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When meat tastes like fear | GUEST COMMENTARY

Vendors wait for customers to buy dogs in cages at a market in Yulin, in southern China's Guangxi province on June 21, 2015. The city holds an annual festival devoted to the animal's meat on the summer solstice which has provoked an increasing backlash from animal protection activists.

Is it possible to experience the emotions of the animals we eat? I mean, if you eat a pork chop harvested from a pig that was frightened before it was slaughtered, can you actually experience the fear it experienced before it died? There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that the answer may be yes.

Providence and self-discipline have afforded me many years of good health. I do all the things doctors tell you to do and avoid the things they tell you to avoid. I go to the gym, sometimes twice a day. I don’t smoke, eat cured meats or consume more than one alcoholic beverage per week. I even limit my consumption of foods sold in plastic. I gauge the state of my general health daily, not just by the number of pullups I can do, but also by how I feel throughout the day. That’s why I was so alarmed recently when I was awakened from a deep sleep by an unshakable feeling of fear.

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There was no logical reason for me to be afraid. Nonetheless, as I lay there, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something ominous was observing me in the dark, from some black corner of the room, waiting for me to move. Knowing my body the way I do, I knew that feeling had to be the result of something I ate. It was not the first time I had experienced a weird emotional reaction to a meal.

While visiting a friend in Maine one summer, my girlfriend and I were gifted a pair of live lobsters and decided to make lobster rolls. I left her to cook them while I ran to the store to get the other ingredients. It never occurred to me to ask if she knew how to cook a lobster. When I returned, I found her in the front yard playing with the neighbor’s dog. I asked about the lobsters. She smiled and said they should be done by now. I followed her into the kitchen expecting to find a pot boiling on the stove, but was surprised instead to see her reach into the oven and pull out an empty baking sheet. Instead of tossing the lobsters headfirst into boiling water, which would have killed them within seconds, she put them on a tray and placed them into a hot oven — alive. We found them curled up together in the back where they had crawled during what must have been a slow, agonizing death.

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We ate them anyway. The meat was leathery and had a bitter, unpleasant flavor, and I have never forgotten the weird edginess I felt afterward. It was as if, in a final act of revenge, the lobster was communicating the anxiety of its dying moments to me through its flesh. Years later, as I lay awake in bed — a grown man afraid to stick his head out from under the covers — and thinking about the pork chop I had had for dinner, I recalled my experience eating that frightened lobster and wondered if the pork I had consumed was the same sort of experience. Could that even be possible, I wondered?

It is widely accepted among food scientists today that if livestock suffers in the moments just before being slaughtered, adrenalin, cortisol and other stress chemicals are released into its bloodstream, which can affect the look, texture and taste of the meat. Scientists are not alone in knowing this. In some cultures around the world, they stimulate these stress hormones on purpose. In a small town in China on the border with Vietnam, a 10-day dog meat festival is held each June where gauntlets of alert muscle men can be seen standing around massive kettles of boiling water, clutching metal clubs in their fists, according to the Daily Mail. Their job is to keep the dogs from escaping. They believe boiling them alive, or violently beating them to death, gives the meat an “energy” that makes the men who eat it feel more virile.

We all consume particular foods based on how they make us feel. Anyone who has eaten dark chocolate, for example, likely has experienced its associated mood-altering properties. According to the results of a randomized study published in the January 2022 volume of the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, the emotional lift we get from dark chocolate is related to how the bacteria in our gut respond to chocolate’s particular chain of amino acids. We all know how food works: If you want to feel calm, you have a cup of chamomile tea; before bed, you have a glass of warm milk to induce sleep; if you want to feel more confident before a workout, you eat an orange. There’s a name for the study of how food affects our mood: nutritional psychiatry.

It’s an emerging field, perhaps not yet even a decade old, but long overdue. While for years scientists have been debating the effects on human physical health of injecting chemicals and synthetic hormones into the animals we consume — like estrogen in milk cows and growth hormones in pigs, what is lacking is more information on how the emotional state of these animals can influence our own emotional well-being.

Do we know, for instance, if a woman with a history of high blood pressure is harmed by consuming meat from an animal with elevated stress hormones in its blood? Doctors are quick to tell a patient with a heart condition to avoid red meat because of the cholesterol, but are they giving any consideration to how residual stress hormones in the flesh of a mistreated animal might also impact the human heart?

There are experts who believe pigs know their fates when they enter a slaughterhouse. Can that awareness actually precipitate health consequences for the humans who consume them? We should know the answers to these questions. Not just for our own sakes, but also for the sake of the poor animals who suffer and die for our pleasure.

K. Ward Cummings (kwardcummings@gmail.com) is the author of “Partner to Power: The Secret World of Presidents and their Most Trusted Advisers.”


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