Bacon! (And health!)

Bacon is fried up in a pan.

The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer got bacon lovers upset with its recent report linking cancer to the consumption of processed meat and red meat. 

One newspaper columnist asked, “What does cancer study mean for Southern eating habits?” And answered: “This sounds like an attack on the Southern way of life. This is our porcine heritage they’re talking about, after all.”

The very same response came 100 years ago when the brilliant physician Joseph Goldberger, working for what would become the National Institutes of Health, linked a southern diet of cornmeal, molasses and fatback (a cut of meat, mostly hard fat, from a pig) to pellagra. Historian Alan M. Kraut explored Goldberger’s many contributions to public health including his work on pellagra in the book Goldberger’s War. Goldberger was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine but didn't win; he got plenty of other prizes, however, and even made the front cover of Real Life Comics. (It’s pretty nifty.)

Pellegra, a condition now known to be caused by a lack of niacin (vitamin B3) or tryptophan in the diet, caused delusions and mental confusion, diarrhea, and scaly red skin sores.

The mortality rate could be as high as 40 percent, and the condition affected thousands. Through a series of dramatic experiments, Goldberger demonstrated that it was not an infectious disease but a dietary one. A preliminary report of his findings appeared 100 years ago, in October of 1915.

Goldberger’s dietary hypothesis about the cause of pellagra did not sit well with many southerners, who saw it as a Jewish Yankee’s criticism of their dietary customs and way of life. Southerners defended their fatback, just as others are now defending their bacon. Yet changes came to the southern diet; people consumed more animal and vegetable protein, and more vegetables and flour began to be fortified with essential B-vitamins. 

Pellagra appeared in the southern United States because sharecroppers grew corn instead of food crops and in tough economic times relied on a 3-M diet: meal (cornmeal) meat (fatback) and molasses. Pellagra continues to be a dietary disease of poverty in some parts of the world, found among food-dependent people – those dependent on an organization for their food – who consume rice as their main food and impoverished maize-dependant people,according to a report from the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Discovering the cause of pellagra led to advice about adding nutrients to the diet. The new report linking cancer to processed meat—one focused on population data and noting that the risk to an individual is relatively small—calls for removing certain foods from the diet or limiting their intake. One hundred years separate the findings about a fatback heavy diet and a bacon heavy diet, but similar conclusions can be drawn from them. Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables, and protein.

Read more about The Public's Health.