Friday’s Santa Barbara Newspress carried a front page article trumpeting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signing of legislation that phases out the use of trans fats in commercially-prepared (but not pre-packaged) food–i.e., in restaurant and cafeteria foods. (I would love to link to the full article, but the SBNP makes its online service available only to paid subscribers, which I find very short sighted, but there it is.) I applaud the move to drive partially hydrogenated vegetable oils into gas tanks where they belong. In my opinion, these Franken Fats have no place in human nutrition.
However, the author of the piece, Scott Steepleton, made a monumental error in fact checking. We’ve already written a letter to the editor pointing up the mistake; we’ll let you know if they print it.
Per Mr. Steepleton:
A small amount of trans fat is found naturally, primarily in some animal-based foods, according to the Food and Drug Administration. [No quibble so far.] But legislation such as Mr. Mensoza’s AB 97 [the bill banning the use of trans fats] is aimed at the manufactured variety, produced when hydrogen is added to, say, vegetable oil. That includes lard.”
Since when did lard become a ‘manufactured’ fat, hydrogenated in a factory by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil? What utter nonsense.
Real lard is a naturally-hydrogenated, solid fat that requires no tampering in the factory to add anything to it. Lard is rendered pork fat. Most of its carbon bonding sites are happily filled with a full complement of hydrogens in their natural and normal cis position just as it comes from the hog.
Mr. Steepleton must be confusing lard with shortening or perhaps confusing real natural lard with the lard found in tubs on grocery shelves (as opposed to the refrigerator case, where it should be) that has had some manufacturer’s tinkering to make it even more shelf stable.
Unlike the natural solid fat, lard, vegetable shortening is a liquid oil until manufacturers tamper with its structure by heating it up under pressure and bubbling hydrogen gas into it (with a catalyst to make it all work faster) and force-feeding the carbon double bonds some hydrogen atoms that often latch on in a crossways or trans configuration.
A little bit of hydrogen added in the trans configuration increases shelf life of the oil and allows liquid vegetable oils and corn oil not to go rancid in large, clear containers exposed to light and heat on the store shelves. (This would also be the case, though to a much lesser degree, for the small amount of hydrogenation possible for shelf-stable lard.)
A lot of hydrogen added in the trans configuration solidifies the liquid oil, creating stick margarine or solid vegetable shortening, such as Crisco. These Franken Fats were created to replace the naturally solid fats, butter and lard, not for health reasons, but because the real McCoys were rationed in WWII.
I grew up in a household that saved every drop of bacon grease (or drippins, as we called it) and used it liberally in cooking to season greens, fry chicken or eggs, lighten pie crusts and more. To this day, there is always a coffee can containing bacon drippins in my refrigerator. Granted, it’s now an Illy espresso can, not a Maxwell House…Good to the last drop! can, proving only that though times change, they don’t change all that much.
In the years since WWII, which is all of my life so far, the Franken Fats have largely taken over the prepackaged commercial food market, since they have some attractive food manufacturing properties, the most important of which (I suspect) being that they are a whole lot cheaper.
Both lard and butter have been vilified (undeservedly) by the all-saturated-fats-are-evil crowd, but where butter has been labeled by them as dangerous for your health, lard has been cast as a mass-murdering serial killer. It’s utter, knee-jerk, nonsense. And nonsense, by the way, that led these bands of crusading think-they-know-it-all do-gooders (read: Committee for Science in the Public Interest and the PETA-backed Physicians for Responsible Medicine) to pressure the powers that be to remove beef tallow, lard, and butter from commercially prepared foods and replace them with ‘healthy’ partially hydrogenated vegetable fats in the first place. Yes, they all previously lobbied to switch to these self-same fats–these trans fats–that they’re now crusading to eliminate from commercial kitchens.
Time has proven that they were misguided then, but it has left them between the proverbial rock and the hard place. They can’t allow people to eat ‘dangerous artery clogging saturated fats’ and they can’t recommend their erstwhile darlings (now their demons) the partially-hydrogenated vegetable fats. About all that’s left to them is olive oil, onto which they’ve jumped with both feet as the savior of human hearts and health.
Let’s look for a moment beyond the inflammatory rhetoric and knee-jerk Kool-aid slurping surety that lard is bad and that all saturated fats, such as those found in lard, are bad and attempt to tease out the truth. What is lard?
Lard, contrary to its besmirched reputation, is a healthful fat with sterling culinary properties for high temperature cooking and baking and a darned good fatty acid profile.
(First a brief digression about nomenclature in fats. If you’re up on it, skip on down.)
Fats are made of fatty acids. Fatty acids are the carbon-hydrogen chains that latch on in groups of three to a glycerol backbone to make a triglyceride molecule, which are the basic molecules of which all fats are made. The length of the carbon chains and where, if any, double bonds (ie, missing hydrogen molecules) occur differentiate the fatty acids one from another. The more double bonds, the more unsaturated. One double bond gives you a monounsaturate, many double bonds gives you a polyunsaturate, no double bonds gives you a saturated fatty acid.
The main saturated fatty acids in edible oils are (from shortest to longest chains): capric, lauric, myristic, palmitic, and stearic acids. The main monounsaturate is oleic acid. The main polyunsaturates are linoleic and alpha-linolenic, with the difference between those two 18-carbon fatty acids simply where the first double bond occurs, which is at the number 6 carbon in linoleic (making it an omega-6 fat) and at the number 3 carbon in alpha-linolenic (making it an omega-3 fat). And of course there are the all-important highly unsaturated marine oils, EPA and DHA, which are 20 carbon chains in the omega-3 family as well.
Now let’s compare lard to that darling of the disciples of the Mediterranean diet: olive oil. Olive oil contains 71% oleic acid, that heart-healthy, monounsaturated fat that we’re supposed to get more of. Lard contains 44% oleic acid, which is more than sesame oil (41%) and double or nearly so the amount in corn oil (28%) walnut oil (28%), and flaxseed oil (21%), more than double the amount in cottonseed oil (19%) and sunflower oil (19%), and nearly triple that in grapeseed oil (15%) and safflower oil (13%). The oleic acid content of lard also exceeds that in beef tallow (43%), butterfat (29%), and human butterfat (ie the fat of breast milk at 35%).
Lard also contains a fair amount (14%) of the 18-carbon saturated fat, stearic acid, which has been shown in clinical testing to lower cholesterol. Important, of course, only if that’s actually a valid cardiovascular health parameter when it’s all said and done, which is looking more and more doubtful with each passing day. Certainly there are many who still think it so. Consumers spend an annual $14.8 billion on statins in an effort to lower cholesterol–a sad commentary, when stearic acid is a whole lot cheaper and safer.
Like olive oil, lard contains 10% of the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid, again, roughly the same as human butterfat (breast milk) at 9%.
Lard contains 2% myristic acid, a 14-carbon saturated fat that has been shown to have important immune enhancing properties. Human butterfat contains about 8% myristic acid, as a booster for the newly minted and incompetent infant immune system. Other animal milk fats also contain a fair amount. By comparison with the exception of cottonseed oil (1%) and the tropical oils, coconut oil (18%) and and palm kernal oil (16%) vegetable oils have zero.
The big bugaboo with lard, then, must come from the last component of its composition: palmitic acid a 16-carbon saturated fatty acid that is believed by some to be Beelzebub, Barlow, and the Bermuda Triangle all rolled into one. Lard contains 26% of the stuff and olive oil only 13%. Aha! There it is. The smoking gun! That must be what makes lard so bad and olive oil so good!
There’s one fly in that explanatory ointment, however: human butterfat contains 25% palmitic acid, just a silly 1% different from lard. Are we to believe that nature would have designed a food for human infants that contained too much?
So let’s now compare lard’s basic fatty acid composition to the real gold standard, the butterfat of human breast milk and see how it stacks up.
Saturated Monounsaturated Polyunsaturated
Breast Milk 48% 35% 10%
Lard 42% 44% 10%
Note: the numbers don’t add up to 100% because of rounding and other small constituents not listed in the fats and oils of common edible foods table. That said, however, even if all the unreported 7% of the composition of breast milk were monounsaturated fat and all unreported 4% of the lard were saturated fat, the composition of lard would still be less saturated and contain more monounsaturates than human breast milk.
Now tell me again why lard is bad for our health.
If you want to render your own lard, there’s a good piece about it on the Homesick Texan blog.
If you don’t want to go to the trouble to render your own, but love to use lard for panfrying and baking, I sussed out an organic source for lard online.
Springing for an organic source in lard (whether you buy naturally raised pork fat to render yourself or let someone else do the work for you) is important, since most pesticides, chemicals, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, and other environmental pollutants will be soluble (and therefore stored) in the fat of the animal. Where edible fat is concerned, organic is definitely worth the expense.
So fear not and don’t be swayed by the misguided and misinformed. Eat more (natural, organic) lard!