Horse meat, while never widely popular, has from time to time been a trendy food. It’s trendiness is not unconnected to its nutritional value. These days, people value it for its iron. Once upon a time, people valued it as a cure for scurvy.

Humans require a specialized diet because unlike most animals, we don’t make our own vitamin C. We’ve got to get the vitamin from somewhere, because if we don’t we get scurvy, which means our gums erupt in sores and our teeth pop out like they’re leaping clear of a burning building. Scurvy has always been the scourge of the military. Today we know what causes scurvy, and we know that we can cure it with a squirt of citrus every now and again. Before lemons and limes were widely available, one of the most famous cures for scurvy was fresh horse meat. This cure was recommended by Dominique-Jean Larrey, a surgeon with Napoleon’s army. When scurvy was running rampant in the army in Egypt, Larrey ordered an infusion of fresh horse meat.

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Horse is not noted for being a major source of vitamin C, but Larrey’s cure worked because what the horse meat lacked in vitamin C it made up for in amino acids. Amino acids in meat help us digest all the vitamin C available, and it’s why many societies that survive primarily on meat don’t get scurvy. Once the army arrived back in France, horse meat became a fashion. It remains a regularly consumed meat today, and today people check the amino acid content of various types of horse meat as part of appraising its nutritional value.

Why did the military stick to limes and lemons instead of staying with meat? Only fresh meat contains the necessary nutrition. Preserved meat can provide people with protein, but not with the necessary amino acids or their vitamin C. For some time, people didn’t understand why, and thought that the loss of meat’s power to cure scurvy was the result of some kind of taint in the preserved meats. It was only later, when food scientists could study the necessary components of food that make their way into the human body, that people understood why fresh horse succeeded at curing scurvy when cured beef didn’t.

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[Source: The Accidental Scientist, by Graeme Donald]

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