High on Fat

On a recent broiling afternoon, a gentleman of middle years and middle height stood by the checkout counter at the Rice Epicurean in the Rice Village. He was audibly searching for lard. A store manager screwed up his features in a pained way in response to the query, replying, "We don't carry it anymore. It's just so unhealthy!" The gentleman had previously visited several other supermarkets and was just as spectacularly unsuccessful. Apparently he was looking for lard in all the wrong places. The Rice manager suggested an ethnic market.

We at Skewer Central immediately noted the blind bigotry and shear wrongheadedness of the situation; it was, in short, the exact kind of thing we're designed to combat.

A most ancient word, having originated in Latium, "lard," or the rendered fat of swine, is now a word with negative connotations. An obese person is a lard-butt; a dim-witted person is a lard-head. In fact, any words or phrases involving pigs, swine, porkers or hogs are pejorative.

Consequently, the NutriNazis have suppressed a basic aesthetic truth: A real American pie crust, or a proper Cornish pasty, or any number of Mexican dishes made without lard are about as authentic as an alcohol-free martini.

Fat, to begin with, tastes good. In the billions of years we have been evolving from boneless little blobs in the primordial seas to our present state, innumerable forebears have been poisoned eating, drinking and breathing in the wrong thing. Our taste buds and noses are, in fact, quite reliable guides to what is good for us. Furthermore, fat is essential to life. Fat is needed to provide essential fatty acids -- substances required for growth, but not produced by the human body. Fat is needed to carry fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) and to aid in their absorption from the intestine.

What sensible eaters need to pay attention to is, first, the total quantity of fat in their diet and, second, the type of fat. Nutritional science breaks down fats into saturated and unsaturated. Without going into a discourse on organic chemistry, the difference between the two fats has to do with hydrogen atoms. Unsaturated fats tend to be liquid at room temperature. Saturated fats tend to be solids. Thus, if you take unsaturated corn oil, a liquid, and bubble hydrogen gas through it, you get a saturated "trans" fat, or the basic ingredient of margarine. The American Heart Association's Nutrition Committee "strongly advises that healthy Americans over age two limit their intake of saturated fat to 7 percent to 10 percent of total calories and their total fat intake to no more than 30 percent of total calories." How you do that is your business.

None of this is late-breaking news, although Dr. Christie Ballantyne, who specializes in atherosclerosis at Baylor College of Medicine, admits that "first we said cholesterol was bad, then we said fat is bad, then saturated fat." In 1993 in the medical journal Lancet, results of a study involving some 85,000 women nurses were published. The study showed a positive association of trans fatty acids with coronary heart disease. "By analyzing individual foods, this study suggested that trans fatty acids formed during the partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils used in margarine, cookies, cakes and white bread accounted for all the increased risk of chronic heart disease."

Please note that lard, which is a naturally occurring saturated fatty acid (a "cis" fat versus a trans fat), is not cited in the preceding paragraph.

Danièle Zoch, who works as a nutritionist with Ballantyne, states, "There is not a single food I tell my patients they can't have. They just have to stay within their fat budget." (Zoch, it must be said, is French and thus most likely a member of the NutriNazi Resistance.) Zoch suggests you take your weight in pounds and multiply it by 13, which gives you one figure, then multiply your weight by 15, which gives you another. The two figures (if you weigh 150 pounds, the numbers would be 1,950 and 2,250) give you a range for the daily caloric intake you need to maintain your present weight. Then she suggests taking 30 percent of those figures to arrive at your ideal fat intake, and then dividing the figures by nine to determine how many grams of fat you should have in your diet (for the same 150-pound body, the range would be between 65 and 75 grams). One third of that amount can be the nasty saturated fat found, for instance, in lard.

Food packaging, Zoch observes, doesn't have to break down the various types of fatty acids, including the red-flag saturated fats. Until that time comes, here are some figures from a study of saturated fats in common cooking oils. The lowest level is found in canola oil, 7 percent. Olive oil, another highly regarded heart-healthy fat, has about 15 percent. The baddest of the bad is coconut oil, with some 91 percent saturated fat. Surprisingly, when compared to butter (68 percent), nasty old lard turns out to have over a third less saturated fat, at 43 percent. The shelves at Rice Epicurean and most other supermarkets are well stocked with butters and margarines. You'll have to go to Fiesta, for example, to find lard. At 79 cents for a one-pound plastic container that "never needs refrigeration," it is definitely the bargain shortening. There's even a recipe for a real old-fashioned pie crust -- the kind you may not have tasted in years -- right on the label.

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