How do Inuit cope without fresh vegetables and vitamin C?

29 January 2012

Question

During a recent programme that I heard as a podcast, you were giving examples of how poor diets had effected sailors during voyages of discovery that keep them at sea for extended periods without recourse to fresh vegetables, scurvy being the most common of those diseases encountered and how scurvy appeared to be mitigated by fresh fruit (vitamin C). The next part of the conversation seem to be about the benefits of fish oils on lowering the risk of certain heart problems, and Inuit peoples of the Arctic regions appear to benefit in this way because of their marine diets. So how do these people contend with lack of fresh vegetables, do they get scurvy? Where would they get their vitamin C? How do they contend with low blood clotting should they get severly injured? Sincerely Malcolm Kirk

Answer

This is a great question because obviously, there isn't really a lot of fresh fruit up in the Arctic. In fact, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the traditional Inuit diet does have vitamin C in it. It's not as much as you would get with a diet that's very rich in fruit and vegetables, but clearly, it's enough to keep them healthy because the Inuit are healthy. They're not affected by scurvy.

One of the theories is that it's actually the raw meat and fish, the main component of their diet, which does have a significant amount of Vitamin C in. The Inuit living on fresh raw meat and fresh raw fish would actually manage to get enough vitamin C, and particularly, there's a lovely traditional Inuit staple called muktuk which is the skin of the beluga whale, and this has a lot of vitamin C in it. Also, the organs of sea mammals and, apparently, the stomach contents of caribou, though I'm not sure they would actually eat that - maybe they just fed it to the dogs!

There has been quite a lot of research looking at traditional Inuit populations and their diet and there clearly is enough vitamin C when you analyse their traditional food sources.

The problem comes when people are moving away from their traditional food sources and not getting enough fresh fruit and vegetables in return. I found a lovely paper from 1975 which does show that there is some evidence of vitamin C deficiency in the Inuit population. That may be some affect of their diet, but overall, because there isn't widespread scurvy, we have to assume that they are getting enough vitamin C from their traditional diet.

Comments

This question is also relevant to questions around the Paleo diet - how much meat did our hunter-gatherer ancestors eat and are our bodies adapted to an all meat diet. Some researchers argue that we are not adapted to an all meat diet because we cannot produce our own vitamin C, and hence need to get it from plant based food sources.
However, wouldn't it make sense to simply say that wild animals obtain vitamin C from eating plants, so if we eat the animals we get the vitamin C by eating their muscle and organ tissue? Furthermore, if the animal is eaten shortly after being killed the vitamin C would not have time to decay and should definitely still be in the flesh. Hunter-gatherers must have eaten the animals they killed fresh because they they obviously didn't have refrigeration, and I would think other forms of meat preservation, such as salting and drying, were only performed during periods of scarcity of game due to the labor involved.

Canines manufacture their own vitamin C. The fact the writer didn't know this calls into question everything written. Please research before writing.

We are sorry that the humour was lost on you. The answer is otherwise quite accurate.

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