Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Oh, Lard. Not again!

I have a simple test for sniffing out my least favorite kind of food and nutrition journalism. Try to discern if it carries an implicit message that "everything you thought was bad for you is good for you again sooner or later."

Good nutrition advice is fairly stable, with a modest drift noticeable from half-decade to half-decade, not week to week. Pollan's version: "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much." The federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, though more heavy on nutritionism, basically agree. They are adjusted a bit every five years, and some say the revisions should be once per decade.

Regina Schrambling's article on Slate yesterday saves us the trouble of looking for the implicit message. The first sentence is: "Wait long enough and everything bad for you is good again."

The article whitewashes . . . lard. Time permits just the briefest summary of the nutrition evaluation: fine in very small quantities, bad for health and the environment in large quantities, and in all cases not deserving of a whitewash.

Where did I see this theme just recently?

Oh, yes, it was the blog post titled "lard is good" by Shauna James Ahern -- the gluten-free girl -- who has disappointed her fans by blogging now with sponsorship by . . . the National Pork Board, the semi-public board that uses the federal government's powers of taxation to collect mandatory assessments for promoting pork.

Update: Edited just slightly for milder tone.

13 comments:

Ed Bruske said...

We'll never agree on this one, Parke. Like all fats, lard is composed of different varieties of fatty acids. It is actually majority monounsaturated fat, the same as olive oil. It has been used for centuries in cultures where pigs are raised. The Italians love an heirloom preserved product called "lardo." It makes outstanding pie crusts. It is the very essence of what a great many of us food advocates consider a "real" food. You can try to demonize it if you like (the low-fat mafia did a good job of it, but people are coming to a more complete understanding of different fats and which are the ones to be avoided), but telling people to avoid wonderful, healthful, traditional products like lard (not the hydrogenated stuff from Smithfield, but the real deal, from pastured pigs) is--parden the expression--pure hogwash.

Parke Wilde said...

You could be right that we'll never agree, but let's track down the source of the disagreement.

Almost no fat source is all saturated fat (not even butter is all saturated). Lard, at about 40% saturated fat, as nearly as heavy in saturated fat as a product can be. Equating lard with olive oil without mentioning that fact makes your comment misleading. The words "demonize" and "low-fat mafia" don't apply to the argument whose outlines I marked out. Question 1 is: in your comment, do you seek to be like an attorney arguing a client's case or a reporter trying to evaluate the arguments for and against?

You seem to believe the science showing that hydrogenated fats are bad. I can respect a completely anti-nutritionism position from a culinary perspective, but that's not the line you're taking. Question 2 is: are you skeptical of the nutrition science in whole, or just the parts that disagree with your view?

Ed Bruske said...

Every human is equipped with enzymes that convert saturated fats into unsaturated fats after they've been. Saturated fat is not plutonium. Like everything else, moderation is the key. I wonder if there is a documented case of an Italian dying from eating lardo. Do you know of any? Or can you point to any controlled studies showing that people who used lard in their cooking stood a greater risk of dying--more so than, say, driving on the expressway?

Parke Wilde said...

Hmm. I'm happy to say that we are agreed that lard is not plutonium and that there has never been a documented case of an Italian dying from eating lardo. Otherwise, we aren't quite getting our gears engaged in this debate -- time to set it aside. By the way, I love the Slow Cook blog.

Ashley said...

As a Registered Dietitian I have seen the effects of lard on a population, mainly the Hispanic population in Central and South Texas.

From a health standpoint the utilization of lard that has become a staple in diets is contributing to obesity, hyperlipidemia, high cholesterol and heart disease. While the lard doesn't cause instant death, it is a major ingredient in this population's diet and truly a factor.

Chris said...

All natural fats perform functions in our bodies. "Saturated fats fight infection, aid digestion, and extend the use of the omega-3 fats. Without saturated fats, the body cannot absorb calcium or build cell walls." (Nina Planck, Real Food, 105)

Lard does contain the same fatty acid, oleic acid, as olive oil. Another component of lard, stearic acid lowers cholesterol.

One hundred years ago, lard was the most widely used fat in US kitchens and heart disease did not exist. People around the world have thrived on high-fat diets. While I'm not generally prone to conspiracy theorizing, it seems to me the campaign against animal fats has largely benefited the industrial food system and its highly processed vegetable oils. While Americans consume fewer animal fats than ever, rates of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, etc., continue to rise.

As far as lard "becoming a staple" in Mexican diets...it's long been a part of the Mexican diet. Unfortunately, lard available at the typical tienda is hydrogenated. Properly rendered lard is not.

There a lot of problems with the Standard American Diet today. Too much processed food, too much protein from animals living in CAFOs (full of antibiotics and with an imbalance of omega fatty acids), all kinds of bad fats (but not the animal fats our far healthier ancestors consumed), too much sugar. Only about 1.5% of the fat Americans consume is lard--it cannot be blamed for our poor health.

DrFood said...

I'm wondering if you've ever encountered naturally rendered lard, as opposed to the processed lard you can buy in a grocery store. My family purchased a half hog and in the processing, I ended up with a lot of lard.

The lard from our hog is much softer than butter when it comes out of the fridge. Butter is 60% saturated fat. If I'm frying up an omelette, I used to use butter. Now I use lard, or, I will until I run out of it.

I agree that the appearance of impropriety exists in a food blogger praising lard after accepting cash from pork producers, but I'd urge you to check out the properties of non-processed lard before dismissing it as not worth eating. If you don't eat butter because you hate the idea of all that saturated fat, then at least you're being consistent, but if you eat butter then it's silly not to use (natural) lard for the jobs for which it is well-suited, like frying eggs and pie crust.

Parke Wilde said...

Oh, all right, I can't defend any criticism of lard as used by Ed Bruske, Chris, and DrFood. For example, DrFood is using lard instead of butter -- probably no net increase in saturated fats.

Still, why do you believe the science about stearic acid (good) and hydrogentated fats (bad) and not acknowledge the mainstream view on saturated fats (increased consumption of saturated fats is strongly associated with risk of heart disease, and causal interpretation is plausible)? It is great to read Nina Planck and the new book on fats cited in the Slate post and the Pork Board blog, but I would read them alongside -- not instead of -- traditional scientific summaries of the balance of evidence, such as from the American Heart Association or the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

DrFood said...

I guess I'm just suspicious of a lot of the common wisdom. I got a Master's degree in nutritional sciences from a Big 10 University in the late 80's/early 90's. It was all about the fat, how fat makes you fat. I remember telling people "Your grandmother said that potatoes make you fat, but it's not the potato, it's the butter and sour cream." Well, 20 years on, I agree more with the grandmother than my old professors. I'm a pediatrician and I see obesity primarily from excessive carbohydrates, even more than fats.

There's a really interesting blog called Whole Health Source: http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/ that you might want to peruse some time. The blogger is a grad student and seems to spend most of his time talking about fats. A new idea I'm pondering from him is that you should try to actively avoid omega-6 fatty acids (not just increase the omega-3s).

Professors at my school were involved in coming up with the Food Pyramid and other official government nutrition information. The influence of Corporate Agriculture on these committees is significant. I understand your frustration with the "everything that they said is bad for you is actually good for you" vibe that food writers love to use, but there really is not complete agreement on what diets are best. I think that different people do best on different diets, and there are multiple ways to eat healthfully.

I tend to think simple is better. What could I fry my eggs in, instead of butter or lard? The fats in my kitchen right now are olive oil, canola oil, butter, lard, walnut oil and sesame seed oil. (I usually have roasted peanut oil, just because it is so delicious, but I'm out right now.)

Actually, I've got a bunch of beef tallow in my freezer, but the only thing I know it's good for is french fries, and I've never deep fried my own french fries. I'm thinking about making soap--I hate to throw the stuff away because it came from the pastured steer we processed last fall. But I'm rambling now--sorry!

Mark Lee said...

Just another comment regarding lard and hispanic populations. I was just involved in an obesity study for a college sociology class and the evidence I encountered suggested that segments of the hispanic population slower to acculturate to the "fast-food" and high-sugar society in the modern U.S. had lower rates of obesity/overweight. In fact, tradition Mexican cooking, including the use of "manteca" or lard (among that segment of the hispanic population) appears to be healthier than the food that most hispanic kids are getting as they acculurate to convenience store and fast food sources.

Dr. Food: Hang on to that tallow! As a long-time recreational soap maker, it's hard to find a better fat for making good, clean, hard soap. (Although lard works well too, to finish on the note upon which we all started.)

Dan Sadler said...

Read this:
http://www.drcranton.com/nutrition/oiling.htm

I have believed all of my life that fat makes you fat. I have heard it all of my life, my dad, teachers, the U.S. Government, the food companies, everybody in agreement. Saturated animal fats cause heart disease. OK, last week I was reading some artilcle about cholesterol, and the author, a doctor, said that saturated fats in fact do not cause atherosclerosis. I couldn't believe it! How possibly could everything I have learned since childhood be wrong? I doubted the article. I thought it was baloney. So I googled "Saturated fat study", I read some of the websites and became more and more convinced that saturated fats are good for you.
Try it yourself. Just look at the studies. There have been 50 major studies trying to prove saturated fats cause heart disease since the 50's, with no success. Even the Framingham heart study, which has been going on and in still going since 1953, can't prove Dr. Ancel Keys' diet-heart theory that saturated fats cause heart disease. There have been only 4 studies that correlate with saturated fat heart disease, but their evidence is shaky at best.
Even in France, where they lead Europe in saturated fat consumption, the French have the lowest incidence of heart disease.
Now I am totally convinced.
Why put anything into your body that is synthesized by man? Corn oil, vegetable oil, canola oil, safflower oil is make by humans. These are chemicals, not food! These oils are not found in nature. Ancient humans never ate it. Poly-unsaturated oils have a still unknown affect on the human physiology, although I suspect they probably cause weight gain as well as cancer. Our bodies have not been digesting any oils like this until about a hundred years ago. Hydrogenated oils, like margarine and shortening are worse. Humans are made out of animal fat, and have been eating it for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years.
It seems foolish to put anything in your body food wise that is not natural. To eat right, eat foods found in nature, like natural lard. The body can genetically handle it, because our ancestors have eaten saturated fats forever.
It seems the food companies, the government and regulators want to keep the status quo.
Avoid man made foods, preservatives, nitrates, any foods that have anything added to them that aren't naturally in the food.
Your health will benefit. Common sense. Nature knows best!
Read the artilcle I linked to the page.

Sujan Patricia said...

Leaf lard is the fat that surrounds the pig's kidneys. It is of very high quality and, when rendered, makes some of the best tasting and flakiest crusts ever!

Anonymous said...

In case you are interested, Shauna Ahern (Gluten-Free Girl) is at it again (with backlash galore):

http://porkknifeandspoon.com/2010/06/07/visiting-a-pig-farm