In various dishes of traditional Mexican cuisine, as in other parts of the world, beef and pork lard is used as part of their preparation. However, there are doubts about its benefits or harm to health; for this reason, Armida Sánchez Escalante, professor at the Center for Research in Food and Development, shares scientific information on the subject.

The academic from the Coordination of Animal Food Technology at Center for Research in Food and Development explained that the quality of fat in the diet has a great influence on the health of consumers; therefore, it is important to demonstrate the effects of the quantity and quality of the fat consumed, mainly on cardiovascular health, so it is necessary to follow, as far as possible, the recommendations issued by health authorities to the population.

In relation to physiological aspects, she added that fats and oils are considered as a source of energy for most of the cells of the organism, with the exception of those of the nervous system and red blood cells. Once consumed, these lipids can be used immediately or stored in the body's adipose tissue, where they are conserved as an energy source for later use. It is important to note that excess fat in the diet has a detrimental effect on health, since, if it is not spent through sufficient physical activity, it accumulates and generates obesity, which favors the appearance of diseases such as cardiovascular disease.

What do the nutritional guides say?

The meat products expert indicated that some nutritional guides place less emphasis on fatty acids than on the foods that contain them; the substitution of saturated fatty acids (SFA) for monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated (PUFA) reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. In particular, MFA are considered beneficial or neutral for cardiovascular risk, so no intake limitations are established.

Animal fat is richer in SFA although the amount varies depending on the species. Cow or lamb fat is richer in SFA than pork or rabbit fat. While fish fat is richer in PUFA. Because lard is rich in MUFA, like coconut oil and olive oil, it is more stable when subjected to heat and is more difficult to oxidize, which is one of the reasons why it is considered a healthier fat than beef, Sánchez Escalante said.

Animal lard or butter?

Beef fat, like butter, being saturated, is one of the most stable of all fats; however, it should be used in moderation, as it can increase bad cholesterol (LDL) and the risk of narrowed arteries, and thus heart disease. However, although butter contains more saturated fats, it is important to mention that, unlike kinds of margarine, its consumption is recommended in moderation, as it is an important source of conjugated linoleic acid, to which anticarcinogenic properties are attributed. Margarine, on the other hand, depending on the process by which they are produced, may contain trans fats, which, like saturated fats, increase cholesterol levels in the blood; therefore, it is recommended that when margarine are purchased, it should be specified on the label that they are free of these trans fats.

What are the differences between fats and oils?

The researcher, who holds a Ph.D. in Food Science and Technology from the Veterinary School of the University of Zaragoza, Spain, commented that, generally, the difference between fats and oils is established by their physical state; at room temperature, fats are solid, while oils are liquids. According to their origin, differences are also established; that is, fats are commonly present in all animal organisms, while oils are generally of vegetable origin.

In their chemical composition, he added, both fats and oils are mixtures of triglycerides; however, oils have a higher proportion of unsaturated fatty acids than fats, which establishes the differences in their physical state, although oils can be converted into fats through the hydrogenation process, achieving a solid consistency. However, through this process, unsaturated fats (considered the good fats) are converted into trans fats, which, as already mentioned, generate health problems by increasing the level of bad cholesterol (LDL) and decreasing the level of good cholesterol (HDL).

Advantages and disadvantages of lard over vegetable oil

Sánchez Escalante explained that pork fat is generally made up mainly of different fatty acids, including oleic, palmitic, stearic, and linoleic, although the content will depend on the breed and feed received during the animal's production. She also pointed out that scientific studies have recently been published indicating that pork fat is free of trans fats, has low sodium content, is considered rich in vitamins B, C, and D and calcium, and contains minerals such as phosphorus and iron. These characteristics make it possible to consider that lard can be appreciated for its properties that differentiate it nutritionally from others.

She added that an important aspect to consider is that, during the heating or melting of pork fat, it reduces its water content, concentrating its fatty acid content more, without undergoing important modifications. While oils, if heated excessively, suffer alterations due to oxidation and in doing so produce substances that can cause heart disease and potentially cancer.

Finally, she commented that if pork lard is produced under adequate conditions, since it does not have an unpleasant taste or odor, it can be used in any type of preparation without altering the taste of the food, moderating the amount of food intake so as not to consume extra calories. Furthermore, it is important to consider that, in terms of cost, in some regions, lard can be cheaper than sunflower and canola oils and, above all, olive oil.

Collaboration by Armida Sánchez Escalante, a researcher at the Coordination of Animal Food Technology at CIAD.