Pork plays an interesting role in U.S. history. The term “Uncle Sam” probably comes from the name of a New York meat packer, Sam Wilson, who shipped hundreds of barrels of pork to American troops during the War of 1812. Americans have been living high on the hog ever since.
Because it’s the source of bacon, sausage, spareribs, hot dogs, and other products that are usually high in saturated fat, sodium, and other undesirables, pork has had a bad reputation in recent decades. The industry has tried to counter this with an ad campaign promoting pork as the “other white meat,” partly because it is lighter in color than beef. According to one definition of white and red meat, which measures certain proteins in meat, pork is in between chicken and red meat (beef). But the USDA and most food scientists and nutritionists consider pork to be red meat.
Still, pork has become leaner over the years. Many cuts have at least 30 percent less fat than a few decades ago, thanks to changes in the breeding and feeding of hogs. In fact, some cuts are actually among the leanest meats: well-trimmed tenderloin, for instance, has almost as little fat as skinless chicken breast. And the proportion of saturated fat in pork is slightly lower than that in beef or lamb. Pork, like other meat, is an excellent source of B vitamins (especially thiamin), zinc, and iron. However, fattier cuts of pork and pork-based products (such as sausage, bacon, and ribs)—still the most popular fare—are hard to justify as a regular part of a heart-healthy diet.
More healthful, really?
Research comparing the potential health risks of pork and beef or lamb has yielded inconsistent results—not surprising, since each of these meats varies so much and is prepared and eaten in different ways. Take colorectal cancer risk, for example. An analysis of 19 studies, published in the International Journal of Cancer in 2016, found no link between pork consumption and colorectal cancer, while beef and lamb were associated with an increased risk. The authors suggested that pork may be less likely to promote cancer than beef or lamb because it contains less heme iron, which has been implicated in cancer development in the large intestine. But they noted that there were few studies looking at pork intake, and the studies varied in design, so more research is needed.
In contrast, in a Swedish study in Food & Nutrition Research in 2017 looking at diet and colorectal cancer, high pork intake was linked with increased risk in women (but, oddly enough, not men), while beef was linked to elevated risk of rectal cancer in men (but not women). These researchers suggested that the high fat content of many types of pork, as well as the nitrite preservatives used in cured pork, may increase the risk of colorectal cancer.
The real cost of cheap pork
Health considerations aside, major problems with pork involve environmental and animal-cruelty issues relating to large-scale industrial pig farming, which has made most American pork relatively cheap. Along with other organizations, the Humane Farming Association has documented the many horrors of industrial pig farms. Notably, vast amounts of waste in the closed facilities produce noxious fumes that are hazardous for the pigs, the workers, and the environment. The air in pig farm facilities has been linked with an array of respiratory problems in workers.
A 2015 investigative report called Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat by journalist Barry Estabrook described how these intelligent and sensitive animals are typically kept under deplorable conditions, including dark, cramped cages or pens.
Of course, the factory farming of poultry, cattle, and even fish poses similar moral and environmental problems. As with all animal products, the alternative is to buy pork from sources that raise pigs more humanely and to support organizations trying to reduce needless suffering of farm animals.
Ultimately, if you aren’t willing to go whole hog and give up all meat, the best alternative is to limit your intake by eating small portions of humanely raised meat— which probably won’t cost more than larger portions of factory-farmed meat—along with more plant-based protein sources (such as peas, see next page). Labels from trustworthy organizations include “Animal Welfare Approved,” “Certified Humane,” “American Humane Certified,” and “Food Alliance Certified.”
If you do eat pork
Don’t overcook pork, unless you like it well-done: Medium is okay. Many people, worried about trichinosis caused by roundworms in pork, still think they have to cook chops and roasts to the consistency of shoe leather. But trichinosis in pigs has been on the decline for decades, thanks to improved production methods, and it has been virtually eliminated from pork in the U.S. In any case, the parasite is destroyed at about 140°F.
To allow for a margin of safety, the USDA recommends cooking pork to an internal temperature of 160°F (instead of 170°F, or well-done), which leaves the meat juicy, with a pink blush in the middle. The leaner the meat, the more quickly it will cook.
4 Pork Tips
- Choose lean cuts, such as tenderloin and center loin, or fresh pork leg or lean ham. Trimming visible fat will cut calories, too. Some ham at the deli counter is almost fat-free.
- Limit portion sizes to 3 to 5 ounces, which is good advice for all meats. Meat can go a long way in kabobs and stir-fry dishes.
- To cut down on sodium and nitrites, limit or avoid cured pork products such as bacon, ham, and other cold cuts.
- To keep lean pork moist and flavorful, marinate it in fruit juice, sherry, or reduced-sodium soy sauce. Experiment with seasonings such as mustard, ginger, thyme, rosemary, mint, garlic, fennel seed, or oregano. You can also glaze pork with marmalade blended with some lemon juice to cut the sweetness.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see 7 Healthy Pork Dishes.