Goulash – a tasty history (14)

Since the 19th century scientist have been searching for a remedy against scurvy, a nasty disease from which primarily ship’s crews suffered on their long journeys. Since the 18th century it was known that citrus fruit was effective, but what the active substance actually was remained a mystery. In 1907, two Norwegian medics did research on Beriberi, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin B. They gave guinea pigs food consisting exclusively of grains, which contains a lot of vitamin B, after which the animals, to the surprise of the researchers, showed symptoms of scurvy, a disease that until then was detected only in humans (¹) . They further discovered that the symptoms disappeared when they supplemented the diet with fruits and vegetables.

Goulash - a tasty history (14)
Thanks to this discovery, animals could be used in research on scurvy, and in 1927 the Hungarian physician and biochemist Albert Szent-György could from the adrenal glands of animals isolate a substance he called “hexuronic acid”. The substance appeared to be identical to a substance that could cure scurvy, which some years earlier was isolated from lemon juice. It was known as “vitamin C” or “anti-scurvy vitamin”, but the chemistry was still a mystery. In 1932 it was established that Szent-Györgyi’s hexuronic acid was indeed identical to the “vitamin C” from citrus juice. Later that year, Szent-Györgyi discovered that paprika -a common ingredient of his Hungarian diet- is a rich source of hexuronic acid/vitamin C. On the basis of the powder which, in contrast to the adrenal glands of animals- was available in inexhaustible quantities, the exact structure of vitamin C could finally be determined and was the name of Szent-Györgyi’s hexuronic acid changed to ascorbic acid, from a=not and scorbine=scurvy.

Incidentally, after Szent-Györgyi’s discovery further research on peppers has shown that the fruit has more healing powers. For example, it may help to lower the blood pressure, is rich in anti-bacterial components, anti-oxidants that could assist the immune system and could, because of the high content of capsaicin, be beneficial against cancer. It is a stimulant, gives energy, helps keep cholesterol levels under control, is conducive to good digestion and is, because of the high content of carotene, also good for the eyes.

Well, they already knew that in Hungary. Aa early as the 17th century, the powder was used as a medicine, not only against ailments like colds, a weak stomach, rheumatic pains and breathing difficulties, but also against the dreaded “morbus hungaricus”, a highly contagious disease that was later identified as typhus. In 1831, paprika was deployed to fight a cholera epidemic. The records do not disclose whether in the latter two cases it had a real impact, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Even abroad, its healing powers did not go unnoticed. In 1838 Dr. J.F. Osiander, a professor of medicine at Göttingen University, suscribes in his “Volksarzneymittel”, the “tägliche Gewürz der Ungarn” (daily condiment of Hungarians) for stomach disorders such as heartburn, cramps and hiccups. The goulash itself (“The Gulyás-hus of the Hungarians, a powerful national dish, in which bacon, roast beef and peppers play the leading role”) is recommended by the professor as a beneficial drug for impotence. As an extra benefit it is stated that the dish stimulates the wine thirst, and who wouldn’t subscribe to the good doctor’s favourable opinion of the healing powers of the grape? Certainly not the fishermen of the Danube and the Tisza, who since long mix a spoonful of the powder into a glass of hot red wine as a medicine against colds, both for healing and prevention.

(¹) Most animals have, unlike humans, a gene in their DNA, the so-called gulonolactone-oxidase gene, which enables them to make vitamin C. Apart from us, humans, some birds, bats and monkeys miss that gene too, as do guinea pigs, as we have seen.

© 2016, Marcel Wick



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