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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Regional artists, pellagra, and traditional wisdom

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

Pellagra was a great nutritional mystery. Characterized by the four-Ds, dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, and in some cases death, pellagra seemingly emerged out of nowhere. Early in the 20th century, a lot of people in the American south developed pellagra. What was causing it? An infection? Something in the diet? People in that region ate mostly meat, cornmeal and molasses. Maybe it was toxic cornmeal! In a way, that was the answer, but the real problem was that people had stopped using using ashes to prepare cornmeal dishes. 

The Wisconsin pellegra connection 

To celebrate a recent birthday, I visited the John Steuart Curry 1942 mural, the Social Benefits of Biochemical Research, in the University of Wisconsin Biochemistry building. Curry, a Kansan, was artist in residence here in Madison in 1936 and also did a mural in the law school, The Freeing of the Slaves. There is a plaque outside the old UW Madison biochemistry building reminding us that Frank Strong and Conrad Elvehjem identified niacin, which cured pellagra. We UW students of nutrition and biochemistry are proud of that vitamin legacy. E.V. McCollum and M. Davis identified Vitamin A, McCollum discovered thiamin, and Harry Steenbock developed milk irradiation for vitamin D. Curry’s Biochemical Research mural shows people suffering from rickets (vitamin D deficiency) and pellagra (niacin deficiency).

The problem with pellagra was lack of ashes 

The pellagra epidemic essentially grew out of loss of traditional wisdom. World-wide, people had survived and thrived on cornmeal-based diets without developing pellagra. The reason? Cornmeal had traditionally been prepared by treating it with lime, or alkali, which makes the niacin nutritionally available and prevents pellagra. That tradition persists. When I asked Navajo elders to talk about the old ways with food and with feeding their families, they talked about preparing blue cornmeal mush with juniper ash. To them, it didn’t taste good without it. The juniper ash, of course, was lye, which activated the niacin and protected them from pellagra. How had they learned to do that? Had someone back in the far reaches of time noticed that when ashes got in the corn meal mush, people didn’t develop skin rashes? Or did those fastidious cooks who kept the ashes out of the mush simply not survive? We can only wonder.

We love our nutritional mysteries

So why had people stopped using lye treatment? It seemed to happen suddenly, because pellagra appeared abruptly and took on epidemic proportions. I don’t know the answer to that mystery, but maybe you do. 

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