Giving Thanks To the B-Vitamin Niacin
It seems like the only nutrition-related topic in the news this week is Thanksgiving, and rightfully so! We’ve all heard the story about how the tryptophan in turkey makes us sleepy because it supports the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is involved in the brain’s regulation of sleep. But did you know that tryptophan can actually be used to produce the B-vitamin niacin in the body?
The B-vitamin niacin plays an important role in supporting the body’s conversion of food into energy – particularly important during those gigantic turkey and mashed potato filled Thanksgiving feasts. Niacin also plays important roles in blood lipid regulation and DNA repair, among others. And when you don’t get enough Niacin in your diet, the resulting deficiency disease is known as Pellagra.
In 2014, Pellagra incidence is (thankfully) quite rare in the US However, in the late 1920’s, pellagra was actually the 8th leading cause of death in the United States, particularly impacting those in Southern United States (FYI – the modern day 8th leading cause of death in the United States is influenza and pnemonia).
In the 1930’s, it was discovered that the B-vitamin niacin, present in high amounts in animal foods, nuts, and even beer, could treat and prevent pellagra. Soon after, voluntary enrichment of bread began, and Pellagra incidence and mortality decreased dramatically. Within just 20 years, pellagra was virtually eradicated in the United States thanks to food fortification.
Currently, nationally representative dietary surveys show that niacin intakes are, on average, more than adequate on the population level, and this might make one wonder why we continue to fortify with this nutrient. We have to remember that the reason niacin intakes are so good is because of the impact of food fortification practices. Time and time again, food fortification has proven to be one of the most effective public health measures in history, and niacin is the perfect example of this.
So on Thursday when that one wacky relative brings up the story of how tryptophan makes you sleepy during dinner, you can remind them about how tryptophan is also used to make niacin – an important B-vitamin that demonstrates both the need and efficacy of food fortification.
Park YK, Sempos CT, Barton CN, et al. Effectiveness of food fortification in the United States: the case of pellagra. Am J Public Health 2000; 90(5): 727-38.
Fulgoni VL 3rd, Keast DR, Bailey RL, Dwyer J. Foods, fortificants, and supplements: Where do Americans get their nutrients? J Nutr 2011; 141(10): 1847-1854.