Seeds and Health

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Our seed foods provide us with many nutritional benefits. To begin with, they’re our most important staple sources of energy and protein, and carry the B vitamins that are required for the chemical work of generating energy and building tissue. In fact, they’re such a good source of these essential nutrients that cultures have occasionally relied on the grains too heavily, and suffered from dietary deficiencies as a result. The debilitating disease called beriberi plagued rice-eating Asia in the 19th century when milling machines made it easier to remove the inconvenient, unattractive outer bran layer from rice grains— and along with it their thiamin, which the rest of the largely vegetarian diet couldn’t make up (meats and fish are rich in thiamin). A different deficiency disease called pellagra struck the rural poor in Europe and the southern United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, when they adopted corn from Central and South America as a staple food, but without the processing method (cooking in alkaline water) that makes its stores of niacin available to the human body.