Wayne Martin

Wayne Martin

After a long Minnesota winter, spring is here at last. Long sunny days, warmer weather, and all the trees and grass are coming back to life, turning green. Great weather for that first barbecue of the season. As you start up the charcoal, ready to prepare that first cookout of the season for family and friends, take a moment to think about the food that will be served and the lessons we've been taught over time - and to what extent, if any, they make sense.

Over the past couple of decades the message we've consistently heard is that if we are going to eat meat at all, it should be lean, because the fat in meat is more detrimental to our health than other fats.

Pork fat (both rendered and un-rendered pork fat are called lard) is often condemned as the worst culprit of the bunch. We've heard it often enough that we accept the message as gospel. Yet we crave the flavor and sense of satisfaction that fat gives us, and rightly so, because it should be a portion of our diet, though the actual amount is still debated.

So off we go to purchase the fixings for the party, and what do we buy? For appetizers we'll have chips and dip (loaded with fat), part of the main course will be lettuce salad with dressing (loaded with fat), and we'll finish up the meal with a nice bowl of gourmet ice cream (loaded with fat).

And the main course for this fat-laden extravaganza? Lean meat. If there is some logic in that I approach I fail to see it.

I am a fan of cooking meats on the grill that are easier to manage, and are loaded with flavor as well. Much of the good flavor, especially with barbecued pork, comes from the fat attached to it. Give me shoulder steaks or roasts, or ribs any day compared to other leaner cuts of meat. I end up with a tasty, juicy, tender chunk of meat, even if it is cooked more than medium. As luck would have it, the shoulder meats tend to be cheaper cuts as well, so I win again.

Of course this approach goes against the message we've been hearing, that lard consumption is something to minimize or avoid altogether. However, recent evidence suggests that lard may not be quite the villain as portrayed. It is high in oleic acid, up to 50 to 60 percent. This is the same fatty acid that is found in olive oil. (Lard, the olive oil of the Midwest?).

Oleic acid is the predominant storage form of fat energy in humans. This may well be a preferred fuel source for us, since what we store we burn. The body converts it to fuel, and it helps absorb nutrients, particularly calcium and vitamins. Lard is a good source of Vitamin D, and has fewer calories than butter.

It also contains no trans-fats, which are currently indicted as the fats to avoid. (Trans-fats are also in the chips and dip, salad dressing and ice cream you purchased to go with the lean meat barbecue.) A couple of years ago New York City restaurants were banned from using trans-fats in foods they prepared.

To add to the discussion, and strengthen the argument for reasonable, moderate intake of animal fats, research has been conducted on people of southwest France, who eat pork on a regular basis, including the lard in considerable portions. If pork fat is truly detrimental to human health, the rate of cardiovascular disease in that region should reflect that fact.

Yet people there have the lowest rate of heart disease in France, a country where heart disease is lower than Britain or the United States.

So as you light up the charcoal, don't hesitate to put on pork that has a little more fat on it, and enjoy a meal that is loaded with flavor, almost guilt-free. (You've got to have a little guilt.) We need to enjoy life's journey. What better way to do so than eating really good food?


"The Pork Professor" is a monthly column created by members of the University of Minnesota Swine Extension team. This column was written by Wayne Martin, alternative livestock coordinator at the University of Minnesota. He may be reached at (612) 625-6224 or marti067@umn.edu.