If you’ve paid much attention to nutrition in the past few years, you’ll know that the saturated-fat is-evil-eat-more-wonderbread-food-pyramid lipid hypothesis has been pretty solidly disproven. Yes, there will always be a few diehards clinging to what the USDA taught them in grade school, but not too many people are still convinced that cholesterol and saturated fat will steal your lunch money and say mean things to your mom.
One of my favorite examples of this is a food that has been maligned for decades: Lard.
Lard is the fat, both rendered and unrendered, from pigs. For centuries it was (and still is) a staple ingredient in the cooking of people from a vast array of cultures, none of whom regularly had toddlers with type 2 diabetes.
The highest grade is called leaf lard and is made from the visceral fat surrounding the kidneys and loin of the pig. Leaf lard has little pork flavor and is preferred by bakers because it produces moist, flaky pastries.
The second grade is called fatback and is from a source much like bacon. It’s from the subcutaneous fatty layer between the skin and muscle of the pig.
The final grade is made from the soft fat around organs like the small intestine, known as caul fat. It’s commonly used as a sausage casing and is a component of several traditional British, Italian and French foods.
Lard is used in much the same way as butter and has been experiencing a recent surge in popularity, particularly with high end restaurants and the paleo community, which in some areas (Europe, mostly) is actually producing a supply shortage.
But why has this product been so disparaged in the past? The very word conjures images of people and activities that are anything but healthy.
A strong factor in the original reason for the replacement of lard with trans fat laden shortening products like Crisco is that the real thing was heavily rationed during World War II and a replacement was needed. Once it was realized that the replacement was cheaper to produce and sell for higher profit margins, the incentives for convincing the public that it was good for them began springing up.
This coincided shortly with (although didn’t produce) the beginnings of the lipid hypothesis. Soon, Americans began replacing animal fats in their diet with hydrogenated vegetable oils.
The main reason is lard’s saturated fat content. Even with the fallacy that hydrogenated vegetable oils are anything but poison well past, lard is easily dismissed as being too high in saturated fat and inferior to oils like the champion of heart health: olive oil.
The thing is that lard, as well as just about any other animal fat, isn’t much different from olive oil when it comes to its nutritional profile.
Here’s a fantastic explanation of why this is, from the blog of Mary Dan Eades:
“Now let’s compare lard to that darling of the disciples of the Mediterranean diet: olive oil. Olive oil contains 71% oleic acid, that heart-healthy, monounsaturated fat that we’re supposed to get more of. Lard contains 44% oleic acid, which is more than sesame oil (41%) and double or nearly so the amount in corn oil (28%) walnut oil (28%), and flaxseed oil (21%), more than double the amount in cottonseed oil (19%) and sunflower oil (19%), and nearly triple that in grapeseed oil (15%) and safflower oil (13%). The oleic acid content of lard also exceeds that in beef tallow (43%), butterfat (29%), and human butterfat (ie the fat of breast milk at 35%).
Lard also contains a fair amount (14%) of the 18-carbon saturated fat, stearic acid, which has been shown in clinical testing to lower cholesterol. Important, of course, only if that’s actually a valid cardiovascular health parameter when it’s all said and done, which is looking more and more doubtful with each passing day. Certainly there are many who still think it so. Consumers spend an annual $14.8 billion on statins in an effort to lower cholesterol–a sad commentary, when stearic acid is a whole lot cheaper and safer.
Like olive oil, lard contains 10% of the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid, again, roughly the same as human butterfat (breast milk) at 9%.
Lard contains 2% myristic acid, a 14-carbon saturated fat that has been shown to have important immune enhancing properties. Human butterfat contains about 8% myristic acid, as a booster for the newly minted and incompetent infant immune system. Other animal milk fats also contain a fair amount. By comparison with the exception of cottonseed oil (1%) and the tropical oils, coconut oil (18%) and and palm kernal oil (16%) vegetable oils have zero.
The big bugaboo with lard, then, must come from the last component of its composition: palmitic acid a 16-carbon saturated fatty acid that is believed by some to be Beelzebub, Barlow, and the Bermuda Triangle all rolled into one. Lard contains 26% of the stuff and olive oil only 13%. Aha! There it is. The smoking gun! That must be what makes lard so bad and olive oil so good!
There’s one fly in that explanatory ointment, however: human butterfat contains 25% palmitic acid, just a silly 1% different from lard. Are we to believe that nature would have designed a food for human infants that contained too much?
So let’s now compare lard’s basic fatty acid composition to the real gold standard, the butterfat of human breast milk and see how it stacks up.
Saturated Monounsaturated Polyunsaturated
Breast Milk 48% 35% 10%
Lard 42% 44% 10%
Note: the numbers don’t add up to 100% because of rounding and other small constituents not listed in the fats and oils of common edible foods table. That said, however, even if all the unreported 7% of the composition of breast milk were monounsaturated fat and all unreported 4% of the lard were saturated fat, the composition of lard would still be less saturated and contain more monounsaturates than human breast milk.
Now tell me again why lard is bad for our health?
A less scienc-ey, yet highly apt illustration of the same concept comes from the book Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes:
“The observation that monounsaturated fats both lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL also came with an ironic twist: the principal fat in red meat, eggs, and bacon is not saturated fat, but the very same monounsaturated fat as in olive oil. The implications are almost impossible to believe after three decades of public-health recommendations suggesting that any red meat consumed should at least be lean, with any excess fat removed.
Consider a porterhouse steak with a quarter-inch layer of fat. After broiling, this steak will reduce to almost equal parts fat and protein. Fifty-one percent of the fat is monounsaturated, of which 90 percent is oleic acid. Saturated fat constitutes 45 percent of the total fat, but a third of that is stearic acid, which will increase HDL cholesterol while having no effect on LDL (Stearic acid is metabolized in the body to oleic acid, according to Grundy’s research.) The remaining 4 percent of the fat is polyunsaturated, which lowers LDL cholesterol but has no meaningful effect on HDL. In sum, perhaps as much as 70 percent of the fat content of a porterhouse steak will improve the relative levels of LDL and HDL cholesterol, compared with what they would be if carbohydrates such as bread, potatoes, or pasta were consumed. The remaining 30 percent will raise LDL cholesterol but will also raise HDL cholesterol and will have an insignificant effect, if any, on the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL. All of this suggests that eating a porterhouse steak in lieu of bread or potatoes would actually reduce heart-disease risk, although virtually no nutritional will say so publicly. The same is true for lard and bacon.”
Remember to keep that quote handy the next time someone tries to guilt trip you about your impending coronary disaster because you’re enjoying a grilled ribeye with veggies.
The best place to find quality lard is likely from your local butcher. With any animal fat product you need to be careful about quality because fat is a repository for a wide array of toxins like heavy metals, pesticides and antibiotic residues. Play it safe by requesting organic, naturally produced lard.
If you opt to purchase it in the grocery store, make sure you know where it’s coming from and avoid the containers of it that you’ll find sitting on the shelf alongside things like Crisco. Industrially produced lard goes through heavy processing and is bleached and hydrogenated, destroying much of its nutritional value.
Don’t buy this kind.
by Craig Weller