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Sweet Truth and Strange History

Updated: Jun 4


18th Century Ship sails below watch in sky

Longitude, Time, Scurvy, Fermentation, Your Gut Biome, ...and Sauerkraut?


Bear with me, this may seem far flung and impossible, but these things really do have a connection. Let’s start with Longitude. It’s the thread that stitches this all together.  Longitude lines are the imaginary lines from north to south we use to dice up the Earth like orange slices.  


On land, we can pick fixed landmarks to find our location, but the open ocean, which comprises most of the Earth’s surface… not so much.  Determining a ship’s longitude well enough to navigate safely  was one of the biggest challenges of 18th century seafaring. It was such a challenge that the British Parliament issued the Longitude Act of 1714, which offered substantial rewards for solutions to the problem.  The crux was keeping accurate track of time on a ship so that you could match your sextant reading of the sun or a star with the time of day.


The mechanical clockworks of that era would not work correctly on a pitching ship; they had to be stationary. That quest for a solution in itself is an epic story beautifully documented in the book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. John Harrison is the genius in the title, it took him decades to build his seaworthy timepiece and collect the funds from the Longitude Act in 1773.


Longitude may be the unexpected common thread, but time is the essence of this post and we do often hear it said that time is OF  the essence.  It’s especially true in health and nutrition.  The biggest problem the 17th and 18th century seafarers had was being lost at sea because they just could not accurately navigate the open oceans, but the next biggest challenge was taking sufficient food on board for what were subsequently months long journeys.  


Insufficient vitamin C for long periods was the cause of scurvy, a terrible condition that sapped victims of strength, caused bleeding gums and the loss of teeth.  It could even lead to death.  Citrus fruit, a great source of vitamin C, would rot on a long journey. With no refrigeration and the constant battle to keep seawater and rodents out of food, making supplies last was a challenge.  It seemed there was nothing they could do.


A jar of gut-healthy sauerkraut

Enter our good friend, fermentation. 


Evidence for food fermentation goes back as far as 7000 BC in China.  Not only does fermentation stabilize and preserve food, in recent years traditional and non traditional health care providers have begun to realize the value of the flora present in fermented foods as a way to boost and recharge our own gut bacteria.  The gut biome is increasingly a hot topic of study as a key to good health.


The sweet truth is that sauerkraut is a rockstar of the fermented world.  As it would happen, it rescued the 18th century sailors from scurvy by delivering a durable source of vitamin C!  But, it delivers more than that single nutrient.  Like other fermented foods (think real pickles!), it comes with a thriving community of good bacteria that give our gut biome a healthy recharge.  You do want sauerkraut that has not been canned or heated to get that good bacterial recharge, so shop for that bag or jar of kraut in the refrigerator section of your favorite store. Look for salt on the label, not vinegar, to make sure this is truly a ‘rock star,’ not a pickled imitation.


If you'd like more on the topic of fermented food and your biome, please get in touch.


To your good health - Gesundheit!

Dr. Bettina

Dr. Bettina Herbert








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