If you’ve spent any amount of time reading about the Paleo diet, you’ve probably read that beef is a better choice than pork from a paleo perspective. The logic is this: Pork is higher in PUFA (polyunsaturated fats) than beef and has a worse Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio. High PUFA consumption is linked with inflammation and other common health disorders. The issue has to do with fat quality, which means it’s singling out fatty pork cuts like (gasp!) bacon. There is a discussion of the PUFA content of various meats at PaleoLeap. The problem with articles like this is that they assume that all pork is created equally. Much discussion is usually given to the distinction between grass-finished and grain-finished beef, but there is very little discussion of the effect that the finishing diet has on pork quality. In fact, pigs are very much what they eat, especially from the perspective of fat quality.
It has actually been known since at least the early 20th century that the finishing diet of pigs has a huge effect on fat quality of the meat. Consider this quote:
In bacon production, a common source of trouble arises from the softness of the sides. There is a certain firmness to the fat, a freedom from greasiness and softness which is absolutely essential in No. 1 bacon. In the production of bacon the feeds entering into the ration must be carefully chosen. The use of corn in the proportion of more than one third of the ration is certain to produce softness. The feeds used most largely and successfully are barley, peas, oats, shorts and skimmed milk. — Cyclopedia of American Agriculture, 1917
So why does corn produce softness but not barley? As grains go, corn is relatively high in oil content and barley is very low. This is why you can buy corn oil in any supermarket but you’ve never once seen a bottle of barley oil. The oils in the vast majority of grains are very high in “Omega-6 PUFA”. This is a certain type of polyunsaturated fat that remains liquid in the refrigerator. When you feed pigs a lot of corn, the PUFA in their diet makes its way into the pork fat and the fat becomes soft and greasy in the refrigerator – just like corn oil!
Importantly, pigs cannot make PUFA, they can only get it from their diets. So if we limit dietary PUFA we will end up with low PUFA pig fat. It really is that simple! How much less? Fat from industrial pork produced in America typically has a PUFA content of 10-15%. I sent a sample for testing from hogs finished on The Piggery Farm this summer. The finishing diet was based on the low PUFA grains barley, triticale and wheat. The porkfat from these pigs is notably firm, looks great in the meat case and the bacon slices beautifully. It tested at 6.33% PUFA, about half the amount of most commercial pork produced in the USA. Additionally, since those hogs were munching fresh pasture it is likely that the Omega-6/Omega-3 ration was significantly better than commercial pork since pasture plants provide a good source of Omega-3 fats. Future testing will tell us for sure!
The Piggery is doing a reformulation of the hog diets on all of the farms that supply its pastured pork. As we speak the majority of the pork produced at The Piggery is from hogs finished on a low PUFA diet, but by April of 2018 every single hog will be finished this way. Nicer bacon and healthier pork!