We, the Inuit people, have a different diet because we are people of a cold land. Because we are people of a cold land, wildlife is our main diet. … Right to this day we eat what our forefathers used to eat, food with no price tags on it, food created for us ever since the Earth was created,
so said Martin Martin, Inuk Elder of the Nunatsiavummiut in 1976.1 Eating cannot be considered in isolation from Inuit culture. Martin Martin, explained: "When I was a young man every time I went hunting and came back successful I invited the poor, the less fortunate and the old Inuit to share my kill. After they had eaten they would joke around and tell stories of the past. … I had made my fellow people happy through sharing."1
In the Arctic, food resources are very scarce. When a food resource is identified, every edible part must be consumed. In this article, we will look at some of these foods, though it should also be kept in mind that only a few will be available to any specific community. This is because Inuit communities occupy locations over a tremendous geographical area and climate range.
Rosalina recalls: “I was raised in Arctic Bay (Ikpiarjuk), at the north-west corner of Baffin Island, where the flat-topped King George V Mountain dominates the landscape. It is the third most northerly community in Canada.
I grew up eating raw and cooked Arctic char2 (iqaluk), ringed seal meat (nattiq), narwhal skin (maktaaq), Canada geese (kanguq), polar bear meat (nanuq) and caribou meat (tuktu). I most enjoyed fish and seal eyeballs; they are a special delicacy. Starting from the age of a young toddler, I went camping and hunting around the Arctic Bay area. When we travelled in Winter by snowmobile, we would hunt for seals and fish. I most enjoyed jigging in the springtime when the Arctic char are plentiful and biting.”
In the Summer and Fall, we would hunt for narwhals and a variety of seals such as harped seals, bearded seals, and ringed seals. When we hunted for narwhal, we would ride in a boat and chase them towards the shore, they would get harpooned and shot. For seals, we would wait for their heads to bob up out of the ocean.”
Sea urchins, blue mussels, and edible seaweeds are also part of the Inuit diet, where available.3However, Rosalina comments: “Arctic Bay has the lowest tidal range in Canada, so seaweed, mussel, or sea urchin collecting is not very feasible there.”
Eggs are a significant source of protein, wherever they can be harvested. On the coastal islands of northern Nunatsiavut, seabird eggs could be collected from the precipitous cliffs. By contrast, Rosalina started collecting Canada geese eggs at the age of three by snowmobile. It was a journey of approximately 12-15 hours from Arctic Bay to the nesting sites. She recalls:
We were taught not to gather all the eggs from the nest. We had to leave one or two eggs so that the geese will continue to return North.
Then Rosalina’s family moved to Cambridge Bay (Inuinnaqtun: Iqaluktuuttiaq − Inuktitut: ᐃᖃᓗᒃᑑᑦᑎᐊᖅ). This involved a change in diet, she remembers: “This is where I was introduced to musk-ox meat. The flavour is similar to caribou meat. There were far more caribou closer to the community and my father hunted them a lot and they were our main source of diet.”
Fruit and vegetables in the Arctic
Though fish and animals provide the mainstay of the Inuit diet, Arctic peoples from Greenland to Alaska4 are well aware of the importance of fruit and vegetables in the diet. Much effort goes into harvesting them during the short summer months. For fruit, berries are a dietary component, such as crowberry and cloudberry. Part of the harvested berries are preserved in seal oil for eating in the winter months. Some small contribution of carbohydrate is provided by roots and tubers, such as those of tuberous spring beauty (Claytonia tuberosa) and sweet vetch (Hedysarum alpinum). The roots of sweet vetch taste like young carrots though the Inupiat of Alaska call it wild potato.5 The stems and seeds of cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium) are also a vegetable source.
Rosalina recalls: “I grew up blueberry picking on the mountains around Arctic Bay. Due to the short summers, blueberries were all that grew up there. I love to pick blueberries up to the present. We also picked an abundance of mountain sorrel (Oxyria dygyna – qunguliit). These are red and have green sour leaves which are delicious. I would also eat mountain campion (Silene uralensis arctica); by opening up the flower and eating the rice looking edible plant inside.”
Fat, carbohydrate, and protein
Though Inuit try to obtain as varied a diet as possible, meat and fish are the major food source. Thus, the traditional Inuit diet is mostly protein and fat with minimal carbohydrate. Such a diet, with fats being the major source of energy instead of carbohydrate are called ketogenic diets, as the metabolic pathway produces ketones.6 The Arctic peoples have survived in the north for thousands of years7 on a ketogenic diet by means of genetic adaption.8
Seal blubber (uqsuq)9 and oil is central to the Inuit diet. It is a particularly rich source of the dietary-essential omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and the Inuit metabolism has adapted to benefit from very high concentrations of PUFAs in their foods. Rosalina explains how the oil is extracted and used. “Inuit use a rock or a hammer to extract the oil. My late grandmother (ningiuq) used to use narwhal fat when she made bannock10 ( frybread/ palaugaaq) when we were out camping.”
The arrival of grocery stores in every Inuit community, has resulted in the introduction of large quantities of carbohydrates into the Inuit diet. Bodies attuned to the fat-protein diet are now swamped with carbohydrates: potato chips, hamburger buns, and so on which can be purchased at the stores. Such a dietary change has led to massive increases in high blood pressure, tooth decay, and a hardening of the arteries,11 together with obesity and type-2 diabetes.
Vitamins and minerals
Chemists have analyzed most of the traditional Inuit foods for protein, fat, mineral, and fatty acid content.12 Thus, we can now gain a clear appreciation of the breadth of nutrition in the traditional Inuit diet.
In animals, vitamin A (chemical name: retinol) is stored in the liver. In fact, liver, usually eaten raw, is a main source of vitamin A for Inuit. As can be seen from Fig. 6, vitamin A is totally non-polar except for the one alcohol group on the end. This means that vitamin A is soluble preferentially in fatty tissues where it can accumulate. As a result, it is possible to absorb a toxic level of vitamin A, especially from vitamin A-rich polar bear livers. Inuit are aware of this hazard and are careful not to eat an excess amount.
Liver is also a source of vitamin C (and D). The liver must be eaten raw in order to obtain the vitamin benefits, for vitamin C, in particular, is decomposed upon cooking.13 Berries, raw fish eggs, and raw whale skin (maktaaq/mattak) are also major sources of vitamin C for Inuit. There is no danger from overdose with vitamin C as the small molecule has four alcohol groups (Fig. 7), making it very water-soluble and any excess intake is excreted in urine.
There are two metal ions which are essential to healthy living: zinc and iron. Animal liver is rich in both of these ions, too. Animal blood is another source of iron. The iron in liver and blood is locked within the haemoglobin molecule, known as heme-iron. Heme-iron is readily absorbed by the human digestive process. By contrast, the iron ion in vegetables is comparatively poorly absorbed. This is a particular problem for Inuit women used to a traditional heme-iron rich diet who travel or live in the ‘outside’ world where they can suffer from insufficient iron in their ‘western’ diet, a disease called anaemia.
The traditional foods (TFs) for Inuit are much healthier than the market foods (MFs).14 In a study of young Inuit, those raised more on TFs had higher blood levels of vitamins A and D, iron, magnesium, and zinc, than those raised on MFs.15
The adaptable Inuit
Any new food source is incorporated into the diet. A most interesting case history is that of rhubarb in Nunatsiavut. Among the first settlers on the northern Labrador coast were Christian missionaries of the Moravian sect. They brought with them a passion for gardening and seeds of a range of European vegetables, one of which was rhubarb.16 By 1864, rhubarb was flourishing in Labrador. Rhubarb is now an established part of the diet of the Nunatsiavummiut, and Inuit women there make jams and preserves with it.
The rhubarb of the abandoned community of Okak is important both health-wise and culturally. It has been commented that: “… Okak … is home to some of the most famous rhubarbs legendary for their abundance and size.”17 Many Inuit visit the site of Okak and take Okak rhubarb to their own community. Along with the flourishing rhubarb plant comes the memory of the peoples of Okak, 80 per cent of whom died during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, while the remainder were forcibly resettled elsewhere.
Rhubarb provides an additional source of vitamin C, but it is also an excellent source of vitamin K1 (Fig. 9). Vitamin K1 (chemical name: phylloquinone) is one of a family of structurally similar, fat-soluble vitamins which the human body requires for synthesis of certain proteins.18
The challenges of climate change
Forty years have elapsed since the Inuk Elder, Martin Martin, reflected upon Inuit life, yet his words are as true today as they were then.
We have not lost all our traditions and culture yet. … Our young men [and women] still try to hunt in the traditional ways but they have difficulties because there is less game now. But our young Inuit have not given up trying their best to hunt for wildlife food.1
The stress-level has become even more acute for Inuit women, who are facing dwindling access to TFs and very high cost in the Arctic of air-freighted MFs when trying to feed their families.19
- Martin, M. We, the Inuit, are Changing. Them Days 1976, 2 (2), 56-59.
- Andersen, C.C.; Rayner-Canham, G. Soy Sauce – an Essential Inuit condiment. Chem 13 News, October 2018.
- Wein, E.E. Use and Preference for Traditional Foods among the Belcher Island Inuit. Arctic 1996, 49 (3), 256-264.
- Russell, P.N. Naut’staarpet – Our Plants: A Kodiak Alutiiq Plantlore; Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository, 2017.
- Jones, A. Plants that We Eat, Nauriat Niginaqtuat: From the Traditional Wisdom of the Inupiat Elders of Northwest Alaska; University of Alaska Press, 2010.
- Ludwig, D. S., et al. Dietary Fat: from foe to friend? Science 2018, 362, 764-770.
- Raghavan, M., et al. The Genetic Prehistory of the New World Arctic. Science 2014, 345, 1020.
- Fumagalli, M. et al. Greenlandic Inuit show genetic signatures of diet and climate adaption. Science 2015, 349, 1343-1347.
- Wikipedia. Blubber. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blubber.
- Wikipedia. Bannock (Indigenous American). https://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Bannock_(Indigenous_American).
- DiNiolantonio, J.J.; O’Keefe, J.H. The introduction of refined carbohydrates in the Alaskan Inland Inuit diet may have led to an increase in dental caries, hypertension and atheriosclerosis. Open Heart 2018, 5 (2), 1-3.
- Kuhnlein, H.V., et al., “Macronutrient, mineral and fatty acid composition of Canadian Arctic traditional food,” Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, 2002 15 (5), pages 545-566.
- Fediuk, K., et. al. Vitamin C in Inuit Traditional Food and Women’s Diets. Journal of Food Composition and Women’s Diets 2002, 15 (3), 221-235.
- Kuhnlein, H.V.; Receveur, O. Local cultural animal food contributes high levels of nutrients for Arctic Canadian Indigenous adults and children. Journal of Nutrition 2007, 137 (4), 1110-1114.
- Johnson-Down, L; Egeland, G.M. Adequate nutrient intakes are associated with traditional food consumption in Nunavut Inuit children aged 3-5 years. Journal of Nutrition 2010, 140 (7), 1311-1316.
- Jarvis, D. Moravian Gardens in Labrador. Them Days 2000, 25 (4), 43-45.
- Oberndorfer, E.; Smith, T. Labrador Rhubarbs. Them Days 2018, 42 (1), 5-10.
- Wikipedia. Vitamin K. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin_K.
- Beaumier, M.C.; Ford, J.D. Food Insecurity among Inuit Women exacerbated by socio-economic stresses and climate change. Canadian Journal of Public Health 2010, 101 (3), 196-201.