Redneck: The Word’s History in Nutrition
By Vesanto Melina, MS, RD
I was surprised to learn that the word “redneck” has a nutrition-related origin. More than a century ago, in the Deep South, several factors—poor diet and racial tensions–coincided. A typical diet for poor whites and for black slaves centered on corn, salt pork (fatty bacon), and molasses-flavoured sweets. Corn, pork fatbacks and molasses all are low in the B vitamin niacin.
One significant difference was that slaves often grew produce outside their cabins or in a garden area for their use. Crops could include collard greens, kale, cabbages, spinach, mustard greens, black-eyed peas, turnips, watercress, watermelon, yams, pumpkins, and peanuts. These practices were permitted and encouraged by slave owners. Scientists have long known that many slaves with these diets had surprisingly long lives and good health. In 1850 in Virginia there were more black centenarians than white. After the blacks were freed, they continued their farming practices where they could. A black agriculturalist and professor, George Washington Carver, born at the end of the civil war, actively promoted the inclusion of these highly nutritious foods, and particularly emphasized peanuts.
In the general white population, however, vegetables and beans were not valued. The diets of poor whites centred on corn, pork fatbacks and molasses. The well-known symptoms of niacin deficiency are the 4 D’s: Diarrhea, Dermatitis, Dementia, and Death and the condition is known as pellagra (with Italian origins meaning “sour skin”).
* Diarrhea decreased nutrient absorption and worsened the situation.
* Dermatitis, an early symptom, resulted in red, inflamed skin and blisters around the neck area. It is evident when white people work outdoors and worsens in hot weather.
* Dementia led to people becoming mentally unsound, sometimes violent (to themselves or to others) and committing crimes.
* Death could result from suicide or other acts related to dementia. Niacin is essential to life.
Linguist Sterling Eisiminger, learned from Southerners that the pellagra’s prevalence during the great depression may have contributed to the rise in popularity of the term “redneck”. Red, inflamed skin is one of the first symptoms of that disorder to appear.
At the beginning of the 20th century, thirty thousand cases of pellagra, including twelve thousand deaths, were recorded in South Carolina alone during one decade. Some whites were worse off nutritionally as they relied on refined white flour. In refining, the more nutritious bran and germ had been stripped off and left for blacks.
In retrospect, an era of nutrient deficiency coincided with a time of heightened racial tensions in the south. Poor whites who worked manually outdoors were threatened by the availability of black workers after the civil war. The black workers often had nutritional advantages and were highly motivated to work hard and to educate their children. Though not widely recognized, many freed slaves got college degrees and were moving towards becoming a strong segment of the middle class. Competition over jobs and other economic advantages led to racism that could move into violence, especially when even mild dementia could significantly affect a person’s mental state.
A significant nutritional improvement came in the 1940’s when white flour that was stripped of germ and bran could have three B vitamins, including niacin, plus iron added back, and then be labelled “enriched”. We know today that deficiencies of B vitamins, of vitamin D, of certain minerals, or of omega-3 fatty acids all can lead to mental symptoms such as depression.
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