Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/April 1885/The Chemistry of Cookery XXII

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944135Popular Science Monthly Volume 26 April 1885 — The Chemistry of Cookery XXII1885William Mattieu Williams




IN the course of these papers I have repeatedly spoken of the nitrogenous and non-nitrogenous constituents of food, assuming that the nitrogenous are the most nutritious, are the plastic or flesh-building materials; and that the non-nitrogenous materials can not build up flesh or bone or nervous matter, can only supply the material of fat, and by their combustion maintain the animal heat.

In doing so I have been treading on loose ground—I may say, on a scientific quicksand. When I first taught practical physiology to children in Edinburgh, many years ago, this part of the subject was much easier to teach than now. The simple and elegant theory of Liebig was then generally accepted, and appeared quite sound.

According to this, every muscular effort is performed at the expense of muscular tissue; every mental effort, at the expense of cerebral tissue; and so on with all the forces of life. This consumption or degradation of tissue demands continual supplies of food for its renewal, and, as all the working organs of the animal are composed of nitrogenous tissue, it is clearly necessary, according to this, that we should be supplied with nitrogenous food to renew them, seeing that the nitrogen of the air can not be assimilated by animals at all.

But, besides doing mechanical and mental work, the animal body is continually giving out heat, and its temperature must be maintained. Food is also demanded for this, and the non-nitrogenous food is the most readily combustible, especially the hydrocarbons, or fats; the carbo-hydrates—starch, sugar, etc.—also, but in lower degree. These? then, were described as fuel-food, or heat-producers.

This view is strongly confirmed by a multitude of familiar facts. Men, horses, and other animals can not do continuous hard work without a supply of nitrogenous food; the harder the work the more they require, and the greater becomes their craving for it. On the other hand, when such food is eaten in large quantities by idle people, they become victims of inflammatory disease, or their health otherwise suffers, according, probably, to whether they assimilate or reject it.

Man is a cosmopolitan as well as an omnivorous animal, and the variation of his natural demand for food in different climates affords very direct support to Liebig's theory. Enormous quantities of hydrocarbon, in the form of fat, are consumed by the Esquimaux and by Europeans when they winter in the Arctic regions. They can not live there without it. In hot climates some fuel-food is required, and the milder form of carbo-hydrates is chosen, and found to be most suitable; rice, which is mainly composed of starch, is an example. Sugar, also. Offer an Esquimau a tallow-candle and a rice-pudding, he will reject the latter, and eat the former with great relish.

A multitude of other facts might be stated, all supporting Liebig's theory.

There is one that just occurs to me as I write, which I will state, as it appears to have been hitherto unnoticed. Some organs which act in such wise that we can see their mode of action are visibly disintegrated and consumed by their own activity, and may be seen to demand the perpetual renewal described by Liebig. There are certain glands of cellular structure which cast off their terminal cells containing the fluid they secrete; do their work by giving up their own structural substance at their peripheral working surface.

Where, then, is the quicksand? It is here. If muscular and mental work were done at the expense of the nitrogenous muscular and cerebral tissues, the quantity of nitrogen excreted should vary with the amount of work done. This was formerly stated to be the case without hesitation, as the following passage from Carpenter's "Manual of Physiology" (third edition, 1856, page 256) shows: "Every action of the nervous and muscular systems involves the death and decay of a certain amount of the living tissue—as is indicated by the appearance of the products of that decay in the excretions."

More recent experiments by Fick and Wislicenus, Parkes, Houghton, Ranke, Voit, Flint, and others, contradict this by showing that the waste nitrogen varies with the quantity of nitrogenous food that is eaten, but not with the muscular work done. For the details of these experiments I must refer the reader to standard modern physiological treatises, as a description of them would carry me too far away from my immediate subject. (Dr. Pavy's "Treatise on Food" has an introductory chapter on "The Dynamic Relations of Food," in which this subject is clearly treated in sufficient detail for popular reading.)

It is quite the fashion now to rely upon these later experiments; but, for my own part, I am by no means satisfied with them—and for this reason, that the perspiration from the skin and the vapor from the lungs were not examined. It is just these which are greatly increased by exercise, and their quantity is very large, especially those from the skin, which are threefold, viz., the insensible perspiration, which is transpired by the skin as invisible vapor; the sweat, which is liquid; and the solid particles of exuded cuticle.

Lavoisier and Seguin long ago made very laborious experiments upon themselves in order to determine the amount of the insensible perspiration. Seguin inclosed himself in a bag of glazed taffeta, which was tied over him with no other opening than a hole corresponding to his mouth; the edges of this hole were glued to his lips with a mixture of turpentine and pitch. He carefully weighed himself and the bag before and after his inclosure therein. His own loss of weight being partly from the lungs and partly from the skin, the amount gained by the bag represented the quantity of the latter; the difference between this and the loss of his own weight gave the amount exhaled from the lungs.

He thus found that the largest quantity of insensible exhalation from the lungs and skin together amounted to three and a half ounces per hour, or five and a quarter pounds per day. The smallest quantity was one pound fourteen ounces, and the mean was three pounds eleven ounces. Three fourths of this was cutaneous.

These figures only show the quantity of insensible perspiration during repose. Valentin found that his hourly loss by cutaneous exhalation while sitting amounted to 32·8 grammes, or rather less than one and a quarter ounce. On taking exercise, with an empty stomach, in the sun, the hourly loss increased to 89·3 grammes, or nearly three times as much. After a meal followed by violent exercise, with the temperature of the air at 72° Fahr., it amounted to 132·7 grammes, or nearly four and a half times as much as during repose. A robust man, taking violent exercise in hot weather, may give off as much as five pounds in an hour.

The third excretion from the skin, the epithelial or superficial scales of the epidermis, is small in weight, but it is solid, and of similar composition to gelatine. It should be understood that this increases largely with exercise. The practice of sponging and "rubbing down" of athletes removes the excess; but I am not aware of any attempt that has been made to determine the quantity thus removed.

Does the skin excrete nitrogenous matter that may be, like urea, a product of the degradation or destruction of muscular tissue?

The following passage from Lehmann's "Physiological Chemistry," vol. ii, page 389, shows that the skin picks up plenty of nitrogen from somewhere: "It has been shown by the experiments of Milly, Jurine, Ingenhouss, Spallanzani, Abernethy, Barruel, and Collard di Martigny, that gases, and especially carbonic acid and nitrogen, are likewise exhaled with the liquid secretion of the sudoriparous glands. According to the last-named experimentalist, the ratio between these two gases is very variable; thus, in the gas developed after vegetable food, there is a preponderance of carbonic acid, and, after animal food, there is an excess of nitrogen. Abernethy found that on an average the collective gas contained rather more than two thirds of carbonic acid and rather less than one third of nitrogen." But it appears that less gas is exhaled when there is much liquid perspiration.

Lehmann's summary of the experiments of Abernethy, Brunner, and Valentin (vol. ii, page 391), gives the amount of hourly exudation, under ordinary circumstances, as 50·71 grammes of water, 0·25 of a gramme of carbon, and 0·92 of a gramme of nitrogen. This amounts to twenty-one and a half grammes of nitrogen per day in the insensible perspiration; three quarters of an ounce avoirdupois, or as much nitrogen as is contained in four and a half ounces of dried muscle, or more than one pound of natural living muscle.

That the liquid perspiration contains compounds of nitrogen, and just such compounds as would result from the degradation of nitrogenous tissue, is unquestionable. As Lehmann says (vol. ii, page 389), "the sweat very easily decomposes, and gives rise to the secondary formation of ammonia." Simon and Berzelius found salts of ammonia in the sweat; that the ammonia is combined both with hydrochloric acid and with organic acids; that it probably exists as carbonate of ammonia in alkaline sweat.

The existence of urea in sweat appears to be uncertain; some chemists assert its presence, others deny it. Favre and Schottin, for example, who have both studied the subject very carefully, are at direct variance. I suspect that both are right, as its presence or absence is variable, and appears to depend on the condition of the subject of the experiment.

Favre describes a special nitrogenous acid which he discovered in sweat, and names it hydrotic or sudoric acid. Its composition corresponds, according to his analysis, to the formula C10H8NO13.

I have summarized these facts, as they show clearly enough that conclusions based on an examination of the quantity of nitrogen excreted by the kidneys alone (and such is the sole basis of the modern theories) are of little or no value in determining whether or not muscular work is accompanied with degradation of muscular tissue. The well-known fact that the total quantity of excretory work done by the skin increases with muscular work, while that from the kidneys rather diminishes, indicates in the plainest possible manner that an examination of the skin secretion should be primary in connection with this question.

Seeing that this has been entirely neglected, I am justified in expressing, very plainly and positively, my opinion of the worthlessness of all the modern research upon which the alleged refutation of Liebig's theory of the destruction and renewal of living tissue in the performance of vital work is based, and my rejection of the modern alternative hypothesis concerning the manner in which food supplies the material demanded for muscular and mental work.

I may be accused of rashness and presumption in thus standing almost, if not quite, alone in opposition to the overwhelming current of modern scientific progress. Such, however, is not the case. It is modern scientific fashion, rather than scientific progress, that I oppose. We have too much of this millinery spirit in the scientific world just now; too much eagerness to run after "the last thing out," and assume, with undue readiness, that the "latest researches" are, of course, the best—especially where fashionable physicians are concerned.


In my last I summarized Liebig's theory of the source of vital power, and its supposed refutation by modern experiments, but had not space to state the substituted theory. I will now endeavor to do so, though not without difficulty, nor with satisfactory result, seeing that the recent theorists are vague and self-contradictory. All agree that vital power or liberated force is obtained at the expense of some kind of chemical action of a destructive or oxidizing character, and is, therefore, theoretically analogous to the source of power in a steam engine; but, when they come to the practical question of the demand for working fuel or food, they abandon this analogy.

Pavy says ("Treatise on Food and Dietetics," page 6): "In the liberation of actual force, a complete analogy may be traced between the animal system and a steam-engine. Both are media for the conversion of latent into actual force. In the animal system, combustible material is supplied under the form of the various kinds of food, and oxygen is taken in for the process of respiration. From the chemical energy due to the combination of these, force is liberated in an active state; and besides manifesting itself as heat, and in other ways peculiar to the animal system, is capable of performing mechanical work." In another place (page 59 of the same work), after describing Liebig's view, Dr. Pavy says: "The facts which have been already adduced (those described in my last paper) suffice to refute this doctrine. Indeed, it may be considered as abundantly proved that food does not require to become organized tissue before it can be rendered available for force-production." On page 81 he says: "While nitrogenous matter may be regarded as forming the essential basis of structures possessing active or living properties, the non-nitrogenous principles may he looked upon as supplying the source of power. The one may be spoken of as holding the position of the instrument of action, while the other supplies the motive power. Nitrogenous alimentary-matter may, it is true, by oxidation, contribute to the generation of the moving force, but, as has been explained, in fulfilling this office there is evidence before us to show that it is split up into two distinct portions, one containing the nitrogen which is eliminated as useless, and a residuary non-nitrogenous portion which is retained and utilized in force-production."

The italics are mine, for reasons presently to be explained. The following pages of Pavy's work contain repetitions and illustrations of this attribution of the origin of force to the non-nitrogenous elements of food.

Then we have a statement of the experiments of Joule on the mechanical equivalent of heat, connected with experiments of Frankland with the apparatus that is used for determining the calorific value of coal, etc., viz., a little tubular furnace charged with a mixture of the combustible to be tested, and chlorate of potash (better a mixture of chlorate and nitrate). This being placed in a tube, open below, and thrust under water, is fired, and gives out all its heat to the surrounding liquid, the rise of temperature of which measures the calorific value of the substance.

From this result is calculated the mechanical work obtainable from a given quantity of different food-materials. That from a gramme is given as follows:

Beef-fat 27,778 Units of work, or number of
pounds lifted one foot.
Starch (arrow-root) 11,983
Lump-sugar 10,254
Grape-sugar 10,038

In Dr. Edward Smith's treatise on "Food," the foot-pound equivalent of each kind of food is specifically stated in such a manner as to lead the student to conclude that this represents its actual working efficiency as food. Other modern writers represent it in like manner.

Here, then, comes the bearing of these theories on my subject. A practical dietary or menu is demanded, say, for navvies or for athletes in full work; another for sedentary people doing little work of any kind.

According to the new theory, the best possible food for the first class is fat, butter being superior to lean beef in the proportion of 14,421 to 2,829 (Smith), beef-fat having nearly eight times the value of lean beef. Ten grains of rice give 7,454 foot-pounds of working power, while the same quantity of lean beef only 2,829; according to which one pound of rice should supply as much support to hard workers as two and one half pounds of beefsteak. None of the modern theorists dare to be consistent when dealing with such direct practical applications.

I might quote a multitude of other palpable inconsistencies of the theory, which is so slippery that it can not be firmly grasped. Thus, Dr. Pavy (page 403), immediately after describing bacon-fat as "the most efficient kind of force-producing material," and stating that "the non-nitrogenous alimentary principles appear to possess a higher dietetic value than the nitrogenous," tells us that "the performance of work may be looked upon as necessitating a proportionate supply of nitrogenous alimentary matter," his reason for this admission being that such nitrogenous material is required for the nutrition of the muscles themselves.

A pretty tissue of inconsistencies is thus supplied! Non-nitrogenous food is the best force-producer—it corresponds to the fuel of the steam engine; the nitrogenous is necessary only to repair the machine. Nevertheless, when force-production is specially demanded, the food required is not the force-producer, but the special builder of muscles, the which muscles are not used up and renewed in doing the work.

It must be remembered that the whole of this modern theoretical fabric is built upon the experiments which are supposed to show that there is no more elimination of nitrogenous matter during hard work than during rest. Yet we are told that "the performance of work may be looked upon as necessitating a proportionate supply of nitrogenous alimentary matter," and that such material "is split up into two distinct portions, one containing the nitrogen, which is eliminated as useless." This thesis is proved by experiments showing (as asserted) that such elimination is not so proportioned.

In short, the modern theory presents us with the following pretty paradox: The consumption of nitrogenous food is proportionate to work done. The elimination of nitrogen is not proportionate to work done. The elimination of nitrogen is proportionate to the consumption of nitrogenous food.

I have tried hard to obtain a rational physiological view of the modern theory. When its advocates compare our food to the fuel of an engine, and maintain that its combustion directly supplies the moving power, what do they mean?

They can not suppose that the food is thus oxidized as food; yet such is implied. The work can not be done in the stomach, nor in the intestinal canal, nor in the mesenteric glands or their outlet, the thoracic duct. After leaving this, the food becomes organized living material, the blood being such. The question, therefore, as between the new theory and that of Liebig must be whether work is effected by the combustion of the blood itself, or the degradation of the working tissues, which are fed and renewed by the blood. Although this is so obviously the true physiological question, I have not found it thus stated.

Such being the case, the supposed analogy to the steam-engine breaks down altogether; in either case, the food is assimilated, is converted into the living material of the animal itself before it does any work, and therefore it must be the wear and tear of the machine itself which supplies the working-power, and not that of the food as mere fuel-material shoveled directly into the animal furnace.

I therefore agree with Playfair, who says that the modern theory involves a "false analogy of the animal body to a steam-engine," and that "incessant transformation of the acting parts of the animal machine forms the condition for its action, while in the case of the steam-engine it is the transformation of fuel external to the machine which causes it to move." Pavy says that "Dr. Playfair, in these utterances, must be regarded as writing behind the time." He may be behind as regards the fashion, but I think he is in advance as regards the truth.

My readers, therefore, need not be ashamed of clinging to the old-fashioned belief that their own bodies are alive throughout, and perform all the operations of working, feeling, thinking, etc., by virtue of their own inherent, self-contained vitality, and that in doing this they consume their own substance, which has to be perpetually replaced by new material, the quality of which depends upon the manner of working, and the matter and manner of replacement. We may thus, according to our own daily conduct, be building up a better body and a better mind, or one that shall be worse than the fair promise of the original germ. The course of our own evolution depends upon ourselves, and primarily upon the knowledge of our own physical and moral constitution, and their relations to the external world. Of such knowledge even the humble element supplied by "The Chemistry of Cookery" is one that can not be safely neglected.—Knowledge.