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Should I Eat Pork?

May 14, 2015
TIME Health
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3/5 experts say yes—but with a lot of caveats.

This little piggy went to market. But does that mean you should take it home? We asked five experts to answer the tough question, and most of them gave you permission to park pork on your plate—though they still voiced some concerns.

Nutrition, it turns out, is the easy part. A lean cut like pork tenderloin or center cut pork chop is a good choice for your health, says Kate Patton, registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Heart and Vascular Institute. “Pork tenderloin is actually as lean as chicken breast,” she says. It's also an excellent choice for protein, says Kristi King, senior clinical dietitian at Texas Children's Hospital. A three-ounce serving of pork has more than 20 grams of protein and is rich in vitamins and minerals. It’s one of the most concentrated food sources of the mineral zinc, with 17% of a person’s recommended daily intake in a 3-ounce serving. It also has vitamin B12, a critical but hard-to-get nutrient necessary for maintaining red blood cells in the body, says King; a 3-ounce portion has 14% of your daily value.

But there’s more to our food than just its nutritional value, says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. “Pigs are smarter than the family dog,” he says, adding that they endure a great deal of abuse when raised for food on factory farms. “I am not sure how much sense it makes for one kind of fellow mammal to be adopted into our families, and another, slightly smarter one to be on our dinner plates,” he says.

Consumer Reports dug into the unsavory details of pork production in a 2013 investigation, in which they tested 198 samples of pork chops and ground pork across the U.S. They found potentially harmful bacteria on most of the samples. Cooking whole cuts of pork to an internal temperature of at least 145°F and ground pork to 160°F—then checking the temperature with a meat thermometer—is key to killing off these bacteria.

You can eat pork, says Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports. But be aware that the investigation found some antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria on the pork it studied. "These bacteria were resistant to antibiotics, which lessens the effectiveness of these drugs for all of us," says Rangan. “Conventional pork can be fed antibiotics and other drugs daily, live indoors in unhygienic, confined conditions, and often have their tails docked,” Rangan says. “Liquid manure storage is common on hog farms; these conditions help breed contamination and compromise the health of the animal, workers, surrounding communities and the safety of the food product.”

One way to buy better-produced pork is to look for labels reading “organic,” “Global Animal Partnership” or “Animal Welfare Approved,” says Rangan. Don’t be duped by meaningless labels reading “natural” or “no hormones added”—legally, hormones aren’t allowed in pork production.

So what's the bottom line on swine? Barry Estabrook was so fascinated by pork and pigs that he wrote a book about them: the just-released Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Quest for Sustainable Meat. "The conclusion I arrived at after researching Pig Tales is that pork is either the worst meat you can eat from pretty much any perspective—environmental, animal rights, gastronomic—or the very best,” he told us. It all depends on how the pigs are raised, and it’s an important question worth asking about your meat. “Thumbs down for factory-raised industrial pork," he says. "Vigorous thumbs up for sustainably raised pastured pork.”

Pork Illustration by Lon Tweeten for TIME 

Read next: Should I Eat Red Meat?

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