wayne martin swine & u

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 that “fat is bad.” 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. (In fact, new research has determined that it is the amount of sugar in our diet that may be making us fat and increasing our risk for disease. Our body can only use so much sugar at one time and excess sugar is converted into saturated fat so our body can store it.)

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. Fat brings flavor to life.  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 for years, that lard and fat consumption is something to minimize or avoid altogether. However, recent evidence suggests that lard may not be quite the villain as portrayed. Lard is high in the monounsaturated fat, oleic acid, up to 50 to 60 percent. This is the same fatty acid that is found in olive oil (70 percent Oleic acid) and a main fat in the Mediterranean diet. Dr. Doug Bibus, a regular consumer of pork and noted fatty acid expert, refers to pork as “the olive oil of the Midwest.” I told this to graduate students from Spain, and they responded by saying, “In Spain, we call pigs olive oil with legs.” 

Oleic acid is also the predominant storage form of fat energy in humans. The body converts it to fuel, and it helps absorb nutrients — particularly calcium and vitamins. By the way, lard is not only rich in monounsaturated fat, but it is also a good source of Vitamin D. It also contains no trans-fats, which are currently indicated as the fats to avoid. (Trans-fats may be in the chips and dip, salad dressing and ice cream you purchased to go with the lean meat barbecue.)  In 2006 New York City restaurants were banned from using trans-fats in foods they prepared.  A recent paper published in the American Journal of Public Health reported the trans fatty acid levels in the blood of New York City residents decreased 57 percent between 2004 and 2014.

To add to the discussion, and to 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.

It should be noted that because of these recent research discoveries, the message about dietary fat has significantly changed. Current dietary guidelines and food labels no longer track total fat intake largely because science linking fat intake to disease is not as strong as we once thought. In fact, some studies have recently reported no relationship between how much fat we eat and dying from heart disease.

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?

Wayne Martin is an Extension Educator specializing in Alternative Livestock Systems.  He can be reached at marti067@umn.edu.

Diane DeWitte is an Extension Educator focused on swine.  She can be reached at stouf002@umn.edu.