In the 1970s, a short-term study was conducted, whereby a small group of people was fed a limited high-fat diet, and an increase in blood cholesterol was observed. Before any long-term studies could be conducted, nutrition science, a relatively new field, took that news and ran with it. Official “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” were announced, proposing that we should increase our carbohydrate intake (think of that big brown bottom of the 1980s food pyramid, full of bread, oatmeal, and pasta), and decrease our intake of meat, salt, and fat in general (1).
The low-fat craze took off in the 1980s, with store shelves full of fat-free yogurts, cheeses, milk, peanut butter, candy, all pumped full of chemicals and sugar to give these foodlike items a texture and taste that resembles the food they once were.
The meat industry, suddenly the villain of “healthy nutrition,” suffered. Beef and pork sales plunged, although massive factory chicken operations ramped up to meet new demand for individually wrapped chicken breasts.
The pork industry, concerned for its future, came up with a clever response. Rather than hemming and hawing and hoping America would come back to its bacon roots, they bred pigs that were muscular and lean, and produced light-colored meat that they cleverly marketed as “the other white meat” to distinguish pork from that unfortunate red meat beef product.
America seemed to appreciate this gesture, because pork quickly regained popularity, and massive concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) sprang up to meet demand. (Not coincidentally, it was around this time that that people who raised hogs transitioned from “farmers” to “swine technicians.”) America was comforted that they could buy a fatless pork chop and their cholesterol would remain low, their hearts unclogged. Nevermind that this new lean pork was leathery tough, tasteless, and dry. America wasn’t paying that much attention to taste at the time, an unfortunate side effect of the fat-free movement (that paved the way for the pendulum to swing the other direction into the modern foodie movement, but that’s probably a different post).
Since you live in the modern world, you likely have the benefit of knowing the punchline of this unfortunate nutritional joke. The link between animal fat, blood cholesterol, and heart disease was never proven in successive studies (1, 2, 3, 4). On the contrary, after 3 decades of campaigns and advertisements pushing a low-fat diet, heart disease remains one of the highest health risks for Americans. The needle hasn’t even budged.
In fact, according to the former president of the American College of Cardiology, Sylvan Lee Weinberg (5)
The low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet… may well have played an unintended role in the current epidemics of obesity, lipid abnormalities, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndromes.
Modern nutrition science is slowly starting to correct the record, though this time around there’s no catchy government-funded campaign to help retell the nutritional story. The result is a patchy adoption of new nutritional knowledge layered on top of old knowledge, and dozens of diets, from raw to vegan to paleo to those who persist with low fat, all claiming (accurately, depending on the date on that research paper) to be the healthiest science-based diet.
A couple of weeks ago, pork fat (which is near and dear to my heart) received some positive publicity in the mainstream media for probably the first time in my life. A BBC article (6) published a list of the “100 Healthiest Foods” based on a 2015 article published in PloS One (7), and according to the researchers’ criteria for “nutritional fitness,” pork fat is #8 out of 100.
Fortunately for Bellfern Homestead, we grow a breed of hog that still has fat! Lots of it. American Guinea Hog (AGH) is a heritage breed known for its thick layer of fat, because they’re a lard pig. These pigs thrive in a pasture and in the woods, where they forage for grass, nuts, tubers, rodents, snakes, and grubs. This high-protein and grass-fed diet significantly affects the nutritional profile of the fat: pastured pork is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, known to actually decrease cholesterol. The nutritional makeup of pastured pork fat is significantly different than pork fat from corn-fed pigs raised in CAFOs (8, 9).
Heritage pastured pork [and AGH isn’t the only fantastic heritage breed out there (10)] is finally becoming accessible to most of America. Although you won’t find it in a supermarket, there are thousands of small farmers, like us, who are passionate about these animals, their health, their importance to our diets, and preserving the breed. A Google search can pretty quickly help you find one.
This blog post contains a lot of reference links, but in conversations over the years, I’ve found that my “in defense of fat” topic is surprisingly polarizing, and I’m fighting an uphill battle convincing our pork customers not to trim the fat off their pork chops. I wanted to include enough links so that people who care about source data (and everyone should) can find it.