Brown rice, white rice, wrong rice, right rice

For many people living in first world countries today, and especially in America, health has become a major concern. We all see that despite rising life expectancy, health concerns such as obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and depression are bogging down our people and healthcare system. One reason is that developments in medicine have been aimed at treating symptoms. The curing of the root problems often comes down to a lifestyle change in the departments of diet and exercise. Which no pill can change. We all know this. It’s simple, but difficult to do.

But it’s not only about the amount of food we eat, but the kind of food we eat. The ever-increasing reliance upon quick meals and processed food is a major culprit in the breakdown of our bodies. Most of what we eat lists ingredients we can’t pronounce, much less understand. If simplicity is key, eating foods that you can actually describe makes more sense (or at least that’s what all those Netflix documentaries tell me). I can explain where a tomato comes from, especially when it’s grown in my garden. I have no idea how a Twinkie is made or what’s in it (other than deliciousness with an aftertaste of guilt). I understand an apple, but sausage is a mystery (and should remain that way, as the old saying goes). The less we do to take the nature out of our food, the better it is for us.

As with most things, the idea that natural foods are healthier is not a new concept. We’ve known about this problem for a long time.

In the late 1800s, the Dutch East India Company saw worker after worker stationed in East Asia come down with a similar illness. They grew extraordinarily weak and lost severe amounts of weight. It grew painful for them to move their limbs and some even faced death from heart failure. The disease was called beriberi, meaning “I cannot,” in the native tongue of the region. As the problem persisted, company officials grew concerned and asked Robert Koch, a physician famous for his work with Louis Pasteur on germs, to investigate and find the germ wiping out their workforce. Koch, unable to commit to the length of time such a task could entail, declined but referred a former student of his, Dr. Christian Eijkman, himself Dutch.

In 1886, Eijkman began his research, using methods any other physician would have at that time. Pasteur and Koch’s research served as a guide, and so he began looking for germs. If the beriberi bacteria could be located, it could be eradicated. Armed with a microscope and syringes, Eijkman drew samples of blood, examined perspiration, water, and air. He found nothing.

Eijkman decided to use the chickens found at the worksites as a way to experiment and control variables. He injected them with the blood of infected workers, but to no avail. Suddenly and mysteriously, the chickens began displaying physical symptoms of beriberi. Their wings went limp and they struggled to survive. And soon, without explanation, their symptoms disappeared. Eijkman turned his attention to their diet. Their caretaker was questioned. Typically, the chickens were fed the less-expensive, less flavorful brown rice. But there was an exception. Some chickens had been given leftover rations from the workers which consisted of the polished, or white, rice. The stuff the people ate. Once a superior noticed what was happening, the caretaker was ordered to stop feeding the chickens the white rice, as it was reserved only for people.

Eijkman had found his root problem. Something about the white rice was leaving people sick. The white rice, processed to improve palatability and increase shelf life, was worse for them than the brown counterpart. Further research found that a deficiency of thiamine, which is removed in the creation of white rice from brown, was the cause of beriberi.

It would take years of study to fully understand the role vitamins play in our health. But it all started with this episode. Eijkman, along with Sir Frederick Hopkins, shared the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, both men receiving the prize for their groundbreaking discoveries on vitamins.

So even in the 19th century, we knew that processing our food with a focus on shelf life and flavor was harmful. Sometimes it just takes a while for lessons to sink in. And some never do.

  1. Tiner, J. H. (2006). Exploring the history of medicine: from the ancient physicians of Pharaoh to genetic engineering. Green Forest, AZ: Master Books.
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