Foods of the Enslaved – Nutritional Value Part III by Kevin Downie

Published Monday, 08 February 2016
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Dried beef and fish made up the protein for the enslaved plantation workers. Dried beef yields about half the fat and twice the protein of a similar portion of fresh beef.  The curing process along with the prolonged storage also damaged the beef protein, which unfortunately did not make up for this much loss of complete protein.

Fish was famous for low-fat, high protein concentrations. The problem with fish was that they were normally rancid by the time they reached the cooking pots of the enslaved. The method of barrel curing that was commonly used at the time meant that the product would normally reach the islands in a state of rancidness and foul smelling, however; it wasn’t necessarily inedible.  Rancidity had a devastating impact on the fat-soluble vitamins and slaves that consumed rancid fish or beef would have been severely deficient in vitamin A which was the case of most slaves.


Fat was definitely lacking in slave’s diet because the slave master never supplied them with lard, or those other fats such as coconuts, avocados or other fruits that are high in fat content.  The most fat a slave may have had in their diet would be around 20 grams daily for those who consumed beef and corn and only 3 grams for those who consumed fish and rice.


Vitamin A
Vitamin A and fat ties into each other, fats act as carrier for fat-soluble vitamin A and it is important for the conversion of carotene to vitamin A.


Vitamin B1
Low fat, high-carbohydrate diet accelerated the body’s thiamine requirements. Thiamine is the least stable of the B vitamins and is also vulnerable to the meat and fish preservation processes. Both prolonged dehydration and alkaline solutions would have exerted destructive effects on thiamine.  The cooking process also diminishes the thiamine content in foods although the main method of cooking for slaves was to boil and thiamine is water soluble therefore not all B vitamins were lost. Many slaves whose cereal was rice would have also been deficient because their rice was “polished” which means it was stripped of the husk which contained most of the thiamine.

Vitamin B2 and B3
The enslaved have been deficient in B2 and B3 as with thiamine, as both are vulnerable to cooking losses while drying the beef and salt fish destroys riboflavin by exposing it to the sun light. A dietary lack of riboflavin causes a serious complication, for riboflavin is crucial to the process of converting tryptophan to niacin, therefore; slaves whose diet contained large amounts of corn would have been deficient in niacin because corn inhibits chemical processes required for the human body to make proper use of niacin. This is why most slaves whose diet was surrounded mainly around corn have historic niacin deficiency.


Vitamin C
Enslaved persons had a sufficient amount of vitamin C. but, as with thiamine most of the vitamin C was destroyed due to cooking foods for long periods of time. Record losses of up to 60% or more and even up to 100% sometimes with prolonged cooking are recorded today by scientists.  Oxidation also destroys vitamin C and with the iron pots used by the enslaved, this also would have occurred.


Persons living in the tropics are usually iron deficient, because tropic diets are normally very high in phosphorus. Large amounts of phosphorus hinders the body’s ability to absorb iron.


Calcium & Phosphorus
These two minerals are together because they must be in close relative balance to each other in order for the human body to function at its best. In the enslaved diet they were clearly out of balance. Their diet was too high in phosphorus and very little calcium.  If lactose was present in the slave’s diet, this would have assisted in the uptake of calcium but, this was not the case because slaves never had much access to milk on the plantations.


Mitigating Nutriments
Slaves had access to multiple other foods that would have helped make up for some nutritional loss.  In some islands, slaves used onions in their foods which provided extra calcium and vitamin C to their diet alongside okras and red peppers. Those who had access to coffee and drank some daily, would have added niacin.


Molasses, often issued to sugar-producing regions, was high in calcium and iron.  Horsebeans, kidney beans, pigeon peas and black beans, all which were given to slaves, would have helped contribute to some iron uptake, but most importantly they would have balanced out the incomplete protein in rice and corn. Cassava was also eaten by the enslaved, but was low in protein and those who were forced to depend on cassava would have been barely taking in enough nutrients to sustain life.


Coconuts, avocadoes, paw paw and guava would have helped with the fat intake as well as vitamin A & C, however, it was not usually the norm for slaves on plantations to have these foods in abundance.  The mango and ackee, which is most popular in Jamaica, arrived in the late 18th century as part of the British campaign to add new foods to the islands. The ackee, combined with salt fish is famous in Jamaica while the mango spread across the Caribbean and reached Cuba by 1790.  The Breadfruit was also brought at this time, but was “highly unappreciated” by the enslaved.  Although they rejected the breadfruit it wasn’t a nutritional disaster to them though it was low in almost all nutrients.


In conclusion, the diet of the enslaved African was very poor, lacking greatly in many nutrients and minerals. Due to these nutritional imbalances many slaves suffered and many fell ill to a wide range of diseases such as: Night blindness, Scurvy and Beri-beri.  Poor diet equals poor health, and predisposed the generations following to many of the chronic diseases now suffered, such as hypertension and diabetes. This is now the norm for millions across the New World landscape.

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