This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Brad's Firm Pork Primer

This is the fourth post in my firm pork series.

The theme of this series is the relationship between pork fat (lard) and the liver-punishing polyunsaturated fat linoleic acid, the main component in most vegetable oils. I’ve seen lards reported having a content as low as 2.5% and as high as 30% of this damaging Omega-6 fat, a difference of over 10 fold!!

If you’ve read the series up to this point you’ll know that a major variable in determining the linoleic acid content of pork fat is what the pigs are fed. Oily feeds like whole soybeans and distiller’s grains make oily pork. But there is a second major variable that determines the final vegetable oil content of lard: the percentage of fat from the pigs diet versus the percentage of fat the pig has manufactured.

You see, pigs cannot manufacture the dreaded linoleic acid, it can only be obtained from the pig’s diet. The only fats pigs can produce from the carbohydrates and proteins they eat are saturated, like in coconut oil and butter, and monounsaturated, like in olive oil. At the end of the day lard is simply a mixture of fats that the pig has incorporated from its diet and fats the pig has manufactured.

Types Of Pig

This seems like as good a place as any to introduce the concept of pig “types”. Way back when there were two types of pigs, the lard type and the meat type. Lard (or chuffy) type pigs were short and fat and optimized to pack on lard produced from grain. They were the bees knees in the late 1800’s. The lard was used not only for cooking but also as an industrial lubricant during the early part of the industrial revolution. It was also used in soap and candle manufacturing. These chuffy pigs were designed to pack on huge amounts of lard and were without a doubt very good at “de-novo lipogenesis”, the process where a pig makes it’s own fat out of carbs and protein.

Meat type hogs, also known as bacon type hogs, were longer and leaner, but still packed on a lot of fat compared to today’s ultra lean hogs. These hogs were optimized to produce bacon that was firm and had a good balance of fat and lean, unlike the lard-type hogs that had very fatty bacon. These hogs produced balanced carcasses with meaty ribs, pork chops and hams but with a nice “finish” – an inch or more of backfat over the top of the loins. That backfat was used for sausage and hot dog production as well as lard production. These hogs ruled the day throughout the first three quarters of the 20th century. They were undoubtedly still very good at de novo lipogenesis.

In recent decades, in response to America’s Epic Low Fat Freakout (ELFF) of the 80’s and 90’s, a new type of hog has been created, the “phenotypically lean” hog. These hogs put on very little backfat, typically a half inch or less. The meat they produce is pale and “floppy” (a term coined by our butchers) and excessively lean. Interestingly, the individual muscle groups in these pigs don’t hold together when butchered. They slide around each other, making me think that the only thing that holds these pigs together is their skin.

These phenotypically lean hogs, it turns out, have downregulated expression of genes involved in pathways that lead to de novo lipogenesis. Which is to say that they can’t make their own fat. They are not good at de novo lipogenesis. They can (mostly) only obtain fat from their diet. Since the fat sources available to hogs tend to be from corn and soybeans it stands to reason that these hogs would have soft, greasy fat. And they do.

Good Pigs!

Sometimes the mainstream pork industry produces useful things. It’s weird but true. Here is a useful primer on factors that lead to soft or firm pork. In a nutshell, pork fat gets firmer as pigs get older and pack on more backfat. Additionally, if you feed them a low fat diet, they make more of their own fat which makes the fat firmer.

I’d like to take a minute to contrast our pigs with pigs of the mainstream US pork industry. Our pigs are made of old fashioned genetics – pigs that get up to market weight in 9-12 months with an inch or more of backfat. They are fed on a very low fat diet of barley, wheat, triticale and a small amount of supplemental, GMO-free very low fat soybean meal. They have made all of that inch of backfat themselves! Industry pigs are phenotypically lean hogs rushed to market in 5-6 months on a relatively high fat diet that uses comparably high fat corn as a base and often includes feeds high in vegetable oil such as dried distiller’s grains from ethanol production, whole roasted soybeans or supplemental soybean oil. They have made almost none of their fat. Our pigs are getting the vast majority of their fat from de novo lipogenesis. Their pigs are getting the majority of their fat from liver punishing vegetable oil.

Now let’s back up to the two samples of lard I mentioned at the very beginning of this article. The sample that had a mere 2.5% liver punishing linoleic acid was from the University of Ottawa published in the late 80’s, before the modern industry had taken total control. My guess is that this sample was from meat type canadian hogs fed a diet based on barley or wheat (Canada to this day grows three times the tonnage of barley and wheat than corn). The lard that was a whopping 32% liver punishing PUFA? It’s from a modern American company using lard from (presumably) modern American hogs – lard from phenotypically lean hogs fed corn with supplemental soybean oil or distiller’s grains.

Conclusion

I believe that as producers of old fashioned yet modern grass finished firm pork we have the obligation to our customers to provide a product that is true to form, a product that is not vegetable oil on the hoof. The way to make a product distinct from and superior to the industry is to raise meat type hogs that grow at a moderate pace on low vegetable oil diets.

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