Chances are, you’ve heard that lard is enjoying a renaissance. From foodies proclaiming its superior baking properties to in-depth radio reports exploring its history in the American diet, lard has recaptured interest and reemerged on the cooking scene.
This pork fat redemption isn’t just about taste, however — it’s also about health. Lard lovers have cited its high levels of polyunsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats (the so-called “good” fats found in such foods as fish and olive oil) to argue that it’s not even that bad for you, or at least not as bad as the trans fat found in some margarines and vegetable shortenings. (Trans fat has been associated with a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes.)
But how well do these health claims hold up?
As with so many food and health issues, it depends on whom you ask. Many physicians and health organizations — including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Heart Association — recommend cutting down as much as possible on saturated fat, which is found in high amounts in lard and other animal fats. (It is also found in fish, olive oil and other foods that are considered healthful.) Even as the unsaturated fats have become nutrition darlings, saturated fat has maintained its reputation as a baddie.
A number of early studies — including the Framingham Heart Study and the Seven Countries Study, which surveyed diet and health internationally in the 1950s and 1960s — suggested that there were higher rates of heart disease among populations with higher blood cholesterol levels and saturated fat intake.
“The only fat we recommend to avoid is saturated fat, and that’s basically the same as saying ‘animal fats,’ like lard,” says Benjamin Caballero, founding director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Human Nutrition. “There’s a lot of consensus about this. I just don’t see any scientific reason or evidence to go back to lard.”
But recent findings hint that the saturated fat story may be complicated. A 2010 meta-analysis of 347,747 people around the world found insufficient evidence to tie saturated fat to heart disease. And a 1996 study that followed 43,757 health professionals over six years showed that the link between their saturated fat intake and their risk of heart disease became much weaker once researchers controlled for other factors such as overall diet and fiber intake.
Ultimately, it’s better for people to look at their overall diet and lifestyle than to focus on eating or avoiding specific foods, says neuroendocrinologist Thomas Sherman, a professor of physiology at Georgetown University Medical Center. He urges his students to look at dietary choices — for example, a decision to use lard — as a balancing act: the right balance of carbohydrates to fats and proteins, and the right balance of the three kinds of fat.
What’s the “right” balance? Sherman says it’s a diet with a variety of nutritious, minimally processed foods that are “reasonably low in sugars and carbs, rich in fruits and vegetables, and with a diversity of healthy fats” that, yes, might include some lard. Sherman does say that a balanced diet would tip in favor of the “good” mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, but it need not exclude saturated fat.
“Saturated fat seems like it’s bad when it’s not in balance with the right unsaturated fats, and that’s what was leading to hypertension and heart disease,” he says. “The thing is, everything has everything in it: Almost everything you eat has saturated, mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fat in it. You want to find the right balance.”
He adds that if you want to use lard, there are better and worse versions. Studies have shown that fat from cows and pigs that are pasture-fed has higher levels of mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats than that from conventionally raised, grain-fed animals. So buying a tub of grain-fed lard to cook with, especially if it’s hydrogenated to improve its supermarket shelf life (hydrogenation can be a source of trans fat), may not be a good call from a health standpoint. But lard from a pasture-raised pig can provide a good balance of fats and be part of a healthful diet, Sherman says.
“Lard isn’t intrinsically good or bad. It’s good if it’s part of a healthy diet and bad if it’s part of an unhealthy one,” he says. “And if you have a good diet — a diet with a mix of different foods that’s reasonably low in sugars and carbs, rich in fruits and vegetables, and has a diversity of healthy fats — I just don’t see the harm in it.”
Which means that a foodie or anyone else thinking of making a pie crust can feel comfortable reaching for lard instead of vegetable shortening.