As much as the love for bacon rages in pop culture and beyond, us poor humans have been conditioned to believe a lot of false information about pork: It's high in bad fat; it comes from filthy animals laden with parasites; and it's packed with cancer causing agents – just to name a few. It’s no surprise why so many folks have opted for other forms of meat or even none at all.
But is pork bad for you, really? I'm here to say, bacon (and ham) lovers everywhere can rejoice. As it turns out, most pork myths are wrong or misguided.
Let’s look at six common pork myths. As it turns out, you can have your bacon (and pork chops and ribs and prosciutto) and feel great too.
PORK MYTH #1: All Pork is Created Equal.
All pork products are unhealthy.
A pig raised in a happy and healthy environment is going to yield delicious, nutritious meat – rich in good fats and other nutrients. On the other hand, a pig that’s raised in a place with limited mobility, unsanitary conditions and inadequate food options will produce meat that may taste good, but it will not benefit your health.
Factory raised pork is a bad choice for so many reasons, but nutritionally speaking, factory pork is higher omega-6 fatty acids – specifically arachidonic acid – which the average modern eater already consumes in too high a proportion to other fatty acids. That’s because the diet of factory raised pigs mostly consists of GMO corn and other grains, not the scraps, slop and grasses that a pastured pig is allowed to forage for naturally.
On top of their crappy diet, many factory pigs have a diet supplemented with synthetic vitamins that won’t be properly absorbed, leaving the pigs overfed and malnourished.
Properly raised pigs root around outdoors in the sunshine, and as a result their fat is one of the richest sources of vitamin D. On the other hand, conventional pork pigs don’t spend time outdoors, and their close quarters also mean they’re at a higher risk of contracting diseases. Potential for disease means your future pork will be injected with hormones and antibiotics necessary to keep them alive. (source)
Bottom line: The way pigs are raised greatly determines the nutritional status of the resulting pork.
PORK MYTH #2: Pigs are filthy and toxic.
Pigs don’t sweat and that means they can’t detox. Plus they roll around in their own waste. Nasty.
It’s a lesser known fact that pigs don’t have sweat glands. Lots of people think this makes a pig more prone to holding in toxins but that simply isn’t true. Pigs filter out toxins through their liver and kidneys just like humans.
Because they don’t have the sweat glands and can’t pant like dogs do, they need a different way to stay cool. Mud or water puddles help the pigs keep their body temperature down. Plus the mud has an added benefit of protecting their skin from getting sunburned or bitten by insects.
Does this mean pigs are rolling around in their own pee and poo? In this great post, Food Renegade explains that if you take the time to observe pigs, you will find that “like us, they’re conscientious. They won’t wallow in their own excrement. And if you give them water, they will bathe.”
Again, this comes back to the pigs' living conditions. The ones that are given separate areas for waste and mud bathing and given water to rinse off in will be healthier. Pastured pigs raised by responsible farmers fall into this category.
PORK MYTH #3: Pigs have parasites that cause disease.
All pigs have tape worms and eating pork will give you trichinosis.
Sure, some parasites are bad, and the thought of wriggly worms inside us can be quite disgusting. To put this into perspective though, parasites are a normal, natural part of life that include all of the tiny bacteria and yeast that – in balance – are essential to health.
In her Ode to Pork, Food Renegade explains, “Very few of the parasites that infect pigs are actually dangerous to humans, and the ones that are bad are radically minimized” by raising the pigs and preparing the pork properly.
Pigs should be raised outdoors, in the sunshine, fed a normal, omnivorous foraging diet to minimize the likelihood of harmful parasites in the first place.
Secondly, pork should always be prepared by first marinating the meat in an acidic medium before cooking.
Historic traditions for preparing pork meat throughout the world included smoking, salt-curing or marinating the meat in something acidic for a period of time before cooking. Usually for 24 hours. A lot of people have abandoned that practice for faster, easier meals and because we have refrigeration to keep meat fresh longer. Thoroughly cooking pork will also eliminate the risk of trichinosis by killing any parasites. Still, I would recommend adhering to traditional preparation whenever possible as one preliminary study shows that these practices also negate blood clotting and inflammation associated with pork consumption.
PORK MYTH #4: Pork causes cancer.
Eating pork will give you cancer, and there are studies to prove it.
Studies have shown that there are incidences of some pork being linked to cancer. In particular at Harvard University researchers found “that individuals eating beef, pork, or lamb daily have approximately three times the colon cancer risk, compared to people who generally avoid these products.” (source) I find this China-Study-esque data perplexing because the studies fail to report the sources of the meat consumed, how it was prepared, or what else the subjects were eating (say deep fried doughnuts and coca cola?).
Assuming the participant were eating conventional meat, it's important to note that factory raised pigs will be at greater risk of passing on greater levels of arachidonic acid in the form of the fatty Omega-6. In smaller quantities this acid is essential to muscle growth but in large quantities it can contribute to heart disease.
A pasture-raised pig will not be injected with hormones, antibiotics or other drugs so these potential cancer causing agents won’t be passed on to you. In fact, the meat from a healthy raised pasture pig actually contains more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fat that might actually fight against cancer. According to Eat Wild, “CLA is a newly discovered good fat called “conjugated linoleic acid” that may be a potent cancer fighter. In animal studies, very small amounts of CLA have blocked all three stages of cancer: 1) initiation, 2) promotion, and 3) metastasis.”
PORK MYTH #5: Pork is loaded with heart-damaging fat.
Pork is high in saturated fat that will give you heart disease and kill you.
As we discussed above, factory pork will be high in omega-6 fatty acids which is linked to heart disease and other health problems when consumed out of proportion from other fatty acids.
Thankfully, pastured pork is a great source of essential, healthy saturated fat, which, despite common modern beliefs, is actually essential to health.
Have you read this great article by the heart surgeon who speaks out on what really causes heart disease? Turns out butter and bacon are not to blame after all.
Diets high in saturated fat actually have been shown increase HDL, the “good” cholesterol and not affect LDL, the “bad” cholesterol (Journal of American College of Nutrition, 2004). Cholesterol does not clog arteries, and is essential for many functions in the body, including hormone production and regulation, proper digestion, and immune health. A fairly recent study actually shows that lowering cholesterol has no affect on plaque build-up in the arteries (American Journal of Cardiology, 2003).
According to Dr. Mercola, “Your body cannot function without saturated fats. Saturated fats are needed for the proper function of your: cell membranes, heart, bones (to assimilate calcium), liver, lungs, hormones, immune system, satiety (reducing hunger), and genetic regulation.”
Yay, pork belly!
PORK MYTH #6: Pork is loaded with nitrates and nitrites.
Nitrates and nitrites are a leading cause of disease, and pork products are loaded with them.
Nitrates and nitrites are words many people will associate with bacon, processed meat, and hot dogs. The fact is that more nitrites come from vegetables than you might think. “One serving of arugula, two servings of butter lettuce, and four servings of celery or beets all have more nitrite than 467 hot dogs.” (source)
Studies have been conducted over recent years showing that, not only do nitrites live in our own saliva but that there may even be benefits to ingesting them for treating certain heart related diseases. That said, not all nitrates are created equally, and meats cured with sodium nitrate (a.k.a.) salt peter, sodium nitrite, or mono-sodium glutamate (MSG) should be avoided because they turn into a carcinogen in the body.
Pork products labeled as ‘uncured' are often still preserved according to traditional means, so they are preferred even though they will contain naturally occurring nitrates. You can read more about how to properly prepare pork in this Definitive Guide to Pork.
One last thing…
I subscribe to the 80/20 principal which means I aim to follow the best practices of healthy living 80% of the time. My family eats mostly home cooked meals. During the remaining 20% I still try to eat healthy but I try to lighten up and not be so darn fussy. Afterall, health is not just what we put in our bodies, but also our psycho-emotional state as well. Food obsession is both exhausting and stressful.
Is pork bad for you?
As you can see, the answer to this question depends on a few key points. So whether or not you choose to eat pork, here's what you need to remember:
- Know your farmer and buy pork from properly raised pigs.
- Prepare your pork properly using traditional methods whenever possible (marinated or traditionally pickled or cured).
- Enjoy your bacon (ham and pork chops). Because to do otherwise is just a darn shame.