Because the original name for niacin was nicotinic acid, various misconceptions about this nutrient have persisted, including among the medical community.

In 1942, a Seventh Day Adventist missionary who might have been a doctor or scientist — H M Walton — explained what nicotinic acid (as it was still referred to at the time) is and why it is healthful.

This is not meant as an endorsement of Seventh Day Adventism, by any means, but Walton does quell the fears that some of his co-religionists had about this natural ingredient in food. It should be noted that Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarians and very much concerned with what they ingest. They also have restrictions on what they can drink, avoiding caffeine and alcohol. They do not smoke, either.

The following is an excerpt of Walton’s article from 1942 which appears in the archives of Ministry magazine, a Seventh Day Adventist publication (italics in the original, emphases in bold mine):

Some have apparently gained misleading impressions from recent press reports to the effect that nicotinic acid is now to be derived from the tobacco plant. Information at hand indicates that individuals have con­cluded from these reports that nicotinic acid is of the nature of nicotine, and therefore undesirable as a product in the “enriched” flour program that has recently been launched —a program that deserves hearty endorsement.

Nicotinic acid is the term given to one of the dietary essentials for complete nutrition. This factor is quite widely distributed in na­ture in various plants and foods, as milk, eggs, wheat germ, and green vegetables, and is also derived from brewers’ yeast. It is produced synthetically for commercial use. Nicotinic acid does not in all respects conform to the nature of a vitamin (it partakes of the nature of a coenzyme) ; yet because of the close rela­tionship which lack of nicotinic acid bears to dietary-deficiency disease, particularly pellagra, it is classed with the vitamins.

The name “nicotinic acid” was attached to this factor because of the fact that it was first isolated during the chemical study of the tobacco plant. However, one is not to be misled by this association, for there is no rela­tionship, as relates to effects and actions in the body, between nicotine and nicotinic acid. In fact, authorities in the field of chemistry and nutrition are proposing that the name “nicotinic acid” be changed.

Today, nicotinic acid is also referred to as niacin or vitamin B3. In addition to Walton’s list, other niacin-rich foods are from the nightshade family, including tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers and goji berries. It can also be found in offal, venison, chicken, beef, tuna, salmon and halibut.

Niacin can produce a mild flushing or tingling sensation from time to time; Thanksgiving dinner often has this effect.

Pellagra NIH.jpgA nicotinic acid — niacin — deficiency can result in pellagra. The man pictured at left (courtesy of Wikipedia) illustrates the ravages it can leave not only on the body (note the skin lesions on his hands) but also on the mind, where it can manifest itself as depression or dementia. Therefore, niacin-rich foods are essential in order to keep pellagra at bay.

It should be noted that B vitamin compounds — including nicotinic acid — are water-soluble. We expel them daily in our urine.

Nonetheless, the association between nicotinic acid and nicotine continues to disturb a number of people. The warm flush effect has also concerned them.

In 1964, S S B Gilder, a physician from Britain’s eminent Medical Research Council (MRC) wrote an article about hygiene in the UK. His article ended with this astonishing paragraph headed ‘Dusting Drugs on the Meat’:

A recent ban in Britain on the application of certain powders to meat with the object of making the latter look more attractive has drawn attention to the light-hearted way in which toxic substances are sometimes dispensed by the laity. A dusting powder in favour in the meat trade of some countries contains a sizeable dose of nicotinic acid and ascorbic acid [vitamin C]. The latter is of course harmless, but nicotinic acid can cause alarming symptoms such as flushing, itching, paresthesiae and faintness, and cases have been reported from a variety of English areas where a number of people have suffered from these symptoms after eating meat. For several years before the ban, meat in Britain had been occasionally dusted with a powder containing at least 6% nicotinic acid to make it more attractive, and it would seem that the ban comes none too soon.

Gilder’s ignorance is breathtaking. Nicotinic acid, as explained above, is not a drug. It is a nutritional compound. In the case of the meat powder he describes, it is probable that either the percentage of nicotinic acid was too high or too much powder was put on the meat. In any event, what he wrote borders on hysteria.

Yet, the nicotinic acid alarm hasn’t ended. A FORCES Tavern link describes the British Medical Association wanting to ban foods containing this nutritious essential. Unfortunately, the link does not work, however, this is what a search engine reveals:

Sep 28, 2009 … permitting the sale of foods that naturally contain nicotine, such as the … Weak acid and aqueous extracts of the teas were analysed in a similar manner. …. The BMA today called for the banning of potatoes after new research …

If true, it is incredible that these men and women have earned medical degrees, when basic science and nutrition that we learned in primary and secondary school seems to have escaped them.

I couldn’t find any articles about the BMA advocating such a ban. Perhaps they have since been scrubbed. I remember that FORCES Tavern were careful to add links to the source article or paper for their news stories.

This article on the nightshade family of foods does not exactly help, either, well-intentioned and informative though it is:

The amount of nicotine in ripe nightshade foods ranges from 2 to 7 micrograms per kg of food. Nicotine is heat-stable, therefore, it is found in prepared foods such as ketchup and French fries.  The health effects of these small doses is not known, but some scientists wonder whether the nicotine content of these foods is why some people describe feeling addicted to them.

No doubt their content of sugar and fat, respectively, is what makes them so delicious.

In closing, it is best to remember H M Walton’s explanation:

The name “nicotinic acid” was attached to this factor because of the fact that it was first isolated during the chemical study of the tobacco plant ... there is no rela­tionship, as relates to effects and actions in the body, between nicotine and nicotinic acid.