For decades, saturated fats like butter, lard and tallow were said to cause heart disease. Responding to such health concerns, the food industry replaced saturated fats with hydrogenated oils that are loaded with trans fats, giving rise to a whole new market of low-fat (but high-sugar) foods.
Americans' health plummeted in tandem with this systemwide change, and millions have been prematurely killed by it. As it turns out, trans fat, found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, acts as a pro-oxidant, contributing to oxidative stress that causes cellular damage.
Trans fat is also a major contributor to insulin resistance, currently affecting an estimated 8 in 10 Americans,1,2 and many researchers agree that there is no threshold at which trans fats are safe.
Interestingly, an analysis3 of more than 1,000 raw foods published in PLOS ONE in 2015 ranked raw separated pork fat, also known as pork lard, as the eighth healthiest food on a list of 100.4 Even more interesting, but perhaps not surprising, considering the timing of the publication, these findings didn’t gain much media traction until recently.5,6,7
Trans Fats Are Just Now Being Eliminated From Our Diet
The late Dr. Fred Kummerow, author of “Cholesterol Is Not the Culprit,” was the first researcher to note that trans fat — not saturated animal fat — clogs your arteries and promotes heart disease. Moreover, trans fats prevent the synthesis of prostacyclin,8 which is necessary to keep your blood flowing.
When your arteries cannot produce prostacyclin, blood clots form, which can lead to sudden death. Trans fat has also been linked to dementia. In 2013, Kummerow sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for failing to take action on trans fats in light of the overwhelming scientific evidence against it.
Two years later, in 2015, the agency finally removed partially hydrogenated oils (a primary source of trans fat) from the list of “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) list of food ingredients, and as of June 18, 2019, food manufacturers are no longer allowed to use partially hydrogenated oils in foods9 due to their health risks.
Processed foods manufactured before this date, however, are allowed to remain on the market until January 1, 2021.10 (Compliance dates vary depending on whether manufacturers had “limited use” permissions for partially hydrogenated oils, but these are the final dates where all use must cease.)
The PLOS ONE analysis published in 2015 adds further support to the notion that animal fats are a healthy and important part of the human diet, and that man-made replacements are unlikely to be better than what’s been safely used in the past. As noted in The Healthy Home Economist, lard:11
“… formed the lipid backbone of European cuisine from castle to corner store for much of its post Roman history … Much of the ancient world enjoyed this nutrient rich fat since farmers can raise pigs in almost any climate and circumstance on almost any foodstuffs. Rendering lard is an easy process and the resultant fat lasts for years if made properly. This sets it apart from the more fragile butter.”
Unfortunately, instead of reverting back to healthy saturated fats like lard, butter or coconut oil, partially hydrogenated oils are primarily being replaced with other nonsaturated vegetable oils that produce toxic cyclic aldehydes when heated.
These byproducts appear to be so harmful they may even make trans fats look benign in comparison, and we may not realize the full ramifications of this switch until a decade or two down the line. To learn more about this, please see my interview with investigative journalist Nina Teicholz.12
Lard Is a Highly Nutritious Fat
The PLOS ONE study13 analyzed the nutrient composition of more than 1,000 raw foods in regard to satisfying daily nutritional requirements. As explained by the authors:
“The nutrient balance of a food was quantified and termed nutritional fitness; this measure was based on the food’s frequency of occurrence in nutritionally adequate food combinations.
Nutritional fitness offers a way to prioritize recommendable foods within a global network of foods, in which foods are connected based on the similarities of their nutrient compositions.
We identified a number of key nutrients, such as choline and α-linolenic acid, whose levels in foods can critically affect the nutritional fitness of the foods. Analogously, pairs of nutrients can have the same effect. In fact, two nutrients can synergistically affect the nutritional fitness, although the individual nutrients alone may not have an impact.”
With regard to pork fat, its nutritional fitness score was 0.73 — one of the highest scores within the “fat-rich” category. Only dried chia seeds (with a score of 0.85), dried pumpkin and squash seeds (0.84) and almonds (0.97) scored higher.
A spreadsheet detailing the nutritional fitness scores of all the foods included in the analysis can be found here. (You can also find a link to download the dataset in the PLOS ONE paper, titled “S1 Dataset: Foods Analyzed in This Study,”14 and in the BBC News’ report, at the very end of the article.15) Valuable nutrients found in lard include:
- Vitamin D16
- Omega-3 fats17
- Monounsaturated fats18 (the same fats found in avocados and olive oil19)
- Saturated fats20
The Health Benefits of Choline
Choline is a nutrient that many are deficient in,22 largely because they shun egg yolks, which contain the highest amounts. Choline is crucial during fetal development,23 and is essential for healthy brain, nervous system and cardiovascular function.
Importantly, choline is used in the synthesis of phospholipids in your body, the most common of which is phosphatidylcholine, better known as lecithin, which is required for the composition of your cell membranes.24
Studies also stress its importance for liver health, and it may actually be a crucial key for the prevention of fatty liver disease — including nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which is largely driven by high-sugar diets as opposed to excess alcohol consumption.
Choline is needed to carry cholesterol from your liver, and it enhances secretion of very low density lipoprotein (VLDL) particles in your liver.25 A choline deficiency could result in excess fat and cholesterol buildup.26 Studies have also linked higher choline intake to a decreased risk for heart disease27 and breast cancer.28
A single hard-boiled egg can contain anywhere from 113 milligrams29 (mg) to 147 mg30 of choline, or about 25% of your daily requirement. One cup (205 grams) of lard contains 102 mg of choline.31 That measurement is most likely based on conventionally raised hogs, however. The choline content of organic pastured pork lard could potentially be higher — or, if it comes from a wild hog, it could be as high as 399 mg.32
Make Sure Your Lard Is Organic and Pastured
As mentioned, pork lard is rich in the same monounsaturated fats found in avocados and olive oil.33 However, an important, if not crucial, detail not addressed in the PLOS ONE study is the difference between lard from conventionally raised pigs and that from organically raised pigs. As noted by The Healthy Home Economist, conventional pigs are:34
“Raised on a diet of GM corn and soy (and sometimes peanuts), along with other low quality calorie sources, tainted with high amounts of glyphosate residue (Roundup), antibiotic laced feed, deworming drugs, and who knows what else …
The pigs also live in high stress, downright hellish environments. These places appear to be the perfect home for antibiotic resistant bacteria to thrive … Residues from the feed, drugs, and stress these animals receive end up in their meat and fat … Not surprisingly, the nutritional profile of the meat and fat from conventional pigs is poor.
Tests from the Weston A. Price Foundation discovered that lard from pastured pigs contained 10,000 IU of vitamin D per tablespoon35 … This nutrient level is hundreds of times the amount in the USDA food database, which is based on conventionally raised hogs.”
To understand how an organic pastured pig is raised, see the video above, in which Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, shows off his organic hog operation. This is where I get my organic pork fat and much of the grass fed meat I eat.
What You Need to Know About Pork Lard
When buying commercially-available lard, you’ll want to make sure it’s not hydrogenated. Most are, and according to The Healthy Home Economist, hydrogenated lard typically contains about 0.5 grams of trans fat per 13-gram serving.36
Knowing the dangers of trans fat, and the fact that there’s no safe level of consumption, hydrogenated lard is clearly an unwise choice. Most hydrogenated lards will state “zero trans fat,” but this is because of a labeling loophole that allows manufacturers to label it as trans fat free as long as it contains 0.5 grams of trans fat or less per serving. So, don’t be fooled.
What’s more, unhydrogenated lard may still have undergone processing to improve texture and extend shelf life. Chemicals such as bleaching agents, deodorizing agents and preservatives such as BHT may be used for this.
The thing is, traditionally rendered lard is tremendously stable as is. At most, you may want to refrigerate it to improve shelf life, but in many cases, that’s not even necessary.
There are also two primary types of lard: leaf lard and regular lard.37 Leaf lard is made from the visceral fat found around the kidneys of the pig. It’s highly prized by many culinary experts and pastry chefs, and is also more expensive.
One factor that makes pork lard so good for cooking and baking is the fact that it has virtually no flavor, so it doesn’t interfere with the taste of other ingredients. Leaf lard is particularly tasteless. Beef tallow, on the other hand, which is another healthy animal-based fat, tends to have a more distinct flavor, making it useful for select dishes but not universally appropriate, taste wise.
How and Why to Render Lard
Rendering your own lard is fairly simple, albeit a bit time consuming. You can find recipes and instructions in The Healthy Home Economist’s article,38 “How to Render Lard Traditionally,” and The Week’s article, “In Praise of Lard (and How to Render Your Own).”39
Instructions are also given in the video above. Now, why do you need to render your lard? A 2014 article40 in The Week explains why rendering is preferable to using the raw fat:
“When you cook with it, instead of melting completely like butter or rendered lard, it will melt a bit and yield small rubbery pieces of fat that will pepper your finished dish.
Rendering lard before using it in a dish accomplishes two goals: First, it preserves the fat by removing excess water and other impurities that might otherwise cause it to spoil; rendered lard is shelf-stable, just like olive oil or clarified butter.
Second, it produces a luxuriously creamy, spoonable fat that not only melts instantaneously in a hot pan, but also yields beautifully flaky pastry.”
The Fall and Rise of Pork Lard
As mentioned, lard has been used for thousands of years. It didn’t fall out of favor until the invention of Crisco — made from hydrogenated cottonseed oil — in 1911. While Crisco was purposely formulated to resemble lard, it was nothing like it.
Since advertising claims back then were unregulated, Procter and Gamble sold Crisco as being healthier than animal fats, and consumers believed it. It took 90 years before researchers finally discovered that this new, “better-for-you” compound, now known as trans fat, actually increases your risk of getting heart disease, whereas animal fats do not.
A 2012 article41 by NPR points out that the way for Crisco’s success was also paved by Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle”:
“The Jungle was technically fiction, but it's hard to forget the section on the men who cooked the lard. ‘They worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor …
Their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting, — sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham's Pure Leaf Lard!’
‘He definitely wanted people to be grossed out by the entire meat-packing industry,’ [oil history expert William] Shurtleff says … Crisco (vegetable shortening) was designed in a lab for one purpose: to replace lard.
People were already queasy about the meat industry after Upton Sinclair's novel, but Procter & Gamble had some work to do. Unlike lard, Crisco was made in a lab by scientists, not necessarily an appetizing idea back then.
Procter & Gamble turned all that to its advantage. It launched an ad campaign that made people think about the horrible stories of adulterated lard. The ads touted how pure and wholesome Crisco was. The company packaged the product in white and claimed ‘the stomach welcomes Crisco.’
Procter & Gamble perfected the modern art of branding with Crisco. It sent out cookbooks touting how good Crisco made you feel. It shipped samples to hospitals and schools, then bragged about how those institutions trusted Crisco.
It rushed onto the newly invented radio waves, sponsoring cooking programs, that featured, what else, Crisco. Poor lard didn't stand a chance. In the 1950s, scientists piled on, saying that saturated fats in lard caused heart disease.”
The good news is, many are now starting to recognize the wholesomeness of lard, and with that recognition, it’s starting to find its way back into kitchens and certain restaurants.
Other Healthy Cooking Fats
Aside from organic pastured pork lard, other healthy cooking fats include:
• Coconut oil — It has a number of valuable health benefits, including a positive effect on your heart and antimicrobial properties. It’s also a great source of energy, thanks to its medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs).
When consumed, the MCFAs are digested and converted by your liver into energy that you can immediately use. Coconut oil also helps stimulate your metabolism to encourage a healthy weight profile.
• Grass fed butter — Raw, organic butter made from healthy grass fed cows’ milk contains many valuable nutrients, including vitamins A, D, E and K2. It also contains minerals and antioxidants that support good health.
• Organic ghee — Used for cooking for thousands of years, ghee is another good choice.
• Olive oil — This oil contains the same kind of healthy fatty acids as lard that can help lower your risk of heart disease. While the standard recommendation has been to avoid using olive oil for cooking and to only use it cold, a 2018 study42 in which 10 popular cooking oils were compared, contradicts this advice, showing extra-virgin olive oil actually scored best for both oxidative stability and lack of harmful compounds produced when heated.
A word of caution is warranted, however. Fake olive oil abounds, so it’s important to take the time to investigate your sources. Tests reveal anywhere from 60% to 90% of the olive oils sold in American grocery stores and restaurants are adulterated with cheap vegetable oils or nonhuman-grade olive oils, which are harmful to health in a number of ways.
For tips on how to assess the quality of your olive oil, see the short video below. For more information, see “Is Your Olive Oil Fake?” where I cover this topic in-depth.
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