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The skinny on Lard?

In a couple of contexts, most recently Alton Brown's Good Eats show on tamales, I've heard it said that lard isn't actually the cardiovascular nuclear bomb that it's been made out to be.

Brown's claims, for example, are that lard is lower in saturated fat than butter and equivalent to (I think) sunflower oil in monunsaturated fats. Also, no trans fats.

Are people omitting some dark side to lard when making such points? If not, when and how did lard get its reputation?

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  1. Most everyone is selective when trying to make a point. As for the evolution of the good fat/ bad fat debate, there was probably a bit of marketing involved, but I think it's mostly a case of increased scientific knowledge, especially a better understanding of how bad trans fats are and how mono and poly-unsaturated fats can be good. There are lots of charts out there, and the numbers vary, but this one will do:

    http://culinaryarts.about.com/od/culi...

    The table is sorted by the amount of saturated fat, so if that's all you look at, lard looks pretty bad and margarine looks pretty good. That may be how lard got a bad reputation. But margarine and shortening contain trans fats, which are really bad and apparently do not occur in nature (at least in the oils and fats we eat), those are the nuclear bomb.

    Now, if you look at the "good" unsaturated fat contents, the numbers are all over the place. Some fats are high in mono, and some in poly. Poly is supposed to be better than mono, but by how much? Who knows, but if you add the mono and poly numbers, most vegetable oils have about 10-12 grams/tbsp of unsaturated fat. Lard comes in at 8.2 grams, and butter at 3.8 grams. Butter is also higher in saturated fat. So if there's a widely used natural fat (anybody out there use palm kernel oil?) to be included in the bomb category, it's butter, not lard.

    That said, Alton Brown probably did cherry pick his numbers. According to that particular table, lard does indeed have as good or better levels of mono-unsaturated fat compared to vegetable oils, but it's poly-unsaturated fat level is much lower. So the implication that lard is as healthy as sunflower oil is a stretch.

    As for myself, I use lard all the time (fresh rendered by me or a local store, not the hydrogenated trans-fat bricks they sell in supermarkets), also olive or canola oil, depending on the recipe. What the tables don't tell you is how it tastes (which is why I add a bit of that evil butter every now and then).

    5 Replies
    1. re: Zeldog

      Very helpful response, and an interesting chart. Thanks!

      I wonder, does coconut milk have much coconut oil? Coconut's another thing that I've heard was thought to be bad and then science advances redeemed it somehow, but my recollection is (obviously) poor. According to that chart, coconut oil looks like pretty bad stuff.

      1. re: Bada Bing

        Coconut oil and palm oil are both saturated fats (solid at room temp), so they were considered "bad" -- but more recently they have been redeemed somewhat. The whole good fat/bad fat issue just shows how silly is it to make black and white distinctions and to demonize some foods while over-hyping others. There's really no such thing as an unhealthy food -- whether or not a food is unhealthy depends on how much of it you consume and what your particular health issues are, and perhaps also on your genetics: some populations may be more adapted to foods that were traditionally found in their environment than people whose ancestors thrived on different foods. A good example might be the relatively low incidence of lactose intolerance in Northern Europeans compared to other population groups: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lactose_...

        1. re: Bada Bing

          A wonderful article on the topic: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/12/opi...

          After a lifetime of dutifully ingesting margarine and Crisco, I am trying to rectify the damage caused by BAD SCIENTIFIC DATA, and have switched to "healthy" fats such as olive oil, pasture butter, coconut oil, and--yes--lard. It felt almost criminal, at first--despite vast research that convinced me that lard is NOT the boogyman--to start cooking with "The Nasty Stuff" but now I go so far as to render the fat from the organically raised, pastured hogs I buy about once a year, to make sure I have plenty of the type of lard that IS good for you (in moderation, of course): high in vitamin D, more than half mono-unsaturated fats, and it makes delicious food, too.

        2. re: Zeldog

          Good points, Zeldog! As someone who grew up in the "butter bad/margarine good" era, I think that cholesterol was the main reason animal fats were demonized. You can talk about mono and poly unsaturated, transfats and saturated fats, but before all of that, cholesterol was the big deal. Animal fats have cholesterol and plant fats don't, so plant-based fats were considered to be "good" and animal fats were considered "bad." Ah, how my heart aches now for my grandparents who gave up butter for trans-fat laden margarine because margarine was healthier!

          1. re: Zeldog

            Butter also has lecithin, a fat emulsifier. There's nothing wrong with saturated fat from unpolluted sources.

          2. I bought the book Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient with Recipes by Jennifer McLagan and it explains so much! It focuses mainly on animal fats, but it has a lot of history that teaches you what has happened in the fat industry. There are many great recipes using various animal fats as well as details of what each fat type is made of and why the proportions of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated are important. I have been rendering my own lard since I bought the book and I highly recommend it.

            1. No question that it's gotten a bad rap, and yes, of course too much of it or ANY fat is not exactly a key to good health.
              I render and use lard regularly. It's unbeatable (practically essential) for pie crust, and at least somewhat healthier than the hydrogenated substitutes that have been marketed and rammed down our gullets for a couple of generations.
              Like anything, moderation is the key. Too much of ANYTHING is not good.

              I am thankful to god above (whatever _it_ is) and my parents that I wasn't raised with any religious restrictions regarding it's use.

              Used with reason, it is a wholesome, flavor enhancing, and healthy ingredient. I grew up eating "zsíros kenyér" (a simple, Hungarian peasant delicacy where the main seasoning is essentially lard rendered from a cube of pork belly roasted over a wood fire...look it up) and I am hale and hearty heading towards 60, and looking forward well beyond that.

              I am, quite frankly, more likely to avoid American corn-fed, hormone enhanced supermarket beef.... again, that's just me, although realistically, even that's probably fine as long as you don't make it the centerpiece of your diet.
              "All things in moderation". Right?

              1. Hey, Dude. THIS is the chart you're looking for...
                http://stay-healthy-enjoy-life.blogsp...

                --------

                I don't know how reliable the below source is (everyone has a PhD these days,) Nevertheless, its interesting reading/food for thought...
                http://www.westonaprice.org/The-Great...
                http://www.westonaprice.org/Some-Typi...

                (info on the latter sources' author: "Dr. Weston Price, whose studies of isolated nonindustrialized peoples established the parameters of human health and determined the optimum characteristics of human diets. Dr. Price's research demonstrated that humans achieve perfect physical form and perfect health generation after generation only when they consume nutrient-dense whole foods and the vital fat-soluble activators found exclusively in animal fats.")

                1. Wasn't it a smear campaign by Cottolene that started the "lard is evil" idea?

                  I'll take pig fat over lab fat any day, myself.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: rohirette

                    Don't know. Read that "Con-ola" link though. I skimmed it, and it talks about the patent owners smearing the reputation of animal fat, to make room for their engineered fats. When the science finally came in, a lot fo the science and govt establishment who'd jumped on board with the new stuff suddenly had egg on their face, and weren't apt to announce their folly. Similarly, the fast food chains made a big to-do about switching to "healthier" veg oil. After just getting done telling their customers how bad their old fat was, they weren't about to tell them the new stuff was worse (and that the best alternative to both, was to eat somewhere/something else.)

                    It sounds like lard was swept up in the chemical business craze took over last century. Scientists figured out how to synthesize things in the natural world, which were of course patentable, and the companies' PR and marketing firms went to work convincing people this science was somehow superior to the science we found or had manipulated for millenia before.