A bowl of polenta surrounded by corn and cornmeal
How Italy’s Love Of Polenta Actually Caused Severe Illness Centuries Ago
In the 1800s, polenta left hundreds of Northern Italians sick, and the disease wasn't meat- or dairy-related. The culprit was none other than the corn.
In the 1600s, polenta was especially popular in Piedmont, Veneto, and Lombardy. This polenta dominance forced out other crops like millet, wheat, and rye.
18th-century Northern Italians ate polenta largely because they had to, especially in places where corn was a staple crop. They began developing pellagra en masse.
A hospital in Legnano admitted 124 pellagra sufferers between 1784 and 1787. Caused by a vitamin B3 deficiency, pellagra led to rashes, diarrhea, dementia, and death.
Cases of pellagra continued popping up in Italy until the early 1900s, but the disease largely fell to the past once people gained year-round access to a well-rounded diet.