“An army travels on its stomach.” — Attributed to Napoleon
Out of all of the innovations of Dominique Jean Larrey (1766-1842), one has yet to be properly appreciated. In his own words, “I have very often, and with the greatest success given horseflesh to our soldiers and the wounded of our armies…[I]t powerfully contributed to the cure and invigoration of the numerous sick and wounded in our hospitals, and likewise aided in the removal of a scorbutic epidemic which seized the whole army.”1 Marvin Harris cynically dismisses this innovation with “ordinary soldiers and civilians must have known that one could live quite healthily on horseflesh…Baron Larrey apparently was not privy to this information.”2 But Harris fills the preceding pages of his book with the reasons horsemeat was not well-regarded in Christian Europe. Pope Gregory III, in 732, instructed missionaries to the Germans to stop the killing and eating of horses. Horse sacrifice had been a part of pagan Nordic ceremonies, and more important, the horse was an instrument of war. Muslim armies invaded Europe and were stopped – also in 732 – at the battle of Tours (Poitiers) by Christian knights mounted on sturdy horses.
The plagues of the fourteenth century reduced the population of Europe by one-third to one-half. Pork, mutton, and beef were then more available to the remaining, smaller population. The invention of the horse collar and the metal-bladed plow made horses too valuable to eat. In the eighteenth century, four royal edicts between 1735 and 1780 stressed the ban on horsemeat, stating that eating horsemeat led to illness. Aristocrats and rich farmers may have worried that a legalization of horsemeat would mean that horses would be stolen for quick slaughter and sale. Larrey banished the taboo on horsemeat consumption in the army. Later, civil society saw no reason that it, too, should not partake of horsemeat.
We may ask if horsemeat is any good from a nutritional and gastronomic point of view. Horsemeat nowadays is eaten by Italians (the most horsemeat per capita), French, Belgians, Swiss, Japanese, and Québécois. It is lean, high in protein, and horses are immune to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease.”3 Horsemeat yields somewhere between 1380 – 1750 kcal per kg,4,5 while beef is about 2500 kcal per kg. A horse carcass gives about 150 kg of usable meat. If each kilogram yields 1380 kcal, the horse carcass contains 207,000 kcal. If each soldier eats 2000 kcal per day, the carcass could feed about 100 soldiers each day. This corresponds to the saying that a horse can feed 100 people for a day.6
It is clear that horsemeat has nutritional value, but Larrey and others7,8 talk about an antiscorbutic effect. Vitamin C, ascorbic acid, is needed for collagen synthesis. After at least one month without vitamin C, signs and symptoms of scurvy begin. Early on, there is weakness, then gum disease followed by tooth loss, poor wound healing, and finally death from infection or bleeding. Horses make their own vitamin C. Humans and guinea pigs, as well as some reptiles and fish, do not. The fresh meat of animals that make their own vitamin C (even when partially cooked) contains enough to alleviate scurvy.
The World Health Organization states that an adult needs 45 mg per day of vitamin C. The US National Academy of Sciences advises 75 mg per day for an adult woman and 90 mg per day for an adult man.9 The vitamin C content in 1 kg of horsemeat has been variably reported as “not detected,”10 10 mg,11 and 20 mg.12 Even 10 mg per day, if given consistently, will cure scurvy.13 Thus, if nothing else is available, fresh horsemeat will provide adequate calories, protein, and vitamin C.
- A. Rural. “Hippophagy; or should we eat our horses,” In Contributions to Natural History, Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1865.
- Marvin Harris. “Hippophagy,” In The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
- Hrayr Berberoglu. “Horsemeat. Food facts and history,” ND foodreference.com.
- Chong-Eon Lee, Pil-Nam Seong, Woon-Young Oh, et.al. “Nutritional characteristics of horsemeat in comparison with those of beef and pork,” Nut Res Pract, 1(1), 2007.
- Horsemeat. Wikipedia.
- NA. “Ancient history. How much food value is a horse to a cavalryman?” 2014. history.stackexchange.com.
- Béraud. “Études Hygiéniques de la Chair de Cheval comme Aliment,” Musée des Familles (1841 -42).
- Scurvy. Wikipedia.
- Scurvy. Wikipedia.
- Lee. “Nutritional characteristics.”
- NA. “Nutrition Facts. Game meat, horse, raw, 1lb. Health Encyclopedia.” University of Rochester Medical Center, 2021.
- NA. “Horsemeat Nutrition Facts,” 2021. fitaudit.com.
- Scurvy. Wikipedia.
HOWARD FISCHER, MD was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.