Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lard, Glorious Lard!

Earlier post: Swine and Mankind - The satiating power of dietary fat, mankind’s long history with swine, and the changes made to swine through genetic selection and some implications for humans fighting excess fat.


During this country’s pioneer days the hog was the principal source of fat for the diet and lard was widely used for other purposes in everyday life. Two industries are responsible for displacing lard - vegetable oil processing and petroleum.

Industrial processes were developed in the first half of the 20th century to extract, purify, and solidify various vegetable oils (hydrogenation). This created the vegetable-shortening industry. These processes made available vast sources of cheap oils. These could be converted into a texture that made them acceptable as shortening materials. All that was needed was a public relations campaign to convince the American public that these new industrial products were good for them. Petroleum products directly replaced lard as fuels for illumination and as lubricants. Products of the growing petrochemical industry eliminated many other uses of lard.

“Modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food.”
Albert Bartlett

Today most hog producers use some type of confinement production. One of the most striking features of the U.S. hog industry has been the rapid shift to fewer and larger operations, associated with technological change and evolving economic relationships between producers, packers, and consumers. Over the past 15 years, the number of farms with hogs has declined by over 70 percent, as individual enterprises have grown larger. These large operations specialize in a single phase of production, replacing the farrow-to-finish operations that performed all phases of production. The use of production contracts has increased. Operations producing under contract are larger than independent operations and are more likely to specialize in a single phase of production. The swine industry is following the poultry industry model of vertical integration.1

Grass-based agriculture minimizes the use of petroleum (and other inputs) in the conversion of sunlight into high quality protein and fat.

I’m not in any way attempting to romanticize a time when life was challenging beyond our ability to imagine. I’ve stood in old graveyards, looking at the markers in the family plot of a distant relative, and experienced the growing sorrow of realizing that this family buried 5 children in the span of a month. Infectious diseases were a significant threat then. No more. Now we die slowly from the chronic western diseases. Nor am I saying that these folks were fine stewards of the natural resources under their management. For the most part these farmers lacked any understanding of preserving, let alone improving, soil fertility. The principles of soil conservation were not known, let alone practiced. The natural resources in settled areas were exploited and then folks moved on - until we ran out of new areas to settle. The settlement of the North American Great Plains was an exercise in trying to force human will upon the environment, instead of attempting to find what the environment would support. But hind sight is always 20/20. I wonder what folks 200 years from now will think of our current practices and attitudes?

When the majority of Americans lived on homesteads and small farms, folks needed to produce what they required, or do without. Theirs were not the industrial farms of today – specializing in the production of single crops or animals. These were integrated animal and cropping enterprises. And the pig was a critical part of these systems. Known as “the mortgage lifter,” hogs produced meat, fat and income from pasture and farm wastes. When the price of grain was low, a farmer could increase it’s value by feeding it to pigs which could be sold for a greater profit. And pork could be shipped to market at lower cost and with greater ease than grain. During a time when life did not depend on petroleum, it might well be said that it depended on the hog. Consider the many uses of lard: sanitation; extermination, illumination, lubrication, fabrication, preservation, medication, nutrition, and transportation. (How’s that for porcine alliteration?)

Sanitation – Soap for washing bodies and clothes was made from lard and lye. The lye was made by pouring rainwater through wood ashes. 2

Extermination – Okay, this one’s a LITTLE scary. “For Bed Bug extermination none need a second trial after mixing lard with red precipitate put on with a feather wherever they are and leave it on.” 4 I bet! Red precipitate is mercuric oxide (HgO)! Just goes to show that the old folks didn’t always have the best information ...

Illumination – Lard was an alternative to the more expensive whale oil. Special lard lamps were available. Pure lard is too soft for use as candles, but a spoonful could serve as fuel for a metal dish lamp called a “crusie,” but these little lamps didn’t throw much light. For better light, the pith from cattail (Typha latifolia) stalks could be dipped in lard and burned. Called rushlights, they produced more smoke and less light that whale oil, but it was less expensive and could be “homemade.”2

Lubrication – Pine tar mixed with lard produced wagon axle grease. Lard was also used as bullet lube.

Fabrication – A liquid can be separated from lard by pressing it. This substance is called olein or lard oil. It is still used in blacksmithing and machining operations to lubricate cutting tools.

Preservation – Lean meat can be preserved by drying. But fat cannot. So dried meat, or jerky, was ground or pounded, and then combined with an equal weight of melted fat to produce pemmican (an earlier post “The Original North American Trail Food”). Confit is a common practice in traditional French cooking. Various kinds of meat or poultry can be cooked in their own fat, and then allowed to cool. The solidified fat will seal the storage vessel and prevent spoilage. A version was practiced on the American frontier, where pieces of ham were stored in lard. My Italian-American father-in-law remembers his family storing sausages in lard.

Medication – The bark of the elderberry (Sambucus sp.) would be simmered in lard to make an ointment to treat “ulcers, boils, carbuncles, burns, and such lesser irritations as abrasions, chafing, rashes, blistering, and so forth.” 3 Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was a very common ingredient in salves made from lard. 4

Next-to-last, but not least, Nutrition – Until the late 1920’s lard was the primary cooking fat in the US, when it began to be replaced by various vegetable oils and shortenings. This trend accelerated, of course, with the official dietary instruction to limit our consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol. The annual per capita consumption of lard has plummeted from 14.2 pounds in 1940 to 1.7 pounds in 1993. 5

We’ve been told to limit our intake of saturated fat, and the terms “saturated fat” and “animal fat” are often treated as if they’re synonymous. But animal fat is a mixture of different fatty acids. These mixtures differ between animal species and can be influenced by production practices. In general lard is: 
  • 45 percent monounsaturated fatty acids, 91% of which is oleic acid, the principle fatty acid in olive oil
  • 39 percent saturated fatty acids, but more than one third of that is stearic fatty acid, which will increase HDL cholesterol while having no effect on LDL. (Stearic acid is metabolized in the body to oleic acid).
  • And 11 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids, which lowers LDL cholesterol but has no meaningful effect on HDL.

(USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 22 (2009))

In sum, 66 percent of the fat in lard will improve the relative levels of LDL and HDL cholesterol. The remaining 34 percent will raise LDL cholesterol, but will also raise HDL cholesterol and will have an insignificant effect, if any, on the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL.
Am I the only one that sees the irony?
Transportation – I’ve asked some folks involved in researching bio-fuel production from crops why we aren’t looking at small scale production of bio-fuel from animal fat for on-farm use. If the animals weren’t eating human-utilizable feed, it would seem to make far more sense than expending diesel fuel to grow and harvest an oilseed crop, for bio-fuel. Maybe I’m missing something …

Petroleum and petroleum-based products may have replaced lard, but lard's day may come again!

Next post: Try, Try Again (How to render lard and tallow)

1. USDA Economic Research Service. Briefing Rooms. Hogs. Background.
2. Greenwood, B. and H Collins. A Pioneer Sampler: The Daily Life of a Pioneer Family in 1840.
3. Survival Wisdom & Know How: Everything You Need to Know to Thrive in the Wilderness p. 131
4. Good Housekeeping, vol 7. page 186.
5. Ensminger, M.E. and R.O. Parker. 1997. Swine Science. Interstate Publishers, Inc. p 421.
6. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 22 (2009)

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