Lardy, lardy when will they learn?

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.”

Say what??

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!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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23 thoughts on “Lardy, lardy when will they learn?

  1. I started making my own lard because I could not find any that didn’t list “lard and partially-hydrogenated lard” on the label. Perhaps that has changed since the last time I checked. I have heard that Mexican brands are not partially hydrogenated and have been meaning to look for a Mexican grocery to check it out.

    Lard was a staple food in America for most of our history. It was also the fat of choice in Northern Italy, Poland, most of Europe, and China. Thanks for coming to the defense of a good natural fat!

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Hey, Judy! It is a problem, for sure. Though it really is pretty easy to make, I usually keep a tub of Mother Linda’s organic lard around. It’s a really top notch product.

  2. Thanks for the excellent post about lard, my favorite fat, the one I can’t get here so stick to organic butter. Maybe I’ll live long enough to see the “untampered” version sold here. And if you ask for organic lard in organic shops you are treated like a leper, people actually move well away from you.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Try the online source I gave in the post. Their organic lard arrives in a refrigerated box and is relatively inexpensive and delicious.

  3. A few years ago, I was trying to find some lard that was not partially hydrogenated. I figured that the local butcher shop would have some. The first butcher that I asked had no idea what ‘lard’ was. He had to ask the other butcher. They didn’t have any.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: The butcher shop won’t have lard, although it surprises me that a butcher wouldn’t know what lard was, but that’s specialization for you. At the butcher counter, what you’d ask for is the fat trimmings from organic, naturally-raised pork. Your butcher may or may not carry any naturally-raised pork, but a natural food grocer will. Then you’d take that pork fat and follow the instructions given in the Homesick Texan blog link to render your own non-hydrogenated organic lard. If all they have is regular pork fat, that’s fine, too, but it isn’t quite as pure and healthy, since there may be residual hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, and other environmental and agri pollutants in the fat and those will also be in your lard. You might look online in chef’s catalogs for Snowflake Lard, which is a chef’s favorite for perfect pie crusts.

  4. I just checked the on-line source and this message is on the site:

    “I am out of lard–check back Fall 2008.”

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Bummer! Well, fall is just around the corner. When I order, I always order several and I freeze the extras. They last well in the freezer for a long time.

  5. Lard is great a great nature made food.
    The other fat that I like to have in my daily meal plan: organic virgin coconut oil.
    If I feel tired, exhausted, low on energy, it is absolutely amazing what a a tablespoon of coconut oil will do…! It’s Medium Chain Triglycerides provide an immediate and lasting energy boost, while providing numerous other benefits too.

  6. Thanks for a great article, can’t WAIT to share it with my “fat free” friends – although I doubt it will get through to them.

    I’ve been using Mother Linda’s lard for several years now and love the stuff. She has other lovely fats as well, one of which is some wonderful duck fat! I love her website. AND her lard! 😉

  7. Great post all the way around. I had to express my particular admiration for the wonderful phrase “knee-jerk Kool-aid slurping surety.” I am dazzled.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Hey, Dana! Nice to hear from you and glad you enjoyed it. As my mother would have said: sometimes you just have to call a spade a ‘damned dirty shovel’.

  8. Dr. Eades, that was a brilliant post. I’ve been making my own lard (and saving every bit of precious bacon fat) for quite a few years now.

    I eat my “artery clogging saturated fat” with just about everything, every day, and so far my arteries aren’t clogged. :)
    Far from it.
    The only question that still nags me is whether I should bother refrigerating the lard. My Mom never did- it was put in a can in the cabinet. I keep mine in the fridge primarily out of fear.
    And what about rendered beef fat? I put mine in ziploc bags and freeze it- is that necessary? Not that it’s a big deal to snap off a piece when required, but I wouldn’t want my precious grass fed, organic, pastured beef tallow to go bad.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: The bacon drippin’ can lived on the stove top at my grandmother’s house, too, but my mother always refrigerated hers. I have noticed a whiff of rancidity in the cans left out at room temperature from time to time, so it’s probably best to refrigerate and in the case of long term storage, freeze, just to be safe.

    Thanks for the beautiful blog on the king of fat.

  9. Dr. Eades, thanks for a great article.

    Just wanted to mention that I was looking at my mother’s 1950 edition of the “Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook” — our cooking bible when I was growing up — and came across a recipe for pie crust that has a footnote that reads “*When using hydrogenated shortenings, add about 2 tbsp. more.” I had no idea there was such a thing as NON-hydrogenated shortening. Wonder if I can find it? Otherwise I’ll order the lard online — if I can’t find it at my local carniceria.

  10. Great post!

    I have had a hard time finding lard that hasn’t been tampered with. I can occasionally get pork trimmings, but it is in great demand out here in Colorado.

    When I can’t find trimmings to make lard, I go to the Oriental market and pick up a couple of duck legs. 2 small duck legs give you about 1 cup of delicious fat after baking.

    I have re-instituted the “lard jar” in my household. While grandma used a Campbell’s soup can, I have a small ceramic jar with a hinged lid.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Great idea about the duck fat. And yummy, too.

  11. Is lard okay to use in deep fryers? And if so, how many times can it be used before it needs to be changed? Thank you.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Absolutely it can be. Lard or beef tallow are the perfect fats for deep frying. How many uses depends largely on what you cooked in it. If you strain it of bits that will burn, you ought to be able to get several uses out of it. Cooking convenience type foods in it (read pre-battered, frozen prepared foods such as chicken nuggets, onion rings, jalapeno poppers, chicken wings, etc) if there are trans fats in the prepared foods, those trans fats will wind up in the deep fryer oil…and you.

  12. I have a tip to share with you and your readers. If you have a farmer in your area who raises pastured animals, ask them about the fat.
    The local farmer who raises pastured, organic pork brought me many pounds of fat for only 1.00/pound. I just got through rendering 3 lbs of it, and got over a quart of lard plus crackling’s.
    I inquired the same of my Beef farmer, and she brought 20 pounds of suet to the farmer’s market for me, free. They normally throw it away! Dr. Eades, may I please print out your Lardy post and give it to my farmers?

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Thanks for the tip. You’re welcome to print it for the farmers, but watch out…once they realize that this ‘byproduct’ is a good thing, the price may rise 😉

  13. Hey Dr. Mary Dan,

    You should write a cookbook devoted exclusively to your best recipes using LARD! Don’t you know that would get the low-fatties all in a tizzy! Great column. :) Jimmy Moore

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Wouldn’t it?

  14. The person who wrote this is even more ignorant of chemistry and fats than the person being criticized. The terms “cis” and “trans” describe the positioning of H atoms at a C to C double bond (an unsataurated site) either on the same side of the double bond or the opposite sides of the double bond. So if a carbon bonding site has “a full complement of hyddrogens” it is a saturated site, not an unsaturated site, and the terms “cis” does not describe it. If you “force-feed” hydrogen to the double bonds you have a saturated site and so there cannot be a “trans” configuration. “Alittle bit of hydrogen added”…….does indeed “increase shelf life of the oil” but you have saturated fat, not unsaturated with a trans configuration. The trans configuration results when oils are PARTIALLY hydrogenated and some of the cis unsaturated sites rearrange to trans configurations.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Thank you for your input.

  15. Could you comment on the benefits of using a saturated fat like Lard for high temperature cooking (like frying) v. a monounsaturated fat like almond oil?

    Some people seem to go by “smoke point” as the judge of what should be used for high temperature cooking, but does “smoking” really indicate any substantive or harmful change in the chemical composition of the oil/fat? Does it relate to free radical creation (and is that even important?)

    Thanks, Lucy

    COMMENT from MD EADES: I can’t say that I’ve ever used almond oil for frying. The more stable the fat (saturated being more stable than monoun- or polyunsaturated) the better for high temperature frying. So the best choices would be lard and beef tallow, as I understand it. Peanut oil tolerates high temperatures pretty well, I think. I use olive oil or a combo of olive oil and butter for lower temperature pan frying. Certainly a component is the smoke point, because at that point the taste of the oil (and what’s fried in it) changes. I would assume, though I don’t know for certain, that there would be higher generation of free radicals as the oil temp increases beyond its smoke point.

  16. Dr. Eades,

    Thank you for the excellent article.

    Here is another organic lard source for you:
    The pigs are 100% grass fed too!

  17. Good post.

    I wish I could get lard easier here in Finland, but like with most countries, saturated fat is still being looked upon with suspicion and vegetable fats are king. It’s a shame.

  18. I’ve noticed that sometimes food packages list 0.5 or more grams of trans fat, but don’t list shortening or hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil under “Ingredients.” Does this mean that the trans fat content is of the naturally occurring type? In these cases, I’ve often noticed “hydrolyzed soy protein” under “Ingredients.” Does that also contain trans fat like hydrogenated oils? Thanks in advance for any answer you can provide.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: I’m not sure what it might be coming from, but it could be soybean oil, which is often a source of transfat even if it’s not listed as ‘partially hydrogenated’ and it could be that there is some portion of trans fat containing oil remaining in the hydrolyzed soy protein. That’s just a WAG, though.

  19. Are fully hydrogenated oils (given that, technically, they don’t have much trans fat)just as unhealthy as the partially hydrogenated kind? Thanks in advance.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: A fully hydrogenated oil can’t take on a ‘trans’ configuration, which a partially hydrogenated oil will do, so yes it’s better from a health standpoint.

  20. Your reasoning that palmitic acid can’t be bad for you because there is so much in human milk, and that lard must be healthy do to a resemblance in composition to human milk is utterly unsound.

    What is healthy for an infant for a few years can hardly be extrapolated to an adult life. It would also be extremely unnatural.

    I’m not claiming lard is bad for you. Frankly the evidence either way looks pretty muddy to me, and while I don’t trust the mainstream lipid theory, the data and thinking from the advocates of various alternative theories (such as those that advocate palm oil or lard) aren’t any more convincing to me. In any case, it does not help the cause of de-vilifying lard by employing faulty logic to advocate it.