Japan opening first human meat restaurant is fake news, but is cannibalism bad for health?

What eating human flesh can do to your body.

 |  5-minute read |   05-12-2017
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Among the wonders the internet bring us every day was the news that Japan has opened a restaurant that served human flesh.

The article, in a website called steemit, had a lot of interesting details to offer - the Tokyo restaurant was called Edible Brothers, it offered customers “a varied menu where prices vary from 100 up to 1,000 euros, that is to say the dish with human flesh, more expensive would be $US 1,193”, and that the first person to taste some dishes was an Argentinian tourist.

The article then went into legal and procurement issues, informing readers that “in Japan since 2014 a law was approved that allows the consumption of human flesh”, and that "people before dying decide to sell their bodies to the peculiar restaurant, approximately for about 30,000 euros or 35,799 dollars", but the generous restaurant has high standards, and "only people who die young can sign the contract, in which they are subject to a special diet, where the meat is suitable for consumption".

While social media predictably went into a tizzy over the news, some more discerning readers questioned its veracity, beginning with the erratic English that made the article seem like it had been carelessly translated.

Sure enough, the article was found to be fake. It had apparently taken material from a July 12, 2016 spoof published by La Voz Popular, a Spanish satirical publication, and mixed it with matter from a 2016 April Fool’s joke about the Japanese government supposedly approving the first "ethical; human flesh noodle shop, and photographs of props created to promote the zombie video game Resident Evil 6".

So, while people cannot tuck into "man-made" delicacies in a Tokyo restaurant anytime soon, consumption of human flesh is by no means unheard of.

Hollywood has been fascinated with cannibalism (Hannibal Lecter is not alone), most people are repelled by it, but every so often, we hear cases of people eating other humans, either because they wanted to, or because they were marooned somewhere and had no other option.

Pedro Algorta, a man who was stranded in the Andes mountains for 71 days after a plane crash in 1972, ate anything he could find to nourish his body for two months, including the hands, thigh, meat, and arms of people.

In 2016, Algorta, one of the 16 survivors, came out with a book, Into the Mountains. Here, Alogorta talks of how he and other survivors were forced to eat the frozen remains of other dead passengers to survive.

In 2015, a case was filed against sailor José Salvador Alvarenga, who survived at sea for one year, for eating his fellow sailor. Alvarenga denied the charge.

In India, the aghoris of Varanasi consume dead humans. The 2006 Nithari rapes, murders and cannibalism shook the country. On July 24 this year, a special CBI court sentenced businessman Moninder Singh Pandher and his domestic help Surinder Koli to death for raping and killing a 20-year-old woman. Koli had been convicted for another murder too.

The 2006 Nithari rapes, murders and cannibalism shook the country. Photo: India Today/FileThe 2006 Nithari rapes, murders and cannibalism shook the country. Photo: India Today/File

Human beings do eat parts that come from humans without eliciting the same horror that cannibalism does - a lot of people eat their nails, and more women are embracing the trend of consuming their placenta.

Cannibalism in itself is not illegal in a lot of countries, and those accused of the crime are usually charged with murder.  

So, is it healthy to eat another human? Medical opinion on the whole seems to think no.

According to Medical Daily, “Our entire body is approximately 81,000 calories: the thigh is about 10,000 calories, and the heart is 700 calories. Close to half of these calories come from adipose or fat tissue, which makes us the less healthy option for dieters.”

However, the main danger in eating a human being comes from something called prions. Prions are essentially pathogenic agents that cause abnormal folding of cellular proteins, called prion proteins, found in the brain. These lopsided proteins then cause brain damage, something like a human mad cow disease. 

The best documented prion-based disease in humans is the study of the ailment Kuru on the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, who, until the 1950s, would eat their dead as a funeral rite.

The Fore people, especially the women, who consumed human meat more, started dying of a disease known as the Laughing Death, as it caused the patients to randomly burst into laughter.

Kuru is incurable, and fatal. A transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), its symptoms include tremors, loss of balance and headaches. Once the disease sets in, the patient is eventually unable to eat, drink, or walk, and wastes away. 

According to Medical News Today, “The Fore people are the only known population on earth to have had an epidemic of kuru and, at its peak in the 1950s, it was the leading cause of death in women among the Fore and their nearest neighbours.”

With increase in awareness and efforts of missionaries, the Fore stopped the practice of eating their dead, and the disease disappeared.

So, as in everything else in life, even with cannibalism, moderation seems to be the key. Eating other humans to survive won’t kill you, but purely physiologically - leaving out your conscience, sensibilities, religion and the law - making a practice of it might.

Also read: Why I'm getting condolence messages over news of Shashi Kapoor's death

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