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, and many researchers agree that there is no threshold at which trans fats are safe.
Interestingly, an analysis 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. Even more interesting, but perhaps not surprising, considering the timing of the publication, these findings didn’t gain much media traction until recently.
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, 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 foods due to their health risks.
Processed foods manufactured before this date, however, are allowed to remain on the market until January 1, 2021. (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:
“… 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.
Lard Is a Highly Nutritious Fat
The PLOS ONE study 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.
Valuable nutrients found in lard include:
Monounsaturated fats (the same fats found in avocados and olive oil)
The Health Benefits of Choline
Choline is a nutrient that many are deficient in, largely because they shun egg yolks, which contain the highest amounts. Choline is crucial during fetal development, 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.
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. A choline deficiency could result in excess fat and cholesterol buildup. Studies have also linked higher choline intake to a decreased risk for heart disease27 and breast cancer.
A single hard-boiled egg can contain anywhere from 113 milligrams (mg) to 147 mg of choline, or about 25% of your daily requirement. One cup (205 grams) of lard contains 102 mg of choline. 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.
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.
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. 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.