Pork (Sus domesticus) has gotten a bad rap. In many cultures, it is classified as a meat that should not be eaten. However, pork is not as bad as it seems depending on what part of the pig you’re eating. Pork is an excellent source of thiamine (Vitamin B1) and niacin (Vitamin B3), protein, selenium and phosphorus. It’s also a good source of a compound called choline, which is a nutrient that helps keep your brain cells healthy and may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, pork can be high in salt, fat and cholesterol so choose your cut wisely.
How healthy pork is depends on what cut you’re eating. You best bet is to always go for the organic, extra-lean cuts because they have met the organic standards set by the USDA and they’ll have the least amount of fat on them.
Is Pork Healthy?
Pork is probably not a meat you should eat as part of a healthy diet despite it being high in vitamin B’s, minerals and protein. However, it can be healthy if you go for cuts from the shoulder, tenderloin and leg. Stick to only one or two servings per week max. The meat should be thoroughly cooked, organic, extra lean and not cured, smoked or salted. Meats that are cured or smoked contain compounds called nitrates, which are added to the meat as a preservative and flavoring. Nitrates have been linked to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. These cured meats are processed meats such as bacon, ham and cold cuts.
Temperature can influence the amount of unhealthy compounds in pork. When pork is cooked at higher temperatures, compounds called HCA (heterocyclic amines) can form in the meat and these compounds are linked to cancer. When processed meats are smoked during the curing process it produces another compound called PAH (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons).
Properly cooking pork is absolutely essential because pork meat can carry dangerous pathogens. There are at least 4 viruses that are of concern:
1. Menangle virus
2. Nipah virus – can cause encephalitis (brain inflammation)
3. Porcine Endogenous Retrovirus (PERV) – can spread to humans by eating the organs raw or not cooked well enough.
4. Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS)
What a pig eats can greatly influence the types and amounts of fat that they have in their body. Pigs in the U.S are usually fed grains, which are high in omega 6 fatty acids. Too many omega 6’s in your diet can promote inflammation rather than fight it and a diet high in omega 6’s may contribute to liver disease. Your best bet is to go for pork that has been raised on a diet of vegetables. Organically raised pigs are not necessarily fed vegetables instead of grains so do not assume organic labels for pork indicates that the pigs were fed leafy greens or vegetables.
It is not best to include pork as part of your regular diet. From a health standpoint, it is better to eat pork from time to time but not on a regular basis despite the high vitamin, mineral and protein content. Stick to leaner and safer meats like grass-fed Chicken, Bison, Beef or Turkey.
Cuts of Pork
Tenderloin cuts can be one of the best parts of the pig to eat because it’s already lean, tender and contains a lot of vitamin B’s. Because it’s so tender it can be easily prepared by either grilling, roasting, sautéing or braising.
1 serving of broiled pork tenderloin (about 6 ounces) is one of the best food sources for these two vitamins, providing over 150% of your daily value (DV) of thiamine and about 140% of your DV of niacin. On top of that, you can get over 70% of your DV of vitamin B12, 60% of your DV of riboflavin and about 31% of your DV of pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5). Nearly 160% DV of selenium. Over 60% of your DV of zinc, over 20% of your DV of both potassium and magnesium and about 18% of your DV of both iron and copper.
Loin roast is essentially the pig’s back and is best prepared by barbecuing or roasting. It’s a muscular portion of meat that’s less tender than the tenderloin portion. Stewing these cuts tends to make loin roasts lose their flavor so stick to barbecues and roasting so it can retain the juices.
This is a muscular cut of meat so its best prepared by roasting. Pork leg is ham. It’s known as fresh ham before it becomes processed and cured. It can be cut up to make shank (lower leg portion), rump (close to the sirloin area) and center portions. Extra-lean ham has About 250 calories, 34 grams of protein, About 8.5 grams of fat of which approx 3.4 grams are saturated. But because pork is usually cured, tenderloin cuts can have over 1,900 mg of sodium in just one 6oz serving so you may want to keep your portions small.
There are two parts to the shoulder cut. The upper shoulder is called the pork shoulder, while the bottom portion is commonly called the arm pork roast. These cuts can be ground up to make ground pork meat. The shoulder blade portion can be cooked to make pulled pork meat. It can be very flavorful and juicy if its prepared right. What’s great is that this cut is not very expensive. These cuts are best stewed, barbecued, braised or roasted.
These cuts have a little more fat than the leg, shoulder and loin cuts so it has a little more flavor to it. These cuts can make rib roasts, crown roasts. Pork chops also come from this area of the pig as well. These cuts are best prepared by barbecuing or roasting.
Belly (Spare rib/ Side)
These are the fattier cuts of pork but also some of the most flavorful portions come from this area of the pig. The spare ribs are from the side of the ribs and belly area. Underneath this is the belly portion, which is the portion where bacon comes from. In the U.S, bacon portions come from the belly but outside of the U.S it may also come from the sides or back. The belly portion can be cured but it can also be prepared without curing. When it is cured it becomes bacon. It can be prepared in a variety of ways. You can broil, pan fry, bake or microwave it.
Canadian bacon is a portion that’s not from the belly. It comes from the loin area near the ham portion. It is essentially smoked pork loin.
This is the lower legs and arms of the pig. It’s where the hock cuts come from. Ham hocks, which are different from hocks, come from the upper part of the leg where the ham portion is. The hock comes with the bone exposed and the skin on. It’s best prepared slow roasted because there is plenty of muscle here so the slow roast will tenderize the meat.