Among foods that inspire a cult-like following, pork often leads the pack, as evidenced by the 65% of Americans eager to name bacon the country’s national food.
Unfortunately, that popularity comes at a cost. Along with being the most commonly consumed meat in the world, pork may also be one of the most dangerous, carrying some important and under-discussed risks that any consumer should be aware of.
1. Hepatitis E
Thanks to the revival of nose-to-tail eating, offal has redeemed itself among health enthusiasts, especially liver, which is prized for its vitamin A content and massive mineral lineup.
But when it comes to pork, liver might be risky business.
In developed nations, pork liver is the top food-based transmitter of hepatitis E, a virus that infects 20 million people each year and can lead to acute illness (fever, fatigue, jaundice, vomiting, joint pain and stomach pain), enlarged liver and sometimes liver failure and death.
Most hepatitis E cases are stealthily symptom-free, but pregnant women can experience violent reactions to the virus, including fulminant hepatitis (rapid-onset liver failure) and a high risk of both maternal and fetal mortality. In fact, mothers who get infected during their third trimester face a death rate of up to 25%.
In rare cases, hepatitis E infection can lead to myocarditis (an inflammatory heart disease), acute pancreatitis (painful inflammation of the pancreas), neurological problems (including Guillain-Barré syndrome and neuralgic amyotrophy), blood disorders and musculoskeletal problems, such as elevated creatine phosphokinase, indicating muscle damage, and multi-joint pain (in the form of polyarthralgia).
People with compromised immune systems, including organ transplant recipients on immunosuppressive therapy and people with HIV, are more likely to suffer from these severe hepatitis E complications.
So, just how alarming are pork’s contamination stats? In America, about 1 out of every 10 store-bought pig livers tests positive for hepatitis E, which is slightly higher than the 1 in 15 rate in the Netherlands and 1 in 20 rate in the Czech Republic. One study in Germany found that about 1 in 5 pork sausages were contaminated.
France’s traditional figatellu, a pig liver sausage that’s often consumed raw, is a confirmed hepatitis E carrier. In fact, in regions of France where raw or rare pork is a common delicacy, over half the local population shows evidence of hepatitis E infection.
Japan, too, is facing rising hepatitis E concerns as pork gains popularity. And in the UK? Hepatitis E shows up in pork sausages, in pork liver and at pork slaughterhouses, indicating the potential for widespread exposure among pork consumers.
It might be tempting to blame the hepatitis E endemic on commercial farming practices, but in the case of the pig, wilder doesn’t mean safer. Hunted boars, too, are frequent hepatitis E carriers, capable of passing on the virus to game-eating humans.
Apart from total pork abstinence, the best way to slash hepatitis E risk is in the kitchen. This stubborn virus can survive the temperatures of rare-cooked meat, making high heat the best weapon against infection. For virus deactivation, cooking pork products for at least 20 minutes to an internal temperature of 71°C (160°F) seems to do the trick.
However, fat can protect hepatitis viruses from heat destruction, so fattier cuts of pork might need extra time or toastier temperatures.
Summary: Pork products, particularly liver, frequently carry hepatitis E, which can cause severe complications and even death in vulnerable populations. Thorough cooking is necessary to deactivate the virus.
2. Multiple Sclerosis
One of the most surprising risks associated with pork — one that’s received remarkably little airtime — is multiple sclerosis (MS), a devastating autoimmune condition involving the central nervous system.
The robust link between pork and MS has been known at least since the 1980s, when researchers analyzed the relationship between per capita pork consumption and MS across dozens of countries.
While pork-averse nations like Israel and India were nearly spared from MS’s degenerative grips, more liberal consumers, such as West Germany and Denmark, faced sky-high rates.
In fact, when all countries were considered, pork intake and MS showed a whopping correlation of 0.87 (p<0.001), which is much higher and more significant than the relationship between MS and fat intake (0.63, p<0.01), MS and total meat intake (0.61, p<0.01) and MS and beef consumption (no significant relationship).
For perspective, a similar study of diabetes and per capita sugar intake found a correlation of just under 0.60 (p<0.001) when analyzing 165 countries.
As with all epidemiological findings, the correlation between pork consumption and MS can’t prove that one causes the other (or even that, within MS-stricken countries, the most enthusiastic pork consumers were the most diseased). But as it turns out, the evidence vault goes much deeper.
Earlier, a study of inhabitants of the Orkney and Shetland Islands of Scotland, a region teeming with unusual delicacies, including seabird eggs, raw milk and undercooked meat, found only one dietary association with MS — consumption of “potted head, a dish made from boiled pig’s brain.
Among Shetland residents, a significantly higher proportion of MS patients had consumed potted head in their youth, compared to healthy, age and sex-matched controls.
This is particularly relevant because — per other research — MS that strikes in adulthood might stem from environmental exposures during adolescence.
The potential for pig brain to trigger nerve-related autoimmunity isn’t just an observational hunch, either. Between 2007 and 2009, a cluster of 24 pork plant workers mysteriously fell ill with progressive inflammatory neuropathy, which is characterized by MS-like symptoms such as fatigue, numbness, tingling and pain.
The source of the outbreak? So-called “pig brain mist” — tiny particles of brain tissue blasted into the air during carcass processing.
When workers inhaled these tissue particles, their immune systems, per standard protocol, formed antibodies against the foreign porcine antigens.
But those antigens happened to bear an uncanny resemblance to certain neural proteins in humans. And the result was a biological calamity: confused about who to fight, the workers’ immune systems launched a guns-blazing attack on their own nerve tissue.
Although the resulting autoimmunity wasn’t identical to multiple sclerosis, that same process of molecular mimicry, where foreign antigens and self-antigens are similar enough to trigger an autoimmune response, has been implicated in the pathogenesis of MS.
Of course, unlike pig brain mist, hot dogs and ham aren’t literally inhaled (teenage boys notwithstanding). Could pork still transmit problematic substances through ingestion?
The answer is a speculative yes. For one, certain bacteria, particularly Acinetobacter, are involved in molecular mimicry with myelin, the nerve-sheathing substance that becomes damaged in MS.
Although the role of pigs as Acinetobacter carriers hasn’t been exhaustively studied, the bacteria has been found in pig feces, on pig farms and in bacon, pork salami and ham, where it serves as a spoilage organism. If pork acts as a vehicle for Acinetobacter transmission (or in any way increases the risk of human infection), a link with MS would make sense.
Two, pigs may be silent and under-studied carriers of prions, misfolded proteins that drive neurodegenerative disorders like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (the human version of mad cow) and Kuru (found among cannibal societies).
Some researchers suggest MS itself could be a prion disease, one that targets oligodendrocytes, the cells that produce myelin. And since prions — and their associated diseases— are transmitted by consuming infected nerve tissue, it’s possible that prion-harboring pork products could be one link in the MS chain (42).
Summary: A causative role of pork in MS is far from a closed cased, but the unusually strong epidemiological patterns, biological plausibility and documented experiences make further research imperative.
Read more a: https://authoritynutrition.com/is-pork-bad/