by Joshua Gershenson, November 12, 2021
Living in the 21st century allows us, as consumers, an extreme abundance of choice. We can choose from tens of different phones, hundreds of cars, thousands of different residences, and even millions of different hues of paint for them. The freedom of diet, for instance, leads to obscure dietary lifestyles which have become a cliche´; every average Joe has an opinion on the grounds of personal evidence, and is willing to soapbox it into the ether without thinking of the effects it might have on other individuals. Roughly 3300 years, before the age of health blogs and twitter opinions, Moses presented his people the Torah and the dietary principles it instilled on Mount Sinai (The Torah, Deut. 4:44). For millennia, these dietary traditions have been passed down and strictly followed without deviation due to religious and cultural pressures— but in today’s Western culture, many “Jew-ish” people who were not raised in a traditional, orthodox Jewish household find themselves in a world of constant temptation, doubting the validity of the Kosher diet. To many, the sheer “good Jew” title of Kashrut is not enough to combat the laborious commitment that comes with it. They may doubt the spiritual value of the diet, or believe its benefits have long expired in today’s modern culinary and technological advancements. What may feed the curiosity of the average Joe, however, is how much scientific data there really is to support the benefits of the Kosher diet— and how it may be much more reasonable than people believe.
The key to understanding its benefits, for starters, lies in the details of its restrictions. The Kosher diet, as described in the Torah, forbids the following: shellfish (such as lobsters, oysters, shrimp, clams, and crabs), camel, rock badger, hare, pig, rodents, reptiles, amphibians, insects (with the exception of a few), bats, some birds which scavenge or prey, and any offspring (i.e. eggs) that come from them (The Torah, Lev.11: Deut.14). Some of these options (I.e. rodents, reptiles, insects, etc.) are seemingly repulsive to most Kosher and non-Kosher people in modern Western cultures, and don’t need much of an argument to deter their consumption. Yet, some of the other options (pig, shrimp, lobster, etc.) seem to tip the scale of faithfulness to the Kosher diet for most people. So, why does the Jewish holy book group these tasty animals together with those that are undeniably unappetizing? The answer lies in the basic anatomy of these creatures, their behavior in the environment, and how that may pose a risk to our health. Avoiding the prohibited foods (pork, shellfish, etc.) is not simply biblical jargon from millennia ago; it has serious health benefits to support its implementation, including the avoidance of common parasites and diseases transmitted by them.
Of the animal meat that Kashrut prohibits, farm pigs (sus scrofa domesticus) are one of the main culprits of disease transmission, especially because of the techniques used to farm them. In the agricultural setting, sus scrofa often consumes its own feces, which contain a vast variety of bacteria normally found within the animal’s large intestine. Although this bacteria is completely normal (and in fact necessary to proper digestion when in the intestine), consuming this bacteria may cause a great deal of food-borne illness like the Campylobacter bacteria (King). In farms, pigs are held in extremely crowded arrangements with negative airflow to maximize the amount of animals the farm can produce. These tight quarters in factory farms cause rampant disease in pigs. Before they are dispatched to the slaughterhouse, approximately 70% of the pigs will contract pneumonia throughout their life (PETA).
This pork-based, dinner plate-sized petri dish of bacteria may have caused serious health detriments to the unsuspecting biblical consumer 3 millennia ago, which rationalizes its existence in the laws of Kashrut. But today, we bypass the potential ailments by effectively pumping liters of antibiotics into animals. Although we aren’t contracting plague-like-symptoms from pork consumption, this overuse of antibacterial medication has caused the creation of “Super Bacteria,” or antibiotic-resistant bacterial lines (PETA). According to C. Lee Ventola, a medical researcher published by the government organization National Center for Biotechnology Information, pumping these animals massive amounts of antibiotics on a regular basis increases our chances of ingesting an antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria. With this newfound resistance, a bacterial strain would be able to thrive within animals without a deterrent. This process, especially on a mass level, can create a plethora of new illnesses that we cannot combat with modern technology. Halting our consumption of pigs — as written in the Kosher laws — will help prevent the creation of such a disease, potentially saving thousands of lives. Avoiding the consumption of pigs prevents possible disease which could be extremely harmful to humans; in the age of pandemics, this concept should not be easily dismissed.
Besides gambling the creation of super bacteria on a large scale, the consumption of pork is by no means beneficial on the individual level. Pork has extremely high amounts of cholesterol, the main cause of heart disease, which stands as the number one cause of death in the United States (CDC, “Heart Disease”). When an individual cuts pork out of their diet, they are significantly lowering their chances of terminal cardiovascular disease.
Pork is also the common culprit of diet-induced parasites, which affect thousands of Americans yearly. Since it is a non-ruminant animal, its digestive tracts struggle to remove parasitic beings that can then be transmitted to human consumers via undercooked pork. The most common example of a pork-ridden parasite is Trichinosis, an intestinal-bound worm that spreads and infects tissues all around the body, causing diarrhea, abdominal pain, fatigue, nausea and vomiting for weeks (Mayo Clinic). This infection is not uncommon to the consumers of pork: the CDC reports about 10,000 Trichinosis cases every year, or over 1 every hour (CDC, “Trichinellosis – Epidemiology & Risk Factors”). In the context of a disease which comes solely from pork consumption, this is not a small number.
These harmful parasites can be completely avoided by just straying away from pork items— and implementation is not unachievable. An individual attempting to follow Kashrut can start by substituting bacon with turkey bacon, pork with lamb chops, etc. Soon enough, the Kosher-rookie will find themselves less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, and more protected from parasites that could potentially shred their intestinal lining.
Shellfish, both crustaceans and molluscs, are also listed as “forbidden” in the Kushrat principles, and for good reason: their poor diet (and the parasites that result from it) can be directly transmitted to their consumers. As many seafood-lovers would hate to be informed, crustaceans feed off the dead skin of lifeless animals just like land decomposers (cockroaches, maggots, etc.). Dr. Martha Iwamoto, a medical epidemiologist for the CDC, mentions multiple recent disease outbreaks related to seafood consumption in her research, as well as their causes. Since shellfish are bottom feeders, they serve as the perfect hosts to parasites and other dangerous organisms, subsequently causing infections such as calicivirus, hepatitis A virus, and Salmonella. After infiltration, some parasites common to shrimp can actually promote their host’s horrendous diet by inducing cannibalism amongst their species (Bunke et al.). This presents an entirely new plethora of health issues to the crustacean, and inevitably, to us the consumers. To add to their repulsive diet, crustaceans have a very remedial digestive system, making it difficult for them to expel toxic wastes. When a person consumes shellfish, they often consume their undigested diet of decomposing marine life as well (Iwamoto). Likewise, raw or undercooked shellfish such as mollusks, clams and mussels often harbor residuals of their decomposer-diet and, when ingested, can result in invasive disease and the ripping of the intestinal lining by parasites and microscopic worms. Avoiding the harmful effects of shellfish is a pretty strong incentive to switch over to the Kosher diet, as the regiment steers clear of their parasitic food source and the negative health benefits that come with it.
Reconsider The Restrictions
Many seafood and pork lovers would argue against the Kosher diet by stating that there are no scientific arguments written in the Torah to justify it, and they would be somewhat correct. Most of the segments in Deuteronomy and Leviticus that mention Kashrut justify it solely by “the command of G-D” (The Torah, Deut. 14, 21). The Torah doesn’t offer much to the reasons behind the Kosher diet, and commands the blind faith in this practice by Jews. It may not be compelling to believe solely in the word of a higher being; many will not sacrifice some of the foods they’ve learned to love purely on these grounds. The flaw in this argument lies in the neglect of extraneous scientific evidence which proves the principles of the diet to be beneficial beyond spirituality to the conflicted “Jew-ish” in America.
Understanding the scientific explanations behind why the Jewish holy book would classify these tasty animals as ‘forbidden’ gives light to the alternative benefits of the diet. The probability of contracting food borne disease and cardiovascular ailments significantly decreases when following Kashrut. The incentive of following the Kosher laws, then, is not merely a religious payoff, but includes immense health benefits. Modern-day Jews should not believe they are blindly following a 3 millenia old manuscript, because Kashrut clearly has its sensical scientific foundation, serving as an excellent anti-parasite, anti-disease diet which is relatively simple to integrate into daily life.
Bunke, Mandy, et al. “Eaten Alive: Cannibalism Is Enhanced by Parasites.” Royal Society Open Science, 1 Mar. 2015, www.royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsos.140369
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CDC. “Trichinellosis – Epidemiology & Risk Factors.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 Nov. 2019, www.cdc.gov/parasites/trichinellosis/epi.html.
“Diseases from Pigs.” Diseases from Pigs – King County, kingcounty.gov/depts/health/communicable-diseases/zoonotic/facts-resources/diseases-by-animal/pigs.aspx.
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