Monday, April 9, 2012

Ash-soaked corn for Easter

Over Easter dinner, my family got into a discussion on food.  Food is not an uncommon topic in our house but it was especially prevalent this weekend because my sister-in-law just started culinary school.  By a somewhat crooked pathway we landed on the bizarre Native American practice of soaking maize/corn in ash before eating it.
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 Unbeknownst to me, the US had a terrible case of vitamin deficiency called pallagra during the early 1900s.  From 1900-1940, approximately three million people contracted pellagra and 100,000 people died from it.  Pellagra symptoms are categorized by the three D's: diarrhea, dermatitis and dementia.  The majority of pellagra patients were poor southerners, which unfortunately linked the disease socioeconomic status and made the road to understanding particularly difficult.

 The difficult road did not dismay Dr. Goldberger, who concluded that pellagra was a dietary disease rather than an infectious disease, as was the common opinion.  Dr. Goldberger conducted many experiments that strongly suggested that pellagra was not infectious, the most drastic of which involved exposing 16 volunteers, including Mrs. Goldberger, to blood, urine, feces, and skin samples of patients with pellagra.  He found that none of these volunteers developed the disease.  His data strongly suggested diet prompted the development of pellagra.

Corn was a cash crop and major nutritional staple especially for poor Americans in this time period.  Americans learned how easy to grow and high yielding corn was from Native Americans and applied it US agriculture.  However, people of the US did not copy everything the Native Americans did and omitted the method of soaking corn in ash or lime before consumption.  Probably because they thought, as many of us at the dinner table thought, that eating ash-soaked corn had to be detrimental to one's health and taste buds.  History proved us fools as it turns out that this step was crucial to extraction the key vitamin niacin from corn. 

Niacin, or vitamin B3, deficiency was found to be the main cause of pellagra.  Niacin is a vital precursor to a coenzyme used in cellular respiration (NAD/NAD+ and/or NADP/NADP+) and other metabolic reactions. Soaking corn in a basic solution, such as ash or lime, changes niacin into a form that can be readily absorbed by the human body.  The body then uses niacin to undergo effective cellular processes.  The human body can also synthesize niacin from its precursor: the amino acid tryptophan.  Synthesis from tryptophan produces the same coenzyme and allows for normal metabolic functioning.  Both niacin and tryptophan are present in a variety of foods (meat, dairy, eggs, peanuts and legumes); however, overall poor nutrition limited ingestion of most of these foods in low income families during the early 1900s. 

Although we no longer soak corn in ash, it is treated with a basic solution to convert niacin into usable forms before we enjoy it.  Given the Native Americans early insight to this problem, I can't help but wonder how they figured it out....

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