While reading about age of sail, I've read about scurvy and how it was 'cured' by 'acidity' of citrus. It come to my mind - why didn't they try to use sauerkraut? It seems that it should be more familiar to Europeans then some exotic fruit and more available. While it doesn't contain as much Vitamin C as lemons or limes it should be sufficient to prevent at least part of problems. And it was 'acidic' which should allow the 18 c. doctors to make the connection. Finally it was easy to transport and, by design, long-lasting.


2 Answers 2


The problem was that during the 18th Century, they didn't know that scurvy was caused by lack of Vitamin C (mainly because they didn't know what vitamins were). Therefore, they didn't go looking for foods that were rich in Vitamin C to cure it. It should also be noted that there was no clear relationship between a food's acidity and its Vitamin C content.

Much of the credit for curing scurvy is given to James Lind, who published "a Treatise on the Scurvy" in 1753 (in three parts). Lind was a doctor whose initial experiments on the causes and cures of scurvy were performed on 12 men of the Salisbury. These experiments seemed to suggest that the cure was the use of fresh fruit and vegetables. He later continued his experiments and released later editions of his treatise while attached to the Royal Naval hospital at Haslar. The Royal Navy only appeared to accept his findings some forty years later and finally add a citrus ration to the ship's victuals in 1795.

However, it's not that clear cut. Credit for linking vegetables to curing scurvy should actually be given to Johannes Bachstrom (whose work Lind did reference in his Treatise), who had concluded that scurvy "is totally owing to a total abstinence from fresh vegetable food, and greens; which alone is the primary cause of the disease".

However, Lind complicated matters by later in his treatise seemingly dismissing Bachstrom's conclusion by stating that people could remain free from scurvy while eating few green vegetables. Lind also mentioned other possible cures in his writings, especially the idea that exposure to dry, fresh air would cure scurvy, which meant that his conclusions on the causes and cures were not clear. It was probably that lack of a clear conclusion that prevented his work being widely accepted and, in part, delayed the Royal Navy adding vitamin C (even if they didn't realise that was what they were doing) to the daily rations.

Once the link between health and a diet of fruit and vegetables was accepted, Naval captains were required to supply their men with these foods. The actual mix of fresh fruit and vegetables would vary depending on where that ship was in service. Citrus fruit, primarily lemons and limes, was the most common but this was supplemented by locally available foods, which did include sauerkraut on occasion. Also James Cook had carried sauerkraut on his voyages, even before the relationship of fresh food to scurvy was established.

The Health of Seamen, ed. Christopher Lloyd, Naval Records Society vol 107, 1965  
James Lind and Scurvy: A revaluation, Michael Bartholomew, Journal of Maritime Research 4:1, 1-14, 2002  
Feeding Nelson's Navy, Janet MacDonald, Chatham, 2014
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    The question was about sauerkraut in particular as a cure for scurvy. This answer poses a false "problem" - people didn't realize that scurvy was cured by vitamin C - which applies to citrus as well. The question is not why people went for years without using sauerkraut, but rather, once people realized to use one or the other, why not prefer sauerkraut for its long shelf-life. Or is it not the case that sauerkraut lasts longer than limes? Commented Feb 4, 2021 at 6:52
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    People thought it was "fresh vegetables and fruits" and thus didn't consider pickled/fermented/dried/preserved vegetables and fruits. Commented Apr 15 at 19:24
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    @Metamorphic This answer is trying to tell you that people did not realize it was one or the other. Commented Apr 17 at 9:54

I wondered this too.

I'm reading 'below the convergence' about sea exploration - they did try sauerkraut on several voyages - but I guess they just didn't use enough of it as it did not cure the scurvy problem for them.

Sauerkraut contains an appreciable amount of vitamin C (15-35 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 grams), but lemons contain more (53 mg of vitamin C per 100 g)

Back of an envelope calculations - So to get your full daily allowance of Vitamin C from lemon juice you need the juice of 2 lemons - to get your full daily allowance from sauerkraut you would need to eat between 300g and 600g - that is a lot of sauerkraut - which is more often used in smaller quantities on the plate.

It's sad - if they had known to just eat a bigger portion of sauerkraut :(

I read the book 'Ascorbate' and it covered Lind's story. The experiments and conclusions were very clear - but much to Lind's frustration the Royal Navy would not follow his recommendations. Some speculate that a since a dead seaman did not need wages and new crew could be picked up at the destination there may have been some financial considerations at play - certainly it was decades before Lind's very simple and repeatable experiments - and their conclusions were embraced by the Navy.

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    In the period around Lind's experiments, experience seamen were in great demand and in short supply. I'm not sure that your assertion that "new crew could be picked up at the destination" would be true.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Apr 9 at 21:16
  • Yes I wondered that too - I'm no expert - it's just what I read - certainly it was years before his recommendations were actioned by the Royal Navy. Commented Apr 9 at 21:23
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    (1) How much sauerkraut would be needed for a typical voyage of a typical RN ship in time of war? Is this a large amount by the standards of other ship food supplies? (2) Was sauerkraut a normal part of the British diet? Would it be difficult to get crews to each each a pound+ of sauerkraut every day? (Yum!)
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Apr 9 at 23:31
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    James Cook reported supplying a pound of sauerkraut twice a week to each sailor. That's ~1800g per week, which may not be enough on its own to prevent scurvy, but apparently worked when combined with "fresh vegetables", and "lemons and oranges" history.stackexchange.com/questions/62669/…
    – Juhasz
    Commented Apr 15 at 18:56

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