When my pigs came back home last fall I was surprised to see how much fat the butcher left on the pork chops and roasts. We had chosen a place that preferred the ‘old way’ of doing up pork that I had absolutely no familiarity with. My usual reaction to a huge hunk of fat on the side of my meat is to cut it off and throw it into my dog’s bowl. That was until I learned about the health benefits of pork lard. Yup, you heard me right. Now I happily remove those strips of fat with a smile on my face knowing that I have something very precious in my midst.
Firstly, when you raise pigs outside (with access to cover of course, but giving them the ability to spend some time in the sunshine) they will synthesize Vitamin D into their skin and become an excellent natural source of that elusive vitamin. Note that most pork you buy from stores will not have this benefit so you will likely have to seek your pigs from specialty shops or directly from farmers. Over 70% of our children have a deficiency in Vitamin D. It is also not possible to make Vitamin D from the sun during our winter months at this northern latitude so we are at further risk of not getting enough of this essential nutrient.
The controversy over fats these days is extremely complicated but I’m going to try to outline a simple version the way that I see it. I am not a nutritionist or a doctor but I do fancy myself as someone who can sense when something just isn’t right, even if I can’t put a finger on it. What this means is that I get really uncomfortable with companies who tinker with my food for a profit or for ease of storage, transport or increases in yield. Those traits in and of them selves are fine. But don’t be adding funny stuff I can’t pronounce and telling me it won’t hurt me if you’re not sure. And if it makes me feel awful, lethargic, moody or bloated, I don’t think I should keep eating it no matter what you say. I guess there is something to be said for intuition and common sense (which isn’t so common anymore, I know).
So here goes:
There are 4 kinds of fats: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats. Every fat or oil contains a mix of these but the dominant one will govern the characteristics of the fat.
Everyone seems to be in agreement about trans fats - or partially hydrogenated oils (often found in vegetable shortening or margarine). They are bad as they increase bad cholesterol and decrease good cholesterol levels in the body. Partial hydrogenation is done to solidify an oil. A fully hydrogenated oil acts more like a saturated fat and is considered less harmful than trans fats but it won't be 'spreadable' (what makes margarine so attractive to people). I learned that mixing butter and olive oil half and half and storing it in the fridge gives the same result without the unknown process leading up to it. It wasn't so very long ago that I thought shortening and lard were the same difference. Shame on me. To confuse things more, naturally occurring trans fats such as Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) found in dairy, and higher in grass-fed animals, has been shown to have health benefits - the difference being that nature came up with this configuration.
Next comes polyunsaturated (eg. flaxseed, sunflower). They are healthy and contain all of those essential fatty acids we hear are so good for us (omega-3 and omega-6). They’ve been shown to improve immune system functioning and actually decrease risk of disease. They seem to be the darling kid that can do no wrong. Except they aren’t stable in heat so you can’t cook or bake with them. An altered fat is the scariest kind of fat of all. Burned or smoking, rancid or compromised by light – for me, this is exactly where my fear of fats comes out to play. These behaviours mark the point that toxins (often carcinogens) are being formed.
Monounsaturated (olive oil, avocado, canola) are also excellent and have been shown to reduce the bad dude cholesterol (LDL), while increasing good (HDL) cholesterol. You can cook with these oils but best to cook with olive oil on a lowish heat. Canola can withstand a higher heat before it starts to turn.
Now here is the one touted as the greatest villain (after transfats) – saturated fats. These are animal fats and are the most stable in heat: dairy (cheese, butter, cream), beef tallow, pork lard, and chicken fat. They have been linked to heart disease and high cholesterol and weight gain and yet, they are the ones we ate for thousands of years without trouble. It is only in recent decades that we are seeing increased rates of cancers and heart problems. Something is awry here I believe.
Technically pork lard isn't even a saturated fat as it is predominantly made up of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. The majority of its composition is monounsaturated fat which is my favourite choice because it has health benefits AND the ability to remain stable in heat. In addition to lard being one of the best dietary sources of vitamin D, it contains no trans-fats.
There are actually many studies out there that show high fat diets can be linked to weight loss. This kind of information could turn the diet industry on its head.
Basically we’ve been told for decades now that low fat or no fat this or that was always the best choice. Now very controversial information is pointing to the fact that saturated fats may not have been the culprit all along. There is agreement that some kind of fat was being linked to cancer, cholesterol and heart disease but on more careful examination, it may well have been the more ‘altered’ fats that were causing all of the havoc. Fats in their natural states, unfettered by heat may actually improve one’s state of health. If nothing else, a deficiency in certain nutrients often carried in fats and oils can cause far greater concern.
Note now that French fries in fast food joints are made with high heat vegetable oils that should be changed daily due to rancidity or smoking (although I'm guessing this doesn't happen). Beef tallow was the choice of old and those tanks could apparently last a month or so before the oils went funky - again, the benefit of the oil not being altered with heat. The change was made because it was thought that ‘vegetable’ oil was the healthier choice. Sounds better, doesn't it? Look more closely...
I am not about to dive into the deep end of an argument that is going on between people who spend their lives studying these things. Their positions are valuable. But my common sense keeps returning to the same point. Please don’t tinker with my food. Please just leave it as it exists naturally as much as possible. Because I am not only afraid of what that will do to it and consequently, do to my body, but I am also concerned about what will be taken away from the processing and rearranging of these foods.
Against the better judgment of many, I render my hunks of pork fat every time I cook up the pork. First I cut the fat into cubes about 1 inch thick (even if it is just 2 pork chops worth). Please note that lard made from pastured raised pig is what brings on the benefits - I wouldn't bother with any pig fat you don't know the history of (most large stores sell 'barn'/factory raised pork). I place them in a pot on medium heat stirring them about often enough so that a layer of oil starts to form under the cubes. Once this happens, they won’t stick as much. Some will put these cubes in the oven on a cooking sheet for 20 minutes at 375F – I’ve not tried this method before. Basically you want those fat cubes to turn into little shriveled crunchies floating in a sea of oil. When that happens (and before it burns), pour the oil over a metal strainer or funnel into a jar holding the crunchy bits back. Some folks like to put these in salads or eat them as snacks. They are cracklings. Not my treat.
Leave the oil on the counter covered at room temperature overnight and then put it into the fridge once it has solidified. Use it in piecrust or to stir fry things. It also works well to grease up the corn tortillas for enchiladas. Pork lard actually has very little taste (despite that smell that rendering the lard creates in your house), and can be used for sweet or savory. Mostly I just use it up like a vitamin supplement because I know how hard it is to find a natural source of Vitamin D these days.
That’s all for now. Don’t go binging on every fat you can find now and blame me for your weight gain (when I touted my whole milk spiel – another blog post - to a friend he gave me angst for gaining 10 pounds in a week from trying it). But do consider seeking out natural fat sources, including those from animals, again. They may not be the bad guys we’ve made them out to be.