The wholesome truth

Over the last couple of days, I’ve rendered two batches of pig fat.

We had a lot of it because, back in the spring, we bought a pig from a nearby farmer. We split it with our neighbors but they weren’t interested in lard so, although I had only half a pig’s worth of meat, I had a whole pig’s worth of fat.

Rendering lard is easy. You just cube it or grind it and put it over low heat in a heavy pot with a little water. Stir it now and again. A couple hours later you have little bits of cracklings (a.k.a. deep-fried fat, something I thought was impossible) floating in liquid lard. Strain it through a coffee filter and you’re done.

I ended up with eight jars of beautiful, pure white lard in my refrigerator, half from fatback and half from miscellaneous bits. (For some reason, the leaf lard either didn’t make it into my freezer or was mixed up in the miscellaneous bits.) I was feeling all smug and farmwife, having made something useful out of the part of the pig that most people throw away.

There was only one fly in my ointment: lard is not good for you.

Just how not good is an open question. Lard became Dietary Enemy #1 back in the ‘80’s, when nutritional gospel had it that all fats were bad. We’ve learned something about fat since then, and some fats – mono- and poly-unsaturates – have been given the thumbs-up by nutrition scientists. Trans fats, meanwhile, have taken over the top slot on the Dietary Enemy list.

What’s at issue is plain old saturated fat and its connection to heart disease. While the evidence is not unequivocal (and has been discussed elsewhere on Starving), the consensus in the medical community is that there is one. Lard is about 40% saturated fat. It is also, like all fats, high in calories.

The real problem, though, is what lard begs you to do with it. It is supposed to make the best pie crusts, hands down (a proposition I will be testing in short order). Lard is the key to crispy fried chicken, flaky biscuits, succulent confit, and puffy empanadas.

Basically, lard is for baked goods and deep-fried things. Let me loose in those two categories and in no time I will weigh as much as my car. Not for nothing do they call it “lard-ass.”

Which brings me to a problem I’ve been having with the whole sustainable food ethos: the wholesomeness paradox.

Somehow, eggs from our own chickens, butter from cows we visit, and meat from free-ranging lambs seem like they have to be healthful. How can they not, when the animals have good lives, and are raised, milked, and slaughtered by conscientious people who take stewardship of land and livestock seriously?

And it’s not just animals. Last week my friend Mary and I made a big batch of blackberry jam. Homemade preserves sound like they’re wholesome, but they’re mostly just sugar.

Have you ever been to one of those pick-your-own apple orchards? It’s a crisp, sunny, fall day, and you bring your kids to pick fruit and take a hayride? Next to the stand where you can buy pumpkins and gourds, they’re making cider doughnuts. Now, the last time you went into a Dunkin’ Donuts was during the Clinton administration, but somehow these doughnuts seem okay.

I’ve got news for you. The operative word in ‘cider doughnut’ isn’t ‘cider.’

Humans have been believing what we want to believe since long before David Hume declared reason to be slave to the passions. Most of us like to eat foods made with meat, cheese, cream, and eggs, and so it is easy for us to tell ourselves that contented cows, frolicking goats, and free-ranging chickens produce foods that are good for us.

It’s been easy for me, at any rate. I’ve noticed more meat and cheese creeping into my diet, and now that we have an endless supply of eggs, anything could happen.

While it’s certainly true that products from animals that run free and eat grass have a different, and probably more healthful, make-up than products from animals that are confined and eat corn, bacon is still bacon. Cheese is still cheese. And the essence of a healthful diet is still getting most of your calories from plants.

Anyone need some lard? I’ve got plenty to go around.

11 people are having a conversation about “The wholesome truth

  1. Kudos on using all aspects of the pig.

    Living in England I can’t offer any dietary advice. Lard is a prime ingredient in most British cooking including desserts. Some puddings are based on suet and pork crackling is sold in pubs like bags of chips.

    Mike and I have a pretty high meat / eggs / cheese / fat diet because it’s what’s available to us. But if you do the kind of physical work that it sounds like you do and you consume it in moderation, I wouldn’t worry.

    I have read a theory that lard and butter are actually better for you than margarine and hydrogenated fat because the body has evolved to recognise, process and eliminate ‘real’ fat. It certainly sounds plausible. Even Michael Pollan would agree it’s real food.

    If you’re still not sure, you could move the lard down the food chain – chickens love it and the extra calories help keep them warm in winter. Or make suet balls for your wild birds. I’m pretty sure there are recipes for using lard in medicinal preparations but how safe or effective they are, I don’t know.

    I would kill for one of those cider doughnuts right about now….

  2. Jen — In the bad-for-you hierarchy, lard is certainly better than both hydrogenated (i.e. trans) fats and butter (which has a higher saturated fat content than lard). Margarine varies, but I don’t care because I think it’s disgusting.

    Lard is definitely “real food,” but “real food” is a seductive concept — plenty of it will clog your arteries and up your cancer risk.

    I had no idea our chickens would like lard! I’m pretty sure there’s some in their future.

    I’m with you on the doughnuts. I’m a sucker for a good doughnut — or even a lousy one.

  3. I think as long as you consume things like lard in moderation (=small portions), it’s ok.
    We had a big lard pot in the pantry when I was a kid. One of my favorite snacks was spreading spoonfuls of the stuff on pieces of freshly baked bread. Delicious! I was a twiggy child so no one thought there was anything wrong with that.

  4. You get colder weather than we do, I don’t know if you give your chickens extra calories to see them through.

    I add corn to my chickens’ diet when the weather turns bad unless I’ve got lard or lamb fat. And it’s a great way to use up what’s been hanging around in your cupboards – any seeds, dried fruits, stale crackers, nuts, bits of bread etc. Throw it in a blender til it’s small enough for them to peck at and add it to melted lard, let it cool and feed it to the chickens.

    Once shoot season gets going and our dogs are working lots, some of them find it hard to hold their weight. Then I add lard to their food too, but only in small amounts or the results are too horrible to describe.

    We eat far too much of the ‘bad for you’ food, and I convince myself because it’s cooked from scratch that it’s better than processed store bought stuff, but you’re right it’s still calorific and increases risk of disease. And it wouldn’t hurt me to shed a few pounds this side of Christmas.


  5. I love reading your blog and I’d be really concerned if you let the biased science have a big impact on your way of life.

    Lot’s of the fat and eggs debate is centred round the cholesterol debate – and there’s a whole separate issue contended by some scientists that actually having high cholesterol isn’t a problem (it’s other factors that cause it to become a problem).

    Really don’t worry about the eggs – eggs got a bad rap as scientific research done by the cereal board (at about the time they were trying to get people to switch from eating eggs at breakfast time) concluded they were high in cholesterol. What everyone seems to miss to this day is that this was done before they differentiated between different cholesterol types – eggs are high in the good cholesterol (HDL), so plenty of eggs is perfectly fine.

    Trans fats do nasty things to your cholesterol levels unless they are from animal meats – the form of the trans fats in animal meats can be beneficially converted by the human body, so again you shouldn’t worry about the animal meat too much. The main other trans fat source (the bad one) though is soy bean oil, also known as, or found in, hydrogenated vegetable oil, vagatable oil, margerine, shortening, almost all processed foods etc etc. Since this raises bad cholesterol levels (whereas saturated fat also raises good cholesterol levels), this is why butter is actually better for you, on balance, than margerine.

    In my view, unless you are worried about your cholesterol levels, then saturated fats aren’t really a big concern – there’s lots of epidemiological research suggesting that higher fat diets are better for you, and saturated fats from natural sources, like you have, are going to be best.

    I recently did lots of research on cholesterol for someone and did a post on it, if you’re interested in the technical stuff behind this:

  6. Steph — I think you could smear just about anything on freshly baked bread, up to and including motor oil, and it would still be delicious.

    AML — It’s not the cholesterol in eggs that makes them a food to be eaten in moderation, it’s the saturated fat. And the preponderance of the epidemiological evidence seems to come down on the side of a Mediterranean-style diet, which has a fair amount of fat, but little of it from dairy or meat. But, as you know, it’s tough to glean nutritional truths from population data.

    What’s easy to lose sight of is that, over and over, compounds linked to decreased diseaese risk (fiber, antioxidants, some vitamins) are found primarily or, in the case of fiber, exclusively in plants. The trouble with a diet high in animal products is what you’re NOT eating.

    A couple of people have mentioned the M-word. Moderation makes anything okay, but I still don’t know how many lamb chops that is.

  7. Tamar, I couldn’t agree more about the issue of what isn’t being eaten. I think that was the biggest problem that arose with the Atkins diet. Everyone got excited about being very low carb and people started eating just meat and fish and leaving out all veg, so they stopped getting the nutrients they needed. Then they were surprised when they got ill.

    I think my finances decide what moderation is for lamb chops!

  8. If “the essence of a healthful diet is getting most of your calories from plants,” then how do you explain the near-zero heart disease and cancer rates among Eskimos and Masai, who eat basically nothing but saturated fat from animal products? It isn’t some sort of natural immunity: when people from these tribes start eating modern diets, they have the same disease rates as the rest of the population. Not to mention the French, who eat three times the saturated fat Americans do (du beurre, du beurre, et encore du beurre) and have about 2/3 the coronary heart disease. I could go on at some length but I have no wish to bore your readers any further.

    Of course all of this is uncontrolled data, for which there is always an alternative explanation to hand. Who knows? Maybe red wine wards off heart disease, like wolfbane and vampires. But at some point the anomalies accumulate to the point where the explanations begin to look like Ptolemy’s epicycles. I think that’s about where we are with the saturated fat hypothesis.

  9. Aaron — It’s a very interesting question, and one that obviously has no clear answer (or you wouldn’t be asking it). There are several factors that come into play, I think. First, different populations evolved eating different diets. It may well be that meat-eaters and their descendents thrive on an animal-product diet, while plant-eaters and their descendents do not. Since the miracle of air travel has led to global miscegenation, most of us have genes from both camps and our optimal diet is less clear.

    The Eskimo and Masai are isolated meat-eating populations (as are the Maori, who show similar rates of heart disease). The study I’d like to see would feed the Masai the Eskimo diet and vice versa. Is it animal products they’re optimized for, or just those particular animal products?

    Another question is the make-up of the animal fat. Eskimos eat fish fat, which is high in omega-3 fats. Free-ranging, grass-eating cattle, the staple of the Masai, are also much higher in omega-3 fats than modern, corn-fed meat. It may very well be that a diet high in saturated fat from animals grown the old-fashioned way has health implications different from those of a modern high-fat diet.

    What we do know is that modern humans who participate in controlled studies show increased markers for heart disease when they eat more saturated fat, and that high plant intake correlates with decreased disease risk for all kinds of nasty things. “Getting most of your calories from plants” is a prescription that is supported by a great deal of empirical data and one that, I think, is not unduly restrictive.

    And I count myself fortunate in that my readers are not easily bored.

  10. very seriously, yes, I would LOVE some. any idea how hard good stuff like that is to get ahold of? both myself and my dad would make good use of it (i suspect of the confit variety).

    perhaps we can orchestrate a trade of some sort:)

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