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For The Love Of Lard

Monday, March 5th, 2012

In all the uproar over Paula Deen cashing in on her diabetes with a drug deal, one ingredient has gotten unfairly trashed. Countless headline and opinion writers have been throwing around the word lard as if it were a bad thing. But kitchen cognoscenti these days understand what cooks and bakers did a century ago B.C. (Before Crisco): The other white fat is infinitely better than the product manufactured and marketed to replace it.

Not only does lard produce superior pie crusts, crispier fried chicken, and crunchier cookies than vegetable shortenings like Crisco, which was introduced by Procter & Gamble in 1911, but its fat is mostly monounsaturated, like olive oil’s. Sourced properly (ideally from a farmers’ market), or made from scratch, lard is the ultimate natural food.

And whatever the butter-guzzling Deen was peddling, lard did nothing to earn such scorn. If anything is to blame for the diabetes epidemic, it would not be an ingredient that fell so out of favor that NPR’s Planet Money recently devoted an episode to “Who killed lard?” Last time I looked, fast food and soda contained no lard.

As it turns out, that recent report of its death was premature. Lard has gone through decades of shame thanks to heavy marketing of the unnatural alternative and also to what I call nutrition nuttiness—in the fat-fearing ’90s even olive oil came under siege. But now this time-proven ingredient is on the ascendancy in a nose-to-tail world, where every part of the heritage pig has value. More and more restaurants and bakeries are not just using lard but bragging about it, and more home cooks are coming around, too. In April they will even have a fresh cookbook to try: Lard: The Lost Art of Cooking with Your Grandmother’s Secret Ingredient from the editors of Grit magazine, has recipes for everything from predictable pie to potato chips and brownies.

Steven Gedra, chef and co-owner of Bistro Europa in Buffalo, actually serves house-rendered lard instead of butter with his bread basket. He learned to make it in Italy from the Tuscan celebrity butcher Dario Cecchini, seasoning it with lemon zest, red wine vinegar, salt, and black pepper, and dubbing it “burro del Chianti” after Cecchini’s version. Gedra admits, “We kind of force it on our clientele,” but adds: “It’s like with kids—they think they don’t like it and then they try it. You gotta educate ’em.” Gedra’s wife and co-owner, Ellen, has an easier job using lard in her bread and pie doughs. Like more and more restaurants, theirs brings in a pig every other week and makes the most of it, even selling the roasted head.

Paul Fehribach, executive chef and co-owner of Big Jones in Chicago, says he’s built a following for his flaky biscuits and pies made with lard. At first he was only rendering lard in-house “to be true in our whole-animal commitment,” he says, but now he has to buy extra to meet the demand. Asked how his diners deal, he shrugs: “I’ve been very outspoken about both the culinary and health benefits of lard in particular and whole-hog cooking in general, so I think our core client base has been relatively enthusiastic.”

Gwin Grimes, owner of Artisan Baking Co. in Fort Worth, Texas, also uses lard that she renders herself, and many customers now actually ask to be certain they’re getting pies with lard-based crusts rather than those made with butter or vegan shortening.

Nathan Sears, chef du cuisine of Vie in Chicago—and another proponent of whole-animal cookery—renders lard to cook vegetables with instead of butter, which, he notes, has more saturated fat. And at Americano in Cleveland, co-owner Cole Davis says the deep-fryer is filled with lard because “we believe it is the healthiest and most durable” fat for frites.

Lard is still saddled with a debased name (although when you add one extra letter it sounds more seductive—lardo is everywhere thanks to the salumi craze). No wonder some chefs say it sells better as “pork fat.”

But when I jokingly Tweeted “Lard: What is it good for?” the other day, the responses were surprisingly nearly all positive, with only one crack about grandparents cooking with it and living to tell the tale. Whoever is monitoring D’Artagnan’s account picked up on the music reference and responded: “Absolutely everything.” From food and nonfood followers came such raves as this one from Los Angeles restaurant critic Jonathan Gold: “Biscuits, pie crusts, tamales, French fries, confit, goulash, bizcochos, and dim sum.” Lori Ferro, of Cafe Aroma in Idyllwild, California, put it succinctly: “Lard beats Crisco any day, no matter what ‘The Help’ says,” alluding to a controversial scene in the movie in which one of the characters rhapsodizes about shortening for more than just frying chicken.

There’s lard and then there’s lard, though. What’s sold in supermarkets, often labeled with the Spanish name, manteca, is almost as bad as shortening was before the trans fats were eliminated, because it’s been processed in the same way—hydrogenated so that it will stay solid at room temperature and need no refrigeration. (Note: This is the kind used in Pillsbury roll-and-fill pie crusts.) The real deal can be found mostly at farmers’ markets or some butcher shops, especially by special order. As is the case with restaurants, butchers who specialize in whole animals are likely to have lard or at least fat to render for it.

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The Low Fat Craze May Be On The Way Out

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

The low-fat trend finally appears to be on its way out. The notion that saturated fats are detrimental to our health is deeply embedded in our Zeitgeist—but shockingly, the opposite just might be true. For over 50 years the medical establishment, public health officials, nutritionists, and dieticians have been telling the American people to eat a low-fat diet, and in particular, to avoid saturated fats. Only recently, have nutrition experts begun to encourage people to eat “healthy fats.”

This past December, the Los Angeles Times reported that excess carbohydrates and sugar, not fat, are responsible for America’s obesity and diabetes epidemics. One of the lead researchers in this field, Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, said, “The country’s big low-fat message backfired. The overemphasis on reducing fat caused the consumption of carbohydrates and sugar in our diets to soar. That shift may be linked to the biggest health problems in America today.” Another expert, Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, said, “Fat is not the problem.”

Last month, Martha Rose Shulman of the New York Times Recipes for Health section, wrote that she’s taken the “no low-fat pledge.” Shulman writes, “I took a pledge the other day that will surprise my longtime followers. It even surprised me. I pledged to drop the term ‘low-fat’ from my vocabulary.”

Shulman, an influential food and recipe writer with over 25 books to her name, has long promoted low-fat and light cooking, but now writes, “There are many recipes in my cookbooks from the 90s that now look and taste dated to me. I’ve put back some of the oil and cheese that I took out when editors were telling me to keep total fat at 30 percent of total calories–a concept that is now obsolete even among policymakers.”

She and a room full of “nutrition scientists, dietitians, doctors, chefs and food service titans” recently listened to experts on nutrition debunk some of the common fat myths. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, who co-directs the program in cardiovascular epidemiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School and is an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, was also there and said, “No randomized trial looking at weight change has shown that people did better on a low-fat diet. For many people, low-fat diets are even worse than moderate or high-fat diets because they’re often high in carbohydrates from rapidly digested foods such as white flour, white rice, potatoes, refined snacks and sugary drinks.”

These are clear indications that an important tipping point in the mainstream understanding of fat and nutrition is underway. But it did take some time. Back in 2002, Gary Taubes wrote about it in the New York Times magazine, laying out a fine deconstruction of the low-fat premise presented to the American people. He pointed out that the science behind this recommendation was never proven and was actually based on “a leap of faith” (more on this here).

In 2001, Dr. Hu, writing in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, noted, “It is now increasingly recognized that the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health problems.” Or, as Michael Pollan pithily puts it in his In Defense of Food, “The amount of saturated fat in the diet may have little if any bearing on the risk of heart disease, and the evidence that increasing polyunsaturated fats in the diet will reduce risk is slim to nil.”

This brings up several important issues in the fat debate. It is still widely held that what matters are the types of fat we consume. Even in Shulman’s article on her fat re-education, there are contradictions—it’s clear she just can’t get her head around the idea that saturated fats may indeed be healthy. She writes, “Saturated fat—the kind found in animals and dairy products, as well as in any hydrogenated fat—is also regarded as a less healthy fat because it raises L.D.L cholesterol, or ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood, and this kind of cholesterol is related to heart disease. But even saturated fat is not so bad compared to refined carbohydrates, the doctors say, and if we were to eliminate it from our diet we would also be eliminating many foods that are also rich in healthy fats, like fish, whose omega-3 fatty acids are vital to good health.”

But as Pollan points out, the idea that saturated fats are a less healthy fat just isn’t true, as the picture is fairly complex. Indeed, most foods are composed of a many different types of fats. For example, half the fat found in beef is unsaturated and most of that fat is the same monounsaturated fat found in olive oil. Lard is 60 percent unsaturated and most of the fat in chicken fat is unsaturated as well, according to Taubes 2008 book Good Calories, Bad Calories.  In his New York Times article he writes, “Even saturated fats–AKA, the bad fats—are not nearly as deleterious as you would think. True, they will elevate your bad cholesterol, but they will also elevate your good cholesterol. In other words, it’s a virtual wash.” Taubes continues, “Foods considered more or less deadly under the low-fat dogma turn out to be comparatively benign if you actually look at their fat content. More than two-thirds of the fat in a porterhouse steak, for instance, will definitively improve your cholesterol profile (at least in comparison with the baked potato next to it); it’s true that the remainder will raise your L.D.L., the bad stuff, but it will also boost your H.D.L. The same is true for lard. If you work out the numbers, you come to the surreal conclusion that you can eat lard straight from the can and conceivably reduce your risk of heart disease.”

Nearly every day new research and studies come out debunking popular fat myths; despite this, misinformation persists. On the Mayo Clinic’s Web site, saturated fats are lumped in with trans-fats under the banner “harmful dietary fat” and the site claims that saturated fat can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.

The link to cardiovascular disease is tenuous at best—the idea being that saturated fats raise your cholesterol and triglyceride levels which in turn leads to cardiovascular disease. But according to the most recent studies, including one reported in the Los Angeles Times article, this is not true. “Contrary to what many expect—dietary fat intake is not directly related to blood fat. Rather, the amount of carbohydrates in the diet appears to be a potent contributor,” Marni Jameson writes.

And during a symposium called “The Great Fat Debate: Is There Validity In the Age-Old Dietary Guidance?” at the American Dietetic Association’s Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo, four leading experts agreed that replacing saturated fat with carbohydrates is likely to raise the risk of cardiovascular disease. Dr. Walter Willett said, “If anything, the literature shows a slight advantage of the high fat diet.”

And as for diabetes, there is no data to support the notion that a high-fat diet increases the risk for diabetes. Again, if anything, the opposite appears to be true. In a 2008 study reported in the Los Angeles Times article, obese men and women with metabolic syndrome (a precursor to diabetes) that went on a high saturated-fat, low-carb diet saw their triglycerides drop by 50 percent and their levels of good H.D.L. cholesterol increase by 15 percent.

But old dietary habits die hard and convincing people that what they’ve been told for the past 50 years is just plain wrong, is a hard sell. Not only that, but the continued recommendations to eat low-fat versions of foods (as in the USDA’s latest dietary guidelines and on the Mayo Clinic’s Web site) don’t help. Americans are confused about nutrition and disease and it’s only getting more complex with corporations claiming to make healthier foods (see Mark Bittman’s take on McDonald’s oatmeal and my take on Wal-Mart’s health washing).

Keep in mind, there is one type of fat that is implicated in high cholesterol, atherosclerosis, heart disease, and diabetes: Trans-fat. Trans-fats raise bad cholesterol, lower good cholesterol, and increase triglycerides, they also promotes inflammation and insulin resistance, according to a 2000 article in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. This points to the one basic axiom that always hold true: Eat real, whole foods and nothing else—now, if we could only just all agree on what those are.

Source: Civil Eats


Bacon: The Gateway Meat

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Recently, an old friend who’s been a vegetarian for more than 15 years shocked us with a story: Last weekend, she ate bacon. Several strips. Straight out of the frying pan where her boyfriend was cooking it.

This wasn’t the first time she’d encountered it sizzling there, in all its glistening glory. But for some reason, this time it overpowered her. She was guilty yet gleeful when she told us that she’d allowed bacon back into her life.

But she’s not alone. We’ve heard this story before from many people. It seems that bacon has a way of awakening carnivorous desires within even some of the preachiest of vegetarians. And we set out to find out why.

We asked some scientists who study how food tantalizes the brain, and sociologists who’ve looked closely at vegetarianism, about bacon’s seductive powers.

Our story was familiar to Johan Lundstrom. He’s a scientist who runs a lab at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. He studies how the brain processes sensory information, like smell, for a living. He also told us he had an ex-girlfriend who became an ex-vegetarian once she tasted bacon.

Because bacon is one- to two-thirds fat and also has lots of protein, it speaks to our evolutionary quest for calories, Lundstrom says. And since 90 percent of what we taste is really odor, bacon’s aggressive smell delivers a powerful hit to our sense of how good it will taste.

“There’s an intimate connection between odor and emotion, and odor and memory,” Lundstrom says. “When you pair that with the social atmosphere of weekend breakfast and hunger, bacon is in the perfect position to take advantage of how the brain is wired.”

Indeed, the social experience of eating bacon also seems very important, says Donna Maurer, author of Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment? Opportunities to try new foods, like chocolate-covered bacon, with friends might push some vegetarians over the edge.

Bacon has special status in foodie circles, and that too seems to have enhanced its power over wavering vegetarians. Some have dubbed 2011 as the Year of Meat. is a veritable daily bacon news source. And in New York you can find Bacon-Palooza, an event NPR covered on All Things Considered last year.

We even talked to a vegetarian, Gwen Sharp, about this, who said, “I have long thought if for some reason I ever started eating meat again, I would start with bacon.” We also discovered a chapter — from a scholarly food book — titled “‘Bacon sandwiches got the better of me:’ Meat-eating and vegetarianism in South-East London.”

Still, bacon has plenty of thoughtful opponents, among them Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the recent bestselling vegetarian treatise Eating Animals. Even Stephen Colbert was unable to convince Foer to eat bacon.

Sure, it’s loaded with fat and salt, and Americans eat far more of it than what’s good for the planet. But in the immortal words of Homer (Simpson, not the other one), “Mmmmm. Bacon.”


Study Finds Whole Fat Dairy Foods May Lower Diabetes Risk

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

People with higher intakes of a fat found mainly in dairy products might have lower odds of developing diabetes, a new study suggests.

Looking at more than 3,700 U.S. adults, researchers found that those with higher blood levels of the fatty acid — known as trans-palmitoleic acid — were about 60 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes over the next 20 years than people with the lowest blood levels.

That would seem to run counter to longstanding recommendations to trade in whole milk and cheese for the skim varieties for the sake of health.

And experts caution that it’s indeed too soon to break out the full-fat dairy.

For one thing, whether the fatty acid itself deserves the credit for the lower diabetes risk is not clear. And then there’s the fact that full-fat dairy products are often high in calories, which could lead to weight gain — itself a risk factor for diabetes — and saturated fat, which could boost “bad” LDL cholesterol and contribute to heart disease.

“Dietary recommendations should not be changed based on any one study,” said lead researcher Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

But he said the findings are “exciting” and warrant further research — including, at some point, clinical trials in which people would be given supplements of trans-palmitoleic acid to see if the fat itself curbs diabetes risk.

The results, reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, also point to a potential explanation for some previous research that showed dairy lovers to have a lower diabetes risk than people who consume little dairy.

Even if the benefit does not come from trans-palmitoleic acid specifically, Mozaffarian said, these findings bolster the case that dairy has some anti-diabetes property.

“I think this study confirms that there is something about dairy foods that’s responsible,” he said.

Mozaffarian said he feels confident, in part, because he and his colleagues were able to account for a range of diabetes risk factors among the study participants — including their age, weight, exercise habits and general diet. And those things did not explain the link between the dairy fat and lower diabetes risk.

Of more than 700 study participants with the highest blood levels of the fatty acid, 38 later developed diabetes. That compared with 94 cases among the 700-plus with the lowest levels of the dairy fat.

When the researchers adjusted for the other factors in their analysis, people with the top-20-percent blood levels of the fatty acid showed a 62 percent lower risk of diabetes than the group with bottom-20-percent fatty acid levels.

Trans-palmitoleic acid falls into the broad category of “trans-fat,” which has become notorious in recent years for its links to elevated LDL cholesterol and heart disease.

However, unlike the trans-fats in many processed foods, like cookies, crackers and chips, trans-palmitoleic acid is a natural fat. And so far, Mozaffarian said, research has not linked natural trans-fats in dairy and meat to an increased heart disease risk.

Source: Reuters

Super High Fat Miracle Diet Helps Control Epilepsy

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

Once every three or four months my son, Sam, grabs a cookie or a piece of candy and, wide-eyed, holds it inches from his mouth, ready to devour it. He knows he’s not allowed to eat these things, but like any 9-year-old, he hopes that somehow, this once, my wife, Evelyn, or I will make an exception.

We never make exceptions when it comes to Sam and food, though, which means that when temptation takes hold of Sam and he is denied, things can get pretty hairy. Confronted with a gingerbread house at a friend’s party last December, he went scorched earth, grabbing parts of the structure and smashing it to bits. Reason rarely works. Usually one of us has to pry the food out of his hands. Sometimes he ends up in tears.

It’s not just cookies and candy that we forbid Sam to eat. Cake, ice cream, pizza, tortilla chips and soda aren’t allowed, either. Macaroni and cheese used to be his favorite food, but he told Evelyn the other day that he couldn’t remember what it tastes like anymore. At Halloween we let him collect candy, but he trades it in for a present. At birthday parties and play dates, he brings a lunchbox to eat from.

There is no crusade against unhealthful food in our house. Some might argue that unhealthful food is all we let Sam eat. His breakfast eggs are mixed with heavy cream and served with bacon. A typical lunch is full-fat Greek yogurt mixed with coconut oil. Dinner is hot dogs, bacon, macadamia nuts and cheese. We figure that in an average week, Sam consumes a quart and a third of heavy cream, nearly a stick and a half of butter, 13 teaspoons of coconut oil, 20 slices of bacon and 9 eggs. Sam’s diet is just shy of 90 percent fat. That is twice the fat content of a McDonald’s Happy Meal and about 25 percent more than the most fat-laden phase of the Atkins diet. It puts Sam at risk of developing kidney stones if he doesn’t drink enough. It is constipating, so he has to take daily stool softeners. And it lacks so many essential nutrients that if Sam didn’t take a multivitamin and a calcium-magnesium supplement every day, his growth would be stunted, his hair and teeth would fall out and his bones would become as brittle as an 80-year-old’s.

Evelyn, Sam’s twin sister Beatrice and I don’t eat this way. But Sam has epilepsy, and the food he eats is controlling most of his seizures (he used to have as many as 130 a day). The diet, which drastically reduces the amount of carbohydrates he takes in, tricks his body into a starvation state in which it burns fat, and not carbs, for fuel. Remarkably, and for reasons that are still unclear, this process — called ketosis — has an antiepileptic effect. He has been eating this way for almost two years.

uriosity bordering on alarm is the only way to describe how people receive this information. “In-teresting,” one acquaintance said. “Did you make this up yourself?” Another friend was more direct: “Is this a mainstream-science thing or more of a fringe treatment?” We are not surprised by these reactions. What we are doing to Sam just seems wrong. The bad eating habits of Americans, especially those of children, are a national health crisis. Yet we are intentionally feeding our son fatty food and little else.

Read the rest at The New York Times.