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People tend to be of only one of two minds about pork: On one side there are those who claim pork is unclean (or traif) because of religious prohibitions or unhealthy because of the way the animal eats or is raised.
On the other side are those who greatly enjoy “the other white meat,” including traditional cultures like the long-lived Okinawans and Caucasian Georgians who eat pork in some form almost every day.
And then there are thousands of years of Asian, European (and later, American) farming history, where almost every homestead and farm had a pig or two to turn waste into fertilizer and food.
So, religious prohibition notwithstanding (That’s between you and your Maker!), is pork bad for you? Or is it a healthy, traditional food that’s an integral part of every self-sustaining homestead?
A Brief History of Pork
Pork is one of the oldest sources of meat, and domestication of wild pigs has been documented as early as 5,000 BCE. Today about 38 percent of the world’s meat production is pork, although its consumption varies widely from country to country.
Pork is so popular because on a traditional homestead, pigs are fed “slop” —a mixture of kitchen scraps, whey left over from making cheese, orchard fall, and other household waste, including (in other times) human feces, or “nightsoil.”
This means a lot of meat, fat and fertilizer for little to no input, plus 99% efficient nutrient and waste recycling. The value of waste recycling to an off-grid, self-sustaining homestead in any era cannot be overestimated.
Pork is also one of the most commonly eaten meats because it is much more easily preserved than other types of meat, due to its fat content. Salt curing pork into bacon, salami, prosciutto, ham, and the like is an old traditional method that goes back thousands of years before refrigeration.
Marinating pork meat before cooking it is another traditional method used in preparing fresh pork, which both tenderizes it, and imbues it with more flavor.
Traditional curing methods such as salt curing, smoking, brining, marinating and lacto-fermenting not only made the meat taste better and last longer, they also killed any parasites that might have been present. But even though we have modern refrigeration, and trichinosis is now almost non-existent in the U.S., the flavors that traditional curing methods create are why bacon, salami, etc. remain very popular meats today.
Pork often gets a bad rap. But you may not know that pork is actually a good source of Vitamin C, niacin, phosphorus and zinc, and a very good source of protein, Vitamin B-12, iron and selenium. The more varied the pig’s diet and the more time it spends outdoors in the sun, the better its nutrition will be.
Pork that has been raised on pasture not only tastes better than the flavorless pork produced on factory farms, but it is also more nutritious. Studies indicate that pastured pork has significantly more vitamin E and more omega-3 fatty acids than factory-farmed pork, making it potentially less inflammatory than high-Omega-6 factory-farmed meat. Pasture raised pork also contains a lot more Vitamin D and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which are potent natural cancer fighters.
Pork fat, or lard, is not at all the health menace most people believe it to be. Lard is actually 45% monounsaturated fat—the same kind of fat found in olive oil.
Monounsaturated fats are responsible for lowering LDL levels while leaving HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels alone. In fact, according to researcher Gary Taubes, “If you work out the numbers, you come to the surreal conclusion that you can eat lard straight from the can and conceivably reduce your risk of heart disease.”
Lard also tolerates high cooking temperatures, it’s often recommended for frying and pie crusts because it makes things so light and flaky, and it has a long shelf life.
Wow! Bring on the lard!
How to Buy Pork
When I buy any meat, how the animal was raised is most important to me.
While I think that all factory farming is heinous, commercial pig farms are arguably among the very worst of all the concentrated animal operations.
In fact, industrial hog farms are a massive human health and environmental scourge. The only good thing that can be said about them is they produce lots of pork very cheaply. (But is that really a good thing, given what we know about industrial farming and climate change?)
First, domesticated pigs are highly intelligent creatures, and have served as an integral part of homesteads and smallholdings for thousands of years. They are not suited in any way to the kind of indoor confinement, crowding and filth found in typical pig-farming factories.
Second, the conditions in factory pig farms are so severe that commercial pigs are often given antibiotics, growth promoters and other pharmaceuticals just so they can make it to your table.
It is thought that methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, the highly virulent, flesh-eating staph infection that is resistant to antibiotics, originated on factory pig farms. Swine flu as well.
Lastly, and perhaps worst of all, unregulated industrial hog manure lagoons pollute the air for miles, destroying ecosystems and quality of life for everyone living nearby. These lagoons can also pollute ground water and nearby wells, severely contaminate rivers during seasonal flooding, and sometimes even explode and catch fire as methane builds up in them.
But not all pork is created equal.
Industrial meat simply can’t hold a candle to traditionally produced meat for quality, accountability, sustainability, safety and taste. Fortunately, it is becoming easier and easier to find pasture-raised meat, including pork from pigs raised the way our ancestors raised pigs for thousands of years.
Hands-down, the best way to buy pork is directly from a local farmer you know and trust, who has no problem letting you come by to see how their pigs are living.
Before you visit, you should know that pigs eat some grass, clover and alfalfa, but they are not ruminants like cows, and naturally prefer a mixed, omnivorous diet of scraps, “slop,” eggs and dairy waste, acorns and beech nuts, rotting fruit, roots, tubers, grubs, insects, and other messy things they can root around and dig for with their snouts.
Corn and soy are NOT ideal foods for a pig, even when they live on pasture, though some might be used as a supplement. Pigs should ideally spend their good-weather days on polycultural pasture that offers some tree shade or light forest, where they can naturally forage.
Buying pork directly from a local farmer you trust is also a great way to save money, since you can often buy a half or whole hog, have it butchered as you like, and packaged for your deep chest freezer.
You can also enjoy the unique flavors offered by sustainable small farmers who are raising heritage pig breeds, or who offer farm-cured pork specialties, like local sausages and salumi.
- be fed a nutritious, varied diet appropriate for a pig
- not receive antibiotics, hormones or other drugs banned everywhere but the U.S., like ractopamine
- not be confined except for short, necessary periods (like when they must be examined or weighed)
- have comfortable resting areas with straw bedding where they can turn around and lie down fully stretched out
- be free to engage in natural behaviors like rooting and mawing
Animal Welfare Approved has tougher standards because they require access to outdoor foraging. Certified Humane pork does not guarantee that pigs spend any time outdoors, but does guarantee that pigs have “access” to the outdoors. This is similar to the standard for “free-range” eggs.
USDA Certified Organic pork standards require that pigs be fed organic feed, not receive antibiotics, growth-promoting drugs or hormones, and have decent space, bedding and outdoor access.
USDA Organic standards are less stringent than those of Certified Humane or AWA, but they’re still much better than conventionally raised, factory-farmed pork.
Avoid at All Costs
Unless your pork comes from one of the three sources above, I’m sorry to say it was produced on a factory farm. This means the pigs were:
- raised in inhumane, bacteria-infested conditions that endanger public health, pollute local waterways and foul the air for miles around,
- fed GMO soy and corn, as well as pesticide-laden industrial farm waste, and
- injected with or fed unnecessary antibiotics and other growth-enhancing drugs that have been banned in other countries.
Ew. It’s no wonder so many believe that pork is bad for you. Under these conditions, how could it not be?
Many factory-farmed meat products are labeled “natural,” but this is very misleading. All the word “natural” means is that the pork, beef or poultry was processed without artificial flavors or colors.
“Natural” refers only to how the meat was prepared after slaughter, not to how the animal was raised.
Preparing Fresh Pork
Some health professionals believe that pork is a particularly inflammatory food. There is some evidence to suggest that this is true. However, most Americans do not eat pasture-raised pork (which is lower in inflammatory Omega-6s), nor do they prepare it using the traditional methods that we have used for thousands of years. I believe this makes a big difference.
In China, it is thought that pork is bad for you unless it is cut into small pieces and marinated in vinegar before cooking in pork fat. Pork and pork fat together form the number one single source of calories in the traditional Chinese diet. Owning pigs is considered wealth, and a crucial component of sustainable rural subsistence even today.
In Argentina and the Philippines, pork is traditionally marinated in vinegar. In India, pork is soaked in yogurt before seasoning and cooking. In Mexico and Central America, it is typical to marinate pork in orange or lime juice. And here in America, we have a long tradition of pickled pigs’ feet and vinegar-marinated barbecue.
The key to properly preparing fresh pork lies in using an acid to marinate the meat prior to cooking. Vinegar, citrus, or yogurt provides the acid that breaks down the meat so that it remains tender and succulent—even after you cook it thoroughly for safety.
Like brining and drying your nuts and seeds or soaking your grains in whey, marinating pork may also have the added benefit of improving its digestibility and reducing its inflammatory properties. This does not surprise me; our ancestors were pretty smart, after all.
Whether cooking ground, chops, ribs, loins or roasts, you should always prepare an acid marinade for your fresh pork.
This could be as simple as a 12–24 hour soak in vinegar and water (2:1), plus some sea salt, or it could be a more elaborate marinade with seasonings and spices to make dinner extra special. If you have a thick piece of meat or a roast, be sure to score it so the marinade can penetrate deep within.
So, Is Pork Bad for You?
If you choose pork from a local farmer that raises their animals on pasture or forest, and prepare it using traditional methods like acid marination, salt curing or lacto-fermentation, pork can be a healthy part of any real food diet.
Try these traditionally prepared pork recipes: