A hundred years ago, or so, the most popular cooking fat in the U.S. was pork fat. We cooked our bacon, then added eggs to the drippings, and happily sopped up leftover grease with bread.
Lard, from rendered pig fat, was at the heart of cooking in America, many parts of Europe and Asia. Blended with butter, lard made the flakiest pie crusts. We produced crispy golden potatoes and crunchy battered chicken in vats of pure lard.
Jennifer McLagan in her wonderful book, Fat, calls lard the best fat for fried chicken, turning it “wonderfully crisp, crunchy and golden”. Lard does not break down and form toxic peroxides like vegetable oils do, especially in cooking.
In 1910 lard enjoyed 70 percent of the market share for fats. Heart disease was unheard of, obesity was rare and risk of diabetes was 1 in 30. But then marketing spin, spearheaded by the soybean oil industry, made lard out to be as frightening as today’s swine flu. We were to switch to margarine and vegetable oils.
Farmers put their pigs on a diet and allowed only the leanest to reproduce. In 1950 a common pig yielded just over 32 lbs of fat. By 1990, one pig got you just over 10 lbs.
Today, vegetable oils have 70 percent of the market share; heart disease is one of our top killers, obesity rates have tripled and risk of diabetes is 1 in 3.
We lost much when we gave up lard. Because pigs were raised outdoors, lard was one of our few sources of vitamin D. Lard is also a good source of palmitoleic acid, a fatty acid that kills bacteria and viruses. It is rich in stearic acid, a saturated fat that reduces cholesterol absorption, lowers LDL’s, makes blood less sticky, something not even modern drugs cannot do. Lard is a fat that holds up well to heat and not as likely as vegetable oils to go rancid, something not just unpalatable, but very bad for our arteries.
Lard has less saturated fat than butter, and is actually richer in monounsaturated than it is saturated fat, giving it properties of heart-healthy, disease-fighting olive oil.
Many of the studies designed to show saturated fats are bad for our health turned out to be flawed. Studies showing saturates are bad were commingling saturates and trans fats, confusing the data. Now we know it is trans fats that are the villains in our rapidly escalating obesity and diseases.
Then there is evidence from other countries. People living in Okinawa, an archipelago off the coast of Japan, enjoy the longest lifespan in the world while regularly eating pork and cooking all their food in lard. How about the French? They are among the longest lived people in the world, yet well known for their generous use of lard; They scatter lardons over salads and quiches, while deftly skirting heart attacks and weight gain.
With historical evidence weighing heavily in favor of lard for our hearts and waistlines, how can we conclude it is so bad for us?