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How Safe is it to Eat Pork?
Pork is the most widely consumed of all meats across the world and it refers to meat obtained from the domestic pig or hog. Pork consumption has been part of the human diet for millennia, with pigs being reared as livestock as far back as 70,000 years ago!
Pork meat is eaten in various forms, freshly cooked, cured and preserved or processed. Cured pork products have been used traditionally as the process greatly increases the shelf life of the meat. Today such pork products are also extremely popular because of the flavor and distinctive taste added through the process of curing. Sausage, ham, salami and bacon are just a few examples of preserved pork.
Although, the myoglobin content in pork is higher than that in lean meats like chicken or turkey, it is much lower than that in beef. Pork is classified as red meat, however, because its myoglobin content is still high enough to lend the meat its reddish or pinkish hue. Pork meat is rich in certain nutrients like thiamine and iron, but it is also high in cholesterol and saturated fat. Like other red meats, pork does have its fair share of health risks and there is also a lot of public hysteria about the health risks of pork because of sobering facts that are often grossly exaggerated by idealists who understandingly wish to vilify the meat industry.
From a biochemical perspective pork may be considered ‘healthy’ meat, but this is a matter of debate. Diet concerns cannot be oversimplified because there are other determinants that come into play, such as lifestyle. A diet with a high content of meat and little plant food, for example, would be better suited to someone with an active lifestyle, which is why Inuits thrive on such a diet. On the other hand, an individual who spends the best part of his life hunched over a computer would be well advised to stick to a diet high in plant-based food, with little to no red meat.
Just as methods of farming affect the yield and safety of crops, similarly methods of livestock rearing affect the quality of meat. This is a huge factor when considering the safety and health risks from consuming pork meat today. Consuming pork meat produced from farms with pastured hogs is generally regarded as being safe, as compared to consuming pork meat produced from what are almost industrial factories, in which pigs are raised in what is called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO's). In most parts of the developed or industrial world, this is how pork is produced. It is not only unhealthy, but also inhumane.
Risk of Bacterial Infection
Pork that is untreated or not cooked adequately may contain harmful microorganisms and pose a risk of infection. This is also true for pork products that are cooked and then left exposed for a considerable period. Some pathogens that are often present in pork meat include Listeria, E. coli, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus. These bacteria are mainly found in uncooked pork, however, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most of these pathogens can be destroyed through proper cooking. In other words, whilst cooking, the meat should reach and the internal temperature of 71 degrees Celsius. In all fairness, however, most of these pathogens are found in other meats and poultry too if not cooked adequately.
Yersinia enterocolitica is another bacterium that causes a gastroenteritis-type of infection, which most commonly occurs as a result of eating raw or undercooked pork products. The bacteria can even survive when the meat is kept refrigerated, but it cannot survive the heat.
Risk of Parasitic Infections
While gastroenteritis and other bacterial infections may seem like no big deal, the risk of parasitic infections should give you the shivers! Pigs are known to be carriers of a number of parasites, most notable being roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms and pinworms. Taenia solium, which is a type of tapeworm, is commonly found in pigs and it can cross species to transplant itself in the human intestine. This occurs through the consumption of undercooked pork meat.
Trichinosis or trichiniasis is another parasitic disease that can result from the consumption of undercooked pork. This happens when the meat is infected with larvae of the Trichinella spiralis, which is a species of roundworm. This was a common infection in the past but has now become quite uncommon in most developed countries. Most reported cases today can be traced back to the consumption of wild game.
Risk of Cancer
The cancer risk is commonly espoused as a reason to quit eating meat, but the facts in this regard are often distorted by vegans. The risk, however, is significant enough for the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research to suspect that red or processed meats may play some role in the development of some forms of cancer like colorectal cancer.
While many studies do suggest that there is a link between red meat and pork consumption and cancer development, other studies have found some of these claims to be unsubstantiated or skewered, as some of the studies did not take into account important variables, such as the type of meat and methods of preparation. It would be a good idea to restrict your intake of red meats like pork and processed meats in particular.
The meat cooking process is so important because, as several studies indicate, the method of preparation greatly affects the nutritional value and risks of consumption.
Cooking meat at high-temperatures has been found to result in the formation of carcinogens, thereby, greatly increasing the risk of cancer. This isn’t just true for pork, but is a risk factor when dealing with any muscle meat from beef and pork to fish and poultry. Such high temperature cooking methods can include grilling over an open fire or pan frying that involves direct contact of the meat with hot metal.
The high heat cooking method is found to be problematic, as muscles contain amino acids, sugars and creatine, which react at high temperatures to form Heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) on the other hand are formed when fat and juice from the meat drips on to the open fire while grilling. The flames then contain PAHs and as the meat is grilled they adhere to its surface. Both of these mutagenic chemicals greatly increase the risk of cancer.
Processed meat has long been suspected of contributing to the development of cancer and processed meats could include salted, cured and smoked pork and most importantly those treated with nitrites. Pork that is treated with nitrites is believed to increase the risk of cancer. Nitrates and nitrites are compounds that are commonly used in the processing stage to preserve the color and texture of meat, to prevent the fats from going rancid and to inhibit bacterial growth.
Initially, it was believed that nitrates and nitrites in themselves contributed to the development of cancer, but research today has found this to be untrue. These compounds are found in even greater abundance in vegetables and other healthy foods. Unfortunately, this doesn’t get your favorite meats off the hook! While nitrites may not be bad in themselves, they react with amino acids under heat to form nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens.
There are different types of nitrosamines and almost all are known carcinogens. They are in fact the main carcinogens that are found in tobacco smoke as well. As all forms of meat, are high in proteins and contain amino acids, almost all of processed meats, from bacon to ham or hot dogs will contain nitrosamine if exposed to intense heat while being prepared.
Risk of Heart Diseases
Red meats often take a lot of flak for heart disease and pork features prominently on any list of foods to avoid if you’re worried about heart disease. As is the case with other red meats, moderate consumption is not regarded as a serious risk. Keep in mind however that moderate consumption of pork implies consuming no more than 85 grams or 3 ounces of the meat, once or twice in a week. For patients who are already in high-risk groups for a cardiac disease it may be a good idea to even avoid these small serving sizes.
Studies also suggest that processed meat products like bacon, sausages, salami and ham may actually be a lot more harmful than red meat itself. This is probably because they contain significantly higher amounts of saturated fat, in addition to which they are often fried. Fat on red meat is clearly visible and is generally removed whilst cooking or while being eaten. With processed meats, this is not really possible as the fat is often ground finely and it’s impossible to discern fat from the meat, let alone separate it.
Risk of Bacterial Resistance
The rise of bacterial resistance has become a public health problem in recent decades, as antibiotics that we have come to rely on so completely and that helped turn the tide against numerous diseases in the past century, are now being rendered ineffective. You may wonder what this has to do with you and how munching on that succulent pork rib could possibly have any role to play in this global health threat. The fact is livestock rearing and pig farming practices today are large contributors to the problem.
Pigs on livestock or pork farms are raised in abysmal conditions. In many ways, animals are the slaves of the new millennium – born and bred to serve and feed and to never have lives of their own. Pigs are housed in extremely crowded environs with poor ventilation and are forced to remain in unhygienic conditions as their feces and waste accumulate. Conditions are said to be so appalling that more than half of all pigs suffer from pneumonia by the time they are sent to slaughterhouses.
To ensure that the pigs can grow rapidly, stay alive and are increasingly profitable they are given a steady dose of antibiotics. These are the same antibiotics that we humans depend on to treat serious illnesses. This widespread abuse of antibiotics greatly increases the risk of antibiotic resistance as they enter the food chain and your body as well through the meat. This increases the likelihood of those antibiotics being ineffective when they are prescribed to you for an illness.
In addition to the risks that are present from consumption, handling raw pork meat or handling pigs also poses other health risks. Swine flu is the biggest and most widely covered health risk at present. Although swine influenza is widespread among pig populations, the strains of influenza that are present in pigs can rarely infect humans. Unfortunately, the risk of infection with swine flu is higher for people who spend prolonged periods or come in frequent contact with pigs. In most other cases the cross-species jump is rare.
Try not to get caught up in the rhetoric from the pro-pork lobbyists or from vegans on the other hand. While the arguments from one side are profit driven, those from the rival camp are ideological and both sides tend to exaggerate, ignore or concoct facts to suit their cause. The truth is not as clear cut as pig-headed adherents of meat-eating or veganism would like you to believe.
Pork meat can be quite nutritious, but most of these nutrients can be found in other food sources as well. This said, it is safe to eat small amounts of pork if cooked safely. As is the case with most foods that are high on the risk index, moderation is the key. Instead of meat like pork making the bulk of your meal, stick to the greens and cereals, while having some pork on the side. Better still, if your heart melts for ‘Babe’, but your mouth waters for pork, try having some faux pork products instead!