Science, culture, and nutrient deficiencies

Michael Pollan writes in the first chapter of In Defense of Food,

Vitamins did a lot for the prestige of nutritional science. These special molecules, which at first were isolated from foods and then later synthesized in a laboratory, could cure people of nutritional deficiencies such as scurvy or beriberi almost overnight in a convincing demonstration of reductive chemistry’s power. (21)

Pollan doesn’t dwell on the topic of nutrient deficiencies, but I will. In their article “In Defense of Food Science,” David Julian McClements, César Vega, Anne E. McBride, and Eric Andrew Decker point out that fortified foods have played important role in alleviating a number of diseases, namely pellagra, spinal tube defects, beriberi, goiter, and rickets.

The example of beriberi, which is detailed in Kenneth J. Carpenter’s book Beriberi, White Rice, and Vitamin B: A Disease, A Cause, and a Cure, is particularly instructive. Beriberi, which is often fatal when left untreated, was so prevalent in late nineteenth century Japan that one western doctor dubbed it “the national disease of Japan.” Moreover, western doctors visiting Japan after the Perry Expedition brought about the country’s opening to the West in 1854 found evidence that the disease had been around for a long time.

In the late 1800s, it was determined that beriberi was diet-related, and shortly thereafter it was discovered that beriberi was caused by a deficiency of the nutrient now known as thiamine (vitamin B1). In the case of the Japanese sufferers of beriberi, the thiamine deficiency was related to a diet based heavily on white rice. Although rice naturally contains thiamine, most of that thiamine is found in the husk, which is removed to produce white rice. Carpenter explains the preference for white rice, “In practice, nearly everyone who eats rice as their staple food, that is, the centerpiece for each of their daily meals, prefers white rice if it is available, and eating it can be a status symbol.”

Thus, the example of white rice is one in which longstanding cultural preferences resulted in dietary patterns that were demonstrably unhealthy. This should be reason to doubt an argument Pollan will make later, that the continued existence of a diet is proof of its healthfulness. Furthermore, the subsequent success of nutrition science in curing beriberi shows that science can help improve on a diet that tradition recommends.



  1. Yeah, I’ve never understood the idea that tradition, by itself, guarantees healthiness. Do you know what Pollan’s opinion of MSG is? I think he mentions it in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but only in passing. Why do I ask? Well, MSG is an additive that most natural-food enthusiasts love to hate, yet it’s been used in Asian cooking for over 100 years.

    Another issue is whether the line between “traditional” and “non-traditional” foods is at all clear-cut. Tomatoes weren’t eaten in Italy until around the 17th century. That means that all those “traditional” tomato-based Italian foods like marinara sauce and Parmigiana are less than 400 years old. That means they’re less than four times as old as MSG…

    • Adam Merberg said

      Yeah, I agree with everything you say. I only know of the passing mention of MSG, but he tends to not like foods with chemical-sounding names.

      I think the argument regarding tradition is that people who ate an unhealthy diet would be selected out of the population. He says something to this effect (not quite so explicit) later on, and I’m planning a post on it when I get there. For now, I’ll just say I think it’s a funny argument because even the standard American diet that Pollan loves to bash doesn’t seem to keep people from living to reproductive age.

      And tomatoes are a great example of traditional foods that aren’t so old. I suspect it’s one of many New World foods that have become Old World traditions.

  2. ProLibertate said

    Hi- Not sure if this is a discussion that you would like to engage in, but I’m sure you many know some who will:

    Have you seen this recent article by the New York Times?

    It is being discussed here:

    and Joe Salatin has made his rebuttal to the NYT article here:

  3. […] to die, how long they tend to live, or any non-fatal health problems they may experience. And as the story of beriberi shows, groups of people have survived for generations on traditional diets that had serious […]

  4. […] without doing away with its eaters. Pollan’s line of argument would, for example, vindicate the diet of white rice that left so many with beriberi. And some day, it may well exonerate the American diet, whose worst health effects tend to show up […]

  5. Steve Hamachi said

    I am really interested in what Kenneth J. Carpenter’s wrote about thiamine deficiency and beriberi.I am Japanese when I took the Spectracell micronutrient test I was found deficient in vitamin B1, B3(pellagra), Biotin, and serine. My father was born in Japan in 1888 right at the height of the beriberi epidemic and this was passed on to 4 out of 5 offsprings. When you grow up with no B1 in your diet it mutates the thiamine transporter gene and it is passed on in Families. I did not find
    this out until I was 71 so the damage was already done my beriberi worsened to Wernicke’s Encephalopathy(brain damage) my cerebellum is effected and I have ataxia.

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