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Eating Bacon Could Cause This Type of Liver Disease, New Study Reveals

New research out of England suggests cured pork products can be contaminated with this infectious virus.
MEDICALLY REVIEWED Clipboard BY Mike Bohl MD, MPH, CPH, MWC, ELS

We all know that eating bacon every day could lead to several health issues later on in life, not to mention some unfavorable symptoms in the immediate term like feeling sluggish. However, new research from England suggests cured pork meats may pose an additional threat.

Researchers found that consuming bacon, pigs' liver, and other cured pork meats (think prosciutto, salami, and chorizo) were significantly associated with HEV (hepatitis E virus) infection, a liver disease often contracted through drinking water that's been contaminated with fecal matter.

What did the study examine?

The study, which was published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, examined the risk factors for HEV infections in the blood donor population in England via a case-control study from April 2018 to March 2019. Participants included 117 HEV RNA-positive blood donors as well as 564 HEV RNA-negative donors, all of which were asked to document their travel history, animal and environmental exposures, alcohol intake, medication, and other underlying conditions.

Since the incubation period for HEV can be two to nine weeks, all subjects were asked to write down what they ate within the nine-week period preceding the blood donation. Of the 19 foods included, 14 of them were significantly associated with HEV, a majority of which were animal-based items, most notably bacon, cured pork meats, and pigs' liver. Interestingly, most of the participants were asymptomatic, but those who were symptomatic reported fatigue, joint pain, and headaches.

However, as Dr. Mike Bohl, MD, MPH, CPH, MWC, ELS, director of medical content at Ro, and member of our medical review board points out, this study discovered an association, not a direct cause. In other words, while there's strong evidence to believe cured pork products can be riddled with HEV (especially in countries outside the U.S.), it doesn't necessarily mean that's true in all cases. Still, it's a good reminder to limit your intake of nitrate-rich meats that you might find on a charcuterie board or next to your stack of pancakes at breakfast.

"While it didn't establish causation, this relationship makes sense given that pigs are the main reservoir for hepatitis E virus," says Bohl. "If you're a connoisseur of swine-based foods and are concerned about this risk, two easy steps you can take are to find out whatever you can about where your food was sourced and make sure to properly cook everything you eat."

Based on this study, it's unclear if the curing process of these types of meat is effective enough on its own to kill traces of HEV.

For helpful, easy ways you can cut back on meat, be sure to check out Delicious Foods You Can Eat on a Plant-Based Diet.

Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the news editor of <Eat This, Not That!, specializing in food and drink coverage, and breaking down the science behind the latest health studies and information. Read more