By David Grotto, RD, LDN
For those of you who know me or have recently become familiar with my work here, it will come as no surprise that I profess to be a plant-forward, unapologetic omnivore. I love all food and feel that, when placed in proper perspective and proportion, you can eat just about anything and still enjoy/achieve good health. Many of you already know that we consume nowhere near the quantity of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains currently recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In an effort to change this trend, my first book, 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life, focused on increasing that portion of the plate dedicated to members of the plant kingdom. At the time that I wrote it, I didn’t feel Americans needed a book that encouraged more meat consumption. I thought then, as I do now, that our work is cut out for us just boosting our veggie intake. However, I also think that lean meat has a place at the table and on the plate in a healthy diet, if you desire to eat it.
Like most Americans, when I think “lean” what first comes to mind is the classic boneless, skinless chicken breast. Ho hum. The description alone leaves me culinarily unexcited– so much emphasis on the “less” part. The problem with lean meats is that they can be prone to dryness and “less” flavor. Growing up, we were exposed to less marbled meats with any visible fat trimmed away. That fat had a function — flavor! I remember my mom trying to make challenging cuts more tender by whacking them with a mallet and soaking them in marinades — so much work. Sometimes she was successful and other times…well…you know.
Recently, I received an invitation to attend a pork “immersion” provided by the National Pork Board. Did you know that compared to any other animal protein, pork is the most consumed meat in the world? Could have sworn it would be chicken! Though meat consumption trends are on the downturn, it is estimated that pork is consumed by about 81% of Americans. Anyway, I decided to take them up on their offer because I had lots of questions about pork – in particular: how could I make lean cuts of pork taste better? Mom was always in the back of my head saying “If you want to avoid trichinosis, you’d better cook the pink out of it.” I had always followed her advice though I had no idea what “trichinosis” was. It sounded to me that I be better off without it. The end result was often a product akin to shoe leather. In dietetics school, I learned I had to cook pork to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees for food safety measures. Translated? More shoe leather. More ho hum…
During the immersion event, many of my questions and concerns about pork were addressed. I’m happy to share the answers I received with you.
Food Safety: Good news #1. Last year, due to advances in food safety, the USDA lowered the internal cooking temp of pork to 145 degrees with a three-minute rest period. This allows the meat to continue to cook, retaining its temperature and also its moisture. No more shoe leather or my mom talking inside my head! Yay!
Nutrition: Good News #2. During the immersion, I attended a lecture given by Mary Murphy, MS, RD, senior managing scientist at Exponent, a scientific consulting firm, and learned how today’s pork nutrition has evolved over the past 20 years or so. A three-ounce portion of roasted and trimmed pork contains only 120 calories and is 16% lower in total fat and 27% lower in saturated fat then pork of two decades ago. Seven cuts of pork now qualify for “lean” status which includes:
- Top loin chop
- 96% lean ground pork
- Top loin roast
- Center loin chop
- Rib chop
- Sirloin roast
And compared to skinless chicken breast, today’s pork tenderloin is just as lean! And by the way, according to the Food and Drug Administration, a product can be considered lean if it had less than 10g of total fat, 4.5g or less of saturated fat, and less that 95mg of cholesterol per serving. But did you know that “lean” is not the leanest cut that you can buy? The FDA considers “Extra Lean” to be any meat that contains less than 5g of total fat, less than 2g of saturated fat, and less than 95mg of cholesterol. This would apply to boneless, skinless chicken breast and the tenderloin cut of pork.
|Type of Meat (3oz, Roasted)||Pork Tenderloin||Skinless Chicken Breast||Beef Eye of Round||Halibut||Skinless Turkey Breast|
|Total Fat (g)
As you can see in the chart above, all meat choices are “right” for managing good health, from calories to saturated fat to sodium. But I know what you really want to know. What about BACON?!
|Type of Bacon
|Regular Pork Bacon||Reduced Sodium Pork Bacon||Canadian Bacon||Turkey Bacon|
|Total Fat (g)
The chart above shows that Canadian bacon, which comes from a pig (just like regular bacon), is by far the lowest in calories, total and saturated fat, and cholesterol. However, they all are loaded in sodium. I was shocked to see that Turkey bacon was highest in sodium. But the granddaddy of them all and not featured in the chart above was cured center cut ham, which packed 2291mg of sodium per 3 ounces (about the size of a deck of cards or three slices of lunch meat). Bottom line: buy lower sodium versions of bacon and ham and eat less frequently.
Health: Good News #3. Fresh lean pork, which is low in sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol can be part of diets geared towards managing elevated cholesterol and blood pressure, like the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension) diet. Out of all of the macronutrients — fat, carbohydrates and fat — protein provides greater feelings of fullness, keeps hunger at bay, and may help manage our waistlines. The Journal Obesity found that when a study group included lean pork and other lean proteins in their diets on a regular basis, there were less likely to want to eat late at night, experienced fewer distracting thoughts of food, consumed fewer overall calories, and experienced greater feelings of fullness and satisfaction.
Animal Welfare: Good News #4. Lastly, as part of the immersion, I had an opportunity to visit Wakefield farm in Gaylord, Minnesota, hosted by pork farmers Mary Langhorst and her son Lincoln. I must tell you — I had mixed feelings about seeing where my food comes from but am really grateful for having had the opportunity to see a factory pork farm in operation. It was not the cold and sterile environment I once envisioned. I was impressed by the many caring employees who took great strides to treat their pigs with dignity and care. I was pleasantly surprised to see how clean an operation they had. According to representatives from the National Pork Board, the cleanliness and care of animals seen at the Langhorst’s farm was representative of U.S. pork farming in general. I had always heard that factory pig farms were absolutely horrible smelling. I wouldn’t say that it smelt like daisies around there but it was really no more odorous than many dairy farms I had visited before. I also learned that when pigs are stressed, this can actually change the ph of the meat to produce a less enjoyable dining experience. Apparently everyone benefits from less stressed and more contented pigs. Their pigs indeed appeared content, clean, and well cared for.
Have any of you been to a pig farm? I would love to hear of your experiences. Happy to answer any other nutrition questions or concerns you may have.
Very special thanks go out to Kyle Dent, BS, a masters program intern from Loyola University and Medical Center, for helping me with this post.