Move over coconut oil and olive oil, the new fats trending in the nutrition world aren’t oils at all – they’re animal fats. Anyone who’s looked into or is following a primal diet has probably seen lard and tallow held up high and touted for numerous benefits. But are lard and tallow healthy? Here’s an overview of the research regarding lard and tallow health benefits – and whether or not this dietitian recommends them!
What is Lard?
Lard is fat from pigs, either raw or rendered (melted & strained, like the fat leftover in a pan after you cook a piece of fatty meat). Most of the time you’ll find it rendered when you’re shopping for it in a store. It’s creamy and white, and has a similar consistency to butter. Lard is about 40% saturated fat, 50% monounsaturated fat, and 10% polyunsaturated fat. International and national health guidelines recommend keeping saturated fat low and focusing on monounsatured fats and polyunsatured fats (particularly omega-3s) for optimal health. Some of the evidence behind these recommendations has been called into question (more on this soon).
image: Josh Larios via Flickr
What is Tallow?
Tallow is rendered fat from meat other than pork – typically from beef. Beef tallow is about 40% saturated fat, 45% monounsaturated fat, and 5% polyunsaturated fat.
Are Lard and Tallow Healthy?
Lard and tallow are popular on the paleo diet, which emphasizes that saturated fat from real-food sources is very healthy. But what does the research say?
There’s little research on humans that looks specifically at lard and tallow, but animal studies have been conflicting. A study of pigs found that fish oil was better than lard for reducing cholesterol levels, and another pig study found that pigs fed olive oil had lower serum saturated fat levels than those fed lard. These studies suggest that plant oils might be better for cholesterol and serum lipid levels than lard (in pigs, at least).
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Studies in rats have found that diets rich in beef tallow were beneficial for suppressing colon cancer and mammary (breast) tumors by making conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid that has consistently shown cancer-suppressing benefits, more effective.
Another study in rats found that symptoms of alcoholic liver disease were nonexistent with beef tallow consumption, minimal with lard consumption, and much higher with corn oil consumption.
image: Julia Julieta via Flickr
When it comes to human studies, beef tallow consumption has been associated with increased beta carotene levels when compared to sunflower oil.
Another study looked at the effect of several kinds of dietary fats on cholesterol, finding that lard and beef fat resulted in increased cholesterol levels, while corn oil resulted in decreased cholesterol levels.
If your first thought when reading this articles was “wait, these can’t be healthy! They’re full of saturated fat!,” don’t back out so fast. Several meta-analyses have shown that there’s little evidence supporting the idea that saturated fat directly leads to cardiovascular disease or cardiovascular risk factors, while others say that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat leads to lower cardiovascular risk. All in all, the (strong) research on saturated fat is still fairly new, so we can’t say for sure whether it’s a superfood.What I will say is it’s likely not the supervillain we made it out to be decades ago.
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Beyond the the fat, lard is rich in vitamin D, a fat-soluble vitamin that many people aren’t getting enough of. (Read: are you getting enough vitamin D?) There’s one catch though – only lard that comes from pasture raised pigs is rich in vitamin D (about 1,000 IU per tablespoon, an entire day’s worth), as the sun exposure is what builds the vitamin D stores in their fat tissue.
Should I Cook with Lard and Tallow?
The research on lard and tallow doesn’t conclusively tell us that either of them are “good” or “bad.” Based on the lack of evidence, I wouldn’t toss all of your olive oil and make the switch to cooking solely with lard and tallow. The strongest research we have about healthy diets around the world points to the Mediterranean Diet as being one of the healthiest, so making olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds your main sources of fat is a wise bet.
If you find yourself with beef or pork fat left to be rendered, it’s a great way to make use of the whole animal for the sake of sustainability and saving money.
Lard and tallow also have much higher smoke points than many vegetable oils, making them good choices for high heat cooking. I wouldn’t count on life-altering health benefits, but if you enjoy the flavor or hate throwing away food scraps that could go to use – render down some fat and enjoy!
Have you ever cooked with lard or tallow? Have you ever rendered your own? Let me know in the comments below!