, was given several different experimental foods to try aboard his ship the HM Bark Endeavor when he left England for the South Pacific in 1768. Among them, as noted in the victualing minutes — the log of provisions put aboard — was 7,860 pounds of sauerkraut.

As luck would have it, sauerkraut has a large quantity of vitamin C. The experiment was a success: Cook embraced the notion of eating sauerkraut, encouraged his men to eat it, and after two years at sea, nobody had died from scurvy. You can read more about the experiment here and here.

Making sauerkraut isn't especially hard. It requires little more than cabbage, salt, water, a container and time. Here's an excellent recipe, which also served as the inspiration to learn about the history of his dish.

Fresh cabbage has both limited shelf life and vitamin C. Yet, let it ferment in salt and water and you end up with a lifesaving super-food. Remarkable. I'll never look at a hot dog and sauerkraut the same way again.


  1. Best title ever (content is great, too) :).

  2. Thanks Grant! Who knew Sauerkraut could be the hero of anything?! I certainly have a new respect for it