With sauerkraut, why was scurvy on ships a thing?

Crusaders got scurvy in the 13th century and even by Vasco de Gama’s 1497 trip they knew fruits prevented it. Fresh fruit doesn’t last long on a ship so traders went through tremendous effort to have their crews supplied on little islands along their routs.

But one cup of sauerkraut has more vitamin C than a lime, it’s incredibly easy to make, lasts a long time and is easy to transport.

I get that the German nations didn’t get into the global trade game early like the rest of Europe but not one of those ships had a German cook? With all it’s advantages on a long voyage it’s strange that it wasn’t a common staple on ships no matter their nationality even if it didn’t have any vitamin C, but that it could cure scurvy also and no one noticed seems strange.

It’s hard to pin down cause and effect without doing real experiments. I’ve know people that have had gastrointestinal issues for years and didn’t find out that a particular food they were eating was the cause until they experimented with keeping a food diary and looking for associations.

An experiment was finally conducted:

As to why scurvy could have been an issue after then, according to a Wikipedia article:

Is there really a lot of natural vitamin C in sauerkraut? I always thought it was added, like in plenty of other fruit/vegetable preserves, to prevent oxidation!

I seem to remember learning from some History Channel or PBS program that while they knew fresh fruit prevented it, they didn’t specifically know that it was the vitamin C (they probably didn’t even know what vitamin C was). The Brits, at least, believed it was the acid content of citrus fruit that did it, and therefore stocked their ships with barrels of lime juice, because limes contained the most acid. We now know that oranges would have been better since they contain more vitamin C, but they didn’t know that at the time.

As to why not sauerkraut, it does of course contain acid, I don’t know if it’s more or less acidic than lime juice. Just based on taste I would assume it’s limes that are more acidic, therefore they probably thought limes were better for preventing scurvy. Or maybe they believed it was something specific to fruit, and never considered sauerkraut because it’s not fruit.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1768 that they discovered cabbage in the form of sauerkraut did the trick.

Depends on the brand. Libby’s claims their ingredients are cabbage, water and salt.

A cup of shredded cabbage contains about 25 mg of Vitamin C. Less than 10 mg a day should prevent scurvy.

Moderator Note

Jasmine, please don’t use bold and large fonts in your posts. I’ve noticed you doing this before. It’s distracting and unnecessary. I have edited it out in the previous post and the quote.

General Questions Moderator

This is just hypothesizing but I suspect that there quirks of human history might help to explain why this isn’t quite so simple.

  1. Multinationalism was far less common and the willingness of cultures to mix was also much less common. The Jewish people had enclaves all over Europe. Among the upper classes, it probably wouldn’t be too uncommon to find a person from a foreign nation among their number - diplomats, wealthy people who liked to travel, political marriages, etc. Sometimes you would have foreign mercenaries, like the Swiss, among your military. But, in general, you’re not going to have “your local, friendly, Greek grocer selling kebabs”. Similarly, you’re probably not going to have a random German chef on your ship.

And while I’m not sure exactly what rules there were for cross-cultural cooperation, I could easily conceive of things like Jews and foreigners not being allowed in the military, not being allowed on big ships, etc. Again, I don’t know if that’s true, but I wouldn’t find it surprising if there were such prohibitions.

In terms of Jews, in specific, while I’m sure that German Jews have picked up sauerkraut over time, I wouldn’t expect British nor French Jewish enclaves from the Medieval nor Renaissance era to have sauerkraut. Maybe Jewish homes would have had unleavened flat beads, or some other culinary items different from the populace around them that had come out of the Middle East long before, but that wouldn’t include sauerkraut.

  1. For large, ocean crossing ships or anything else that would be at Sea for extensive lengths, it’s probably not too unlikely that the food supplies would be arranged for by the government or company that owned the ship. The ship’s cook (s) might not have had any or any significant component of diet selection and what to bring on board.

  2. While I’m not sure of the exact numbers, I wouldn’t be surprised if saying that old time sailors had an issue with scurvy is sort of like saying that modern day people who go up above the surface of the Earth have a problem with bone density loss. It conflates two wildly different groups of people, one group who fly on planes and come back to Earth within a few hours, never losing any significant gravitational force and another group who take space ships to space stations, stay there for extended periods, all while under zero effective gravitational force. And, similarly, probably most ships of the time had zero issue with scurvy because they simply weren’t going so far from land nor staying far away for so long that it was an issue.

So you not only have a very low chance of a German chef, that he would be in charge of supplies, but also that he would end up on a ship that could actually experience this issue.

If the Germans, themselves, weren’t ever going out to sea all that far then we wouldn’t expect them to make any discoveries. Similarly, if there was some gene that made Uighurs immune to the bone-loss effects of space, we wouldn’t expect to discover that until a few of them got into space.

  1. If the Germans did discover that they had a secret recipe for distance ocean-going, it wouldn’t be surprising if they tried to keep it secret from everyone else. Trade secrets were a big deal back in the day. If they weren’t using it for conquering Asia and Africa, they might have still used it for something like rushing diplomats and spies around Europe, further and faster than anyone would expect possible. It still would have been useful to preserve as a secret.

Conceivably, they had this knowledge and we simply haven’t discovered any record of it.

  1. The scientific method wasn’t what was being taught in school. If the captain of a ship happened to notice that his crew had been spared from scurvy, even though they’d gotten blown into the middle of the Atlantic and didn’t get back to shore for two months later than they had expected, we probably can’t expect that his brain would jump to “Ahah, we must be doing something in terms of our diet on this ship, different than others, and we should set up a commission to lead scientific studies to isolate the cause.” Rather it might be something more like, “God granted us with his protection even as he made us suffer through those days of hardship.”

As said, no factual answers. But some variety of that might explain what we see.

You’d think the processing of cabbage to make sauerkraut would destroy the vitamin C. Cooking usually does that, for example. But this paper[1] from 1929 of experiments on guinea pigs[2] shows that sauerkraut has about half the vitamin C that cabbage does. However, vitamin C will oxidize over time, so stored sauerkraut will stop being effective[3] after a while. This may have made trials on sea voyages to be less than perfectly effective in preventing scurvy.
[1] I don’t expect anyone to read that paper, Hell, I only read small parts of it, mostly the summary.

[2] Yes, actual guinea pigs. The term guinea pig to mean “experimental subject” comes from these early experiments for vitamin C. Guinea pigs were found to be the only animal that, like humans, doesn’t make vitamin C so they need to get it from their diet. They were the classic animal model of a disease.

[3] To avoid that, the researchers took the sauerkraut from deeper than the surface layer of their barrel.

I read something a long time ago that I’m wondering if it’s true. The sailors didn’t like the taste of sauerkraut and didn’t want to eat it. The navy tricked the sailors into eating it by labelling the barrels “For Officers Only”. Any truth to that? I probably read it in something like “Ripley’s Believe it or Not”, so I don’t know if I should believe it or not.

I’d go with not. Sailors back in the day largely subsisted on hard tack, they’d probably eat anything that moved slower than them.

Onions and potatoes also contain vitamin C.

See Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Dana.

In the early 19th century, the length of the passage around Cape Horn meant that they ran out of fresh food, and were suffering severely from scurvy. Then they met another ship carrying a cargo of potatoes and onions…

Allegedly some of the preserved foods on board were so terrible at times they were repurposed into something else. Like carving a snuffbox out of salt pork. Or tying some bit of shipboard fare onto a line in an attempt to catch something fresh, but apparently sometimes the food was so foul even sharks wouldn’t take a nibble. Add in weavils in the biscuit/flour/hardtack and food on board must have been truly horrible, if not actually inedible, at times.

Sailors were just as picky and habit bound about their food as is any other ordinary person, and some of them would refuse to eat sauerkraut unless directly supervised, under direct orders, even when sick. Just like your spouse or children would do in the same situation.

The English navy carried boiled lime juice because
(1) the Lime producers got the contract,
(2) Lemons had to be imported from a foreign country (see “Military Industrial Complex”)
(3) In the research papers, the South African word “Lime” was used to describe what the Admiralty would call a “Lemon”,
(4) Not understanding the difference between ascorbic acid and acetic acid, they didn’t realize that they were destroying the vitamin C when they heat-treated the limes to extract the goodness and prevent spoilage.

Since they were carrying the “lime juice”, and “lime juice” was the scientifically documented anti-scorbic, they didn’t see the need to carry sauerkraut. Consequently, unlike 'krauts, Limeys continued to get scurvy until the English navy moved from sail to steam.

Which is, I think, also an interesting point. The navy stayed with sail for a long time, because they wanted to be able to stay on station without touching land. Scurvy in the English navy didn’t stop because they understood it: it stopped because steam ships had to make frequent re-fueling stops.

Pretty good: Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentlemen Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail. A lot of it is about how empirical science wasn’t so much of a thing, so the idea of actually measuring the extent to which different foods prevented scurvy was scoffed at and philosophizing about what would prevent scurvy was the order of the day.

Aren’t lime trees somewhat hardier than orange trees, and therefore can grow at higher latitudes and this made lime juice at least slightly easier for the British to obtain?

I don’t think homemade sauerkraut is cooked either, unless it’s canned for long-term preservation, something that probably didn’t happen back in the day; more likely, it would have been salted to preserve it.

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) was not identified for what it really was until 1930, and this discovery led to a Nobel Prize.

No argument they ever knew sauerkraut had vitamin C. My question was based on empiric evidence alone. It’s easy and cheap to make, easy to store for long periods. Everyone knows it’s nutritious. All of these reasons make it a good candidate for a voyage.

Jasmine’s link was perfect, and I thank them for that. It sill remains bizarre to me it took that long, when explorers were crossing distances on oceans and on hostile foreign lands that blow my mind.

That is not what long-haul ship’s crews were like in the days of sail. Picking up crew members in foreign ports was the norm, not unusual.

That sounds suspiciously like the old story about Frederick the Great and potatoes. Which, while it is true that Frederick was obsessed with encouraging potato production, is probably apocryphal.

Sauerkraut IS preserved- preserved cabbage. It’s also already pretty salty. Basically shredded cabbage is mixed with a specific amount of salt, which draws the moisture out of the cabbage to make a brine. Then, with the high salt concentration in place, lactic acid bacteria ferment out the sugars in the cabbage, and leave lactic acid behind.

So you’re left with a pretty salty and pretty acidic product- it’s been pickled in the same way that kosher dill pickles are produced, only with cabbage instead of cucumbers. Most commercial sauerkraut doesn’t totally ferment out the cabbage, but homemade kraut will get more sour over time, and lasts for months since it’s been preserved.

Ultimately though, I think it was a combination of not doing good science until fairly late in the game and identifying what actually prevented scurvy, and sailors not particularly liking sauerkraut versus their standard salt pork and ship’s biscuit.