During the time of Upton Sinclair, a container of lard was present in nearly every American kitchen. Before refrigeration and automobiles, steamboats and waterways were responsible for transporting most goods from producers to consumers within the country, and preservation was essential. Distinctly more fatty than cattle, pigs were the livestock of choice, as their high fat-content lent easily to salt curing and an extended period of consumption. Alongside the rapidly developing country’s demand for meat, lard—primarily obtained from the fat between the back skin and muscle of the pig—was in high demand and was used commonly as a cooking fat, shortener, and a spread, among other applications. As Popular Science explained during the period, “What was garbage in 1860 was fertilizer in 1870, cattle feed in 1880, and table food and many things else in 1890,” and as Sinclair himself famously wrote, “They use everything about the hog except the squeal.”
The earliest shifts in lard production and consumption, therefore, were inextricably linked to the history of refrigeration. Although the first refrigerated train car entered service in 1851, the technology was still in its infancy when Sinclair’s novel was published in 1906, and household refrigerators were not invented until 1913. Despite the country’s growing preference for beef, hogs and their fat were consumed ubiquitously until the middle class began to buy affordable and efficient electric-based refrigerators around the time of the Great Depression.
Almost simultaneously, the US lard industry was dealt another nearly fatal blow, with the advent of other cooking oils in the West. Interestingly enough, this industrial shift was spurred not by a competing industry, but by soap and candle manufacturers. Procter & Gamble executives soon found themselves with an excess supply of cottonseed oil after electricity and the light bulb eroded demand for candles. The supply issue was quickly resolved in 1907 when a German chemist, named Edwin C. Kayser, wrote to Procter & Gamble and later demonstrated the ability to hydrogenate cottonseed oil.
Further capitalizing on the public’s growing distrust of the meatpacking industry, the subsequent chemically-engineered shortening product, commonly known by its brand-name Crisco, quickly siphoned off large amounts of market share. “It was possible, with this [hydrogenation] process, to produce shortening entirely from vegetable oils and the trend has since been in that direction” as summarized by the US Bureau of Agricultural Economics. Sales of Crisco boomed, jumping from 2.6 million pounds in 1912 to over 60 million pounds just four years later.
Beyond the growing prevalence of vegetable-based cooking oils, fats also later fell victim to the muscle of the sugar industry, according to a report published last year. In fact, the Sugar Research Foundation, a sugar trade group now known as the Sugar Association, paid Harvard researchers in 1967 to publish a study pointing the finger at saturated fat for heart disease. This placed a stigma on animal fats while reducing the detrimental health effects associated with sugar for over five decades. Moreover, the role of the sugar industry pushing a specific agenda is not a product of a bygone era; although there is greater public awareness of the practice, large lobbying bodies and studies funded by global corporations continue to skew studies in favor of their clients and products.
By the 1960's, US demand for beef already outweighed that for pork, although the US remained the world’s largest exporter of both. As the byproduct of a less valuable animal, lard was produced in increasingly lower numbers while major industry quickly tilted in tallow’s favor. Due to its greater availability and potential for use in food processing, tallow production continued to increase for several decades, reaching a peak of over 4 million tonnes in 2000, according to data from the FAO. Yet even strong tallow demand had begun to erode by the turn of the century when major US fast food chains started to phase out blends of animals fats and vegetable oils (due to health concerns); the USDA estimates industry loss from this shift to have been between 300 to 400 million pounds of edible tallow a year.
As byproducts of pigs and cattle, respectively, lard and tallow are still being produced, although now primarily for feed and industrial uses. Whether used as a lubricant, vinyl plastic softener, or transformed into biodiesel, lard has not lost its luster for its versatility in various industries. Ironically enough, the biggest use for these animal fats is now in pet food and livestock feed, after researchers found that the additional fat benefitted the health of the animals.Candles, wax, soap, cosmetics, and detergents have traditionally contained animal fats, and lard has even seen a revival among skin care enthusiasts for its supposed healing and protective properties.
As the American public continues to collectively reconsider the role of fats in a healthy and fulfilling diet, several controversies around issues regarding the pros and cons of both animal fats and vegetable oils are simultaneously coming to the fore. New studies are revealing a weaker connection between saturated fats and adverse effects on heart health (the primary fear with lard) while simultaneously highlighting possible concerns with vegetable oils.
The Minnesota Coronary Experiment, conducted between 1968 and 1973, involved 9,000 participants. Half of the participants consumed a diet rich in saturated fats while the remaining 4,500 participants replaced animal fats with corn oil. The participants in the corn oil group had lower cholesterol than the other participants, but it turns out the study was incomplete and not all the data was analyzed. Researchers revisiting the study in 2016 concluded that, while the corn oil group did have lower cholesterol, they also had an increased risk for heart disease.
An Australian study, conducted between 1966 and 1973, followed a similar switch from animal fats to vegetable oils and reached a similar conclusion to that of the Minnesota Coronary Experiment. Researchers reexamined the Australian study in 2013 and discovered a higher rate of mortality in the vegetable oils group compared to the animal fats group.
To be clear, these studies are not advocating for animal fats as a part of healthy diet. Rather, the results do indicate that saturated fats, which are found in lard and animal fats, could be consumed in healthy moderation; and the FDA’s guidelines states consumption of saturated fatty acids should be limited to 20g daily based on a 2,000-calorie diet. A diet rich in saturated fats is still associated with high cholesterol and heart disease, however the recent data is simply highlighting a potential concern associated with vegetable oils such as corn or sunflower oil.
Vegetable oils do lower cholesterol. That has been proven by many studies over several decades, but the increased mortality rate found in the two studies may be due to increased levels of omega-6 fatty acids. Although omega-6s do play an important role in hair growth, metabolism regulation, bone health, and supports the reproductive system, too much of the fat could increase inflammation. The increased inflammation may have counteracted the other health benefits associated with vegetable oils, according to one researcher.
Another risk factor associated with vegetable oils came in the form of innovation. As it turns out, hydrogenation—the process by which vegetable oils are turned into solids—creates trans fats, which most people correctly recognize as the particularly unhealthy type of fat. Trans fats now rank above saturated fats on the “must-avoid” list due to increasing LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol while reducing HDL, or “good,” cholesterol, and increasing inflammation. The FDA has even imposed a 2018 deadline to phase out artificial trans fats from all manufactured foods. Naturally occurring trans fats, found in meats and cheeses, are not affected by this ban, but consumers should limit consumption.
Lard and other animal fat byproducts have been dragged through the mud over the years. Once responsible for an outsized proportion of the Western world’s caloric consumption, lard is still primarily seen as a form of dietary taboo. With the heavily-marketed (and sometimes nefariously so) cooking oil and sugar industries simultaneously pushing their products and engineering tectonic shifts in public opinion, it is no surprise that US lard consumption was, until recently, at its lowest level in centuries.
Increasingly aware of the ulterior motives behind these perceptions, however, some of the most health-conscious and epicurean-minded demographics have begun to reconsider lard. Although 2010 was the last year the USDA reported data, by that point US direct food use for lard had already increased over 350 percent from its low in 1995. Yet short and volatile shifts in production and consumption do not necessarily indicate a trend. Scientists have yet to provide a clear consensus on just how healthy or unhealthy lard is (although the same can be said for some vegetable oils), and recent revelations regarding the carcinogenic properties of ham and bacon are likely to at least partially curb US pork consumption and production.
With that in mind, vegetable oils undoubtedly present an insurmountable obstacle to the industry; as such, the lard renaissance has a clear ceiling, albeit one that it is still far from reaching. That said, lard and other animal fats have a clear floor as well, as they will continue to be created as a byproduct regardless of demand. Thus, as animal fats shake off their century-old image issues, we will be closely watching whether a more balanced cooking oil landscape beings to emerge over the next few years.