After reading a post by Dr Mary Dan Eades, I casually mentioned to one of my clients that I was having a hard time finding organic lard here in Santa Barbara. My client turned to me and said “organic lard … that sounds like an oxymoron.” He then went on to confess that he still has a hard time with the idea that saturated fat is “healthy.”
Truth be told, I only recently started cooking with the saturated fats, lard and red palm oil, after reading Ten Oils And How To Use Them by Scott Kustes of the Modern Forager. I had known for quite some time that olive oil was highly unsaturated, and therefore less stable when heated, but could not see myself cooking with saturated fat.
Dr Eades’ post will dispel any fears you may have about lard being dangerous to your health. Her post was written in response to an article, in the Santa Barbara News Press, about Schwarzenegger signing legislation that phases out the use of trans fats here in California. And the fact that author erred by calling lard a “manufactured” fat.
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.
She then moves on to explain just how “healthy” lard is…
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.
And finally, she recommends “organic” lard…
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.
If anyone knows of a good source of organic lard, please let me know….