Eating polar bear meat can cause the possibility of negative side effects, particularly hypervitaminosis A, an excess of the vitamin that can be contracted from eating its liver.
Throughout Arctic history, the bear has served as food, though in most indigenous societies, whales, walrus, seals, caribou or reindeer provided the bulk of the diet. Unfamiliar dishes or ingredients like bear meat strike Western palates as surreal or exotic and, in the case of endangered species, might also be seen as politically incorrect, but from our births onward, the culture that surrounds us shapes our food preferences and what we consider normal or acceptable.
More serious is hypervitaminosis A, an excess of the vitamin that can be contracted from eating the liver of polar bears, seals and walrus. Affecting the central nervous system, it can cause hair loss, extreme peeling of the skin, birth defects, liver problems, vomiting, blurred vision and even death. One officer swore never again to eat bear liver, no matter how much it might tempt him after his crew showed symptoms akin to carbon monoxide poisoning. Native peoples have long been aware of this danger, as have explorers, though some felt no worse after eating the liver.
Research has shown that a healthy adult person can tolerate 10,000 units of vitamin A. Trouble, if it comes, comes between 25,000 and 33,000 units. One pound of the polar bear liver, a fist-sized chunk and barely a meal, can contain 9 million units of vitamin A. The occasional lack of liver toxicity that some explorers reported can be explained by differences in the age, hibernation and feeding habits of the bear.
Native peoples avoided polar bear liver because of its vitamin A concentration, and, like explorers and whalers, fed it only to their dogs. Modern Inuit and Inupiat value the flavor nuances of different bears or parts of a bear. Some prefer den polar bears, instead of bears caught in the open, because they taste better.