Thanks to a successful marketing campaign by the pork industry, we almost reflexively think of pork as "the other white meat." Technically, pork is still classified as red meat because it is a livestock product, like beef, lamb, and veal, and all livestock are classed as red meat. The amount of myoglobin (an oxygen-carrying protein) in animal muscle determines the color of meat; pork contains less myoglobin than beef, but it contains more than chicken or fish, even though the meat considerably lightens in color when cooked. This classification means that when scientific studies link the consumption of red meat with increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and overall mortality, pork is lumped into this category.
Leanest Cuts of Pork
Pork has not always been so lean. According to a USDA study from 2006, which was funded by the National Pork Board, the leanest cuts of pork are 16 percent leaner than 15 years prior, and 27 percent lower in saturated fat. Six cuts of pork meet the USDA definition of lean, which means they contain less than 10 grams of fat, less than 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95mg of cholesterol per three-ounce serving. These are:
- Boneless top loin chop
- Top loin roast
- Center loin chop
- Sirloin roast
- Rib chop
One of those cuts, pork tenderloin, meets the definition of extra lean, which means it contains less than 5 grams of fat and less than 2 grams of saturated fat per serving. This puts it about on par with a skinless chicken breast, which is why pork is often touted as a great alternative to chicken for those on a low-fat diet.
How Did This Happen?
Due to public demand for less fatty foods, which manifested itself in the falling consumption of pork, pricing incentives were offered to encourage the production of leaner, heavier, more muscular hogs. The concern, however, was that this leanness would come at the price of flavor and tenderness, and this is likely open to debate. It does mean that lean cuts of pork must be cooked carefully to maintain succulence and best flavor. Pork tenderloin has less connective tissue than other cuts, which makes it naturally more tender, but it can become tough and dry if overcooked.
So, bearing in mind that pork is really still red meat, we should limit how much we eat. At the same time, as a source of low-fat protein, it can still fit into a low-fat diet.
Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein AM, et al. Red meat consumption and mortality: results from 2 prospective cohort studies. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(7):555-63. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287
US Department of Agriculture. USDA nutrient data set for fresh pork (from SR),release 2.0. 2009.
US Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020: appendix 6. glossary of terms.