Inuits and Vitamin C

After reading Cecil’s column

on how Inuits get their Vitamin C, I was wondering: does eating sushi supplement Vitamin C to my diet?

Just wondering. Fruits are so incredibly expensive in Japan, the people there must have a way to get all the essential elements they need.

I’ve heard that wasabi (the green horseradish), nori (the seaweed used to wrap sushi) and green tea are all high in vitamin C, so even without the raw fish, it sounds like the Japanese have got it covered if they eat a lot of sushi and drink a lot of green tea.

Cecil mentions the stomach contents of caribou as a possible source of vitamin C. First, I don’t know how often Eskimos traditionally hunted caribou. In the debate over oil drilling in the ANWR, it is caribou-hunting Indians who are against drilling, and non-hunting Eskimos who are for it (I’m generalizing here). And if their stomach contents are so rich in vitamin C, it would make more sense to cut out the middleman (middle-herbivore) and just eat what the caribou eat, presumably reindeer moss and such. Both Canadian Indians and Icelanders have used lichen soup to stave off death.

The real reason raw meat and blood are rich in vitamin C is not that the animals eat a lot of the vitamin, but because most animals synthesize their own vitamin C from carbohydrates. That’s why caribou and seals don’t get scurvy. Many (or all) species of primates, some species of bats, guinea pigs, and some species of birds, can’t synthesize their own and do require it in their diets. Bad news, Momotaro: according to what I was able to find, fish (at least some fish) cannot synthesize their own vitamin C, so they are probably not a great source.

I recall from a Discovery Channel documentary that the Narwal (the whale-like mammal with the “unicorn horn”) is their number one source of vitamin C. A brief glance at a Google search seems to confirm that is a major one, if not the top one.

bibliophage’s comment that fish don’t synthesize their own Vitamin C begs a question in my mind: do all vertebrates require Vitamin C in their diets? All chordates? All animals? How about the other kingdoms?

What does the vitamin do, at a basic level of the organism’s functioning, that makes it so necessary?

I don’t have much of a background in animal nutrition, but a good guess would be that it has something to do with its antioxidant properties combined with its water solubility. Many nutrients are used by different species for very unrelated reasons, but these two properties of Vitamin C are very basic chemical characteristics that would certainly influence any consumer’s condition, whether consumed directly or synthesized from other nutrients. Many of the more potent antioxidant molecules are not water soluble.
(edited to change “it’s” to “its” because that mistake was made twice in the same sentence and it was driving me up the wall!)

[Edited by Arnold Winkelried on 01-23-2001 at 12:58 PM]

Five, regarding what vitamin C does, the body uses it to make collagen, a key protein for connective tissue, cartilage, and tendons. If you look at scurvy, it caused non-healing wounds, bleeding gums, bruising, and overall weakness. You can see these are all effects of weakened soft tissue.

I do not know the relationship of keratin or vitamin C to other kingdoms of life, or the divisions within Animalia.

I also read that some arctic mammals have tissues higher in anti-oxidants than other animals because this keeps their brains and other organs from oxidizing when diving deep in cold water. Or something like that.

Most uncooked meat contains Vit C- however cooking destroys it. The Inuits would hunt caribou, but not to the extent the Amerinds would. However, in any case, caribou are only around a short time each year- thus they are a terrible source of Vit C. But where the Inuit live is not all snow & ice- there are plants in the tundra (but no trees)*, and many contain Vit C. In fact there was some sort of berry that grew in a low-lying bush- that was very tart- used to flavor pemmican, that was likely a good source of C.

Muktuk, made from blubber- was one of my dads great stories. My Grandparents were part of a US Govt version of the “Hudsons Bay Co” for Alaska in the 20’s & 30’s, and my Dad grew up with the Eskimo. He said Muktuk was blubber that was buried in the ground right about the permafrost layer- for months on end. Thus, it would “ripen” without going “bad”. He said the smell was “indescribaly bad” when someone opened a Muktuk cache- and none of the white folks could eat it- but the eskimo ate it “like icecream”.

My dad said that he never saw a Narwal- so it was hardly a general souce of Vit C, at least in Alaska. Seals, hares, walri & the occ small whale (Grey?) were the most common meat sources- and caribou in season. He had an interesting story about a lucky whale hunt, where the whale was killed by guns- and it was a huge & rare occasion for a whale to be killed. Polar bear were left strictly alone- they were very dangerous to folk with harpoons & low powered black-powder guns.
*the trees end at the “taiga”, but Eskimo wander down that far.

Inuit in Northern Canada depended rather heavily on the caribou, especially in the NWT/Nunavut area. Rather less so in the coastal communities. The inukshuks (stone cairns piled roughly into human shape) were erected to help herd the caribou to specific places for slaughter.

I think the impact of berries was drastically underestimated. There are two kinds of cranberry, crowberries, blueberries, and some raspberries, all above treeline in significant amounts. And I’ve heard rosehip tea was a significant part of their diet as well.

However, I get to go to Iqaluit (Frobisher Bay) in a couple 'r three weeks, so I’ll check. :slight_smile:


Well, your intrepid adventurer is definitely having an adventure.

Judging by the number of people with very bad teeth, Vitamin C is not a real high priority.

Traditionally, however, there was indeed a significant amount of berries in the diet (I asked Emily Karetak and Napatchie MacRae, confirmed by a hunter from Pond Inlet named Roger). Caribou stomach stew was greeted with a round of "eeeewwwww"s. If anybody ever ate it, it was dropped immediately upon other foods being available. On the other hand, unborn caribou calf is still quite the delicacy, especially among the elders. Nice and tender on your five teeth, you know.

Meat is still the staple up here. It looks like there is a serious health issue for the Inuit these days, in that they are not eating anywhere near the amount of country food that they used to, but eating a semi-western diet instead. And very meat-heavy at that. Not a lot of vitamin C in a burger and fries, and since an apple is $1 and a candy bar is 75 cents, guess which they eat?

And just for your information, the Frobisher Inn in Iqaluit offers an Arctic Sampler plate, which consists of frozen raw caribou, arctic char, and muktuk. I’d try it out, for the sake of the Straight Dope, but I’m running out of money and that’s too much to spend on something I’m pretty sure I’d think was yucky.