The pig is indeed a magical animal. It gives us bacon and ham, ribs and pulled pork, pork chops, and sausage (scroll down for some delicious and healthy recipes). No other meat comes in so many varied-and delicious-forms. But when it comes to eating smart, pork can be both the angel and the devil on your shoulder. You already know that lean ham is good and bacon is bad. But what about all the choices in between?
Here's the rule to remember when it comes to meat: Whether you're talking beef or pork, bison or lamb, the leanest cuts from a four-legged animal almost always come from the loin. So, to get the most protein possible, with the least calories and fat, you should always look for cuts of meat that include the term such as sirloin or tenderloin. After that, selecting the healthiest pork gets a bit more complex. Moving up the body of a pig, know that anything from the shoulder or the belly-such as Boston butt or bacon-is going to automatically contain more fat. Pork chops tend to be the fattiest cut of all, but since most of the fat is around the edges, you can easily trim it before or after cooking. For pork sausage, look for packs that get no more than 15% to 20% of their calories from fat and you should be good to go.
Even if your favorite cut is fairly fatty, you can still make it healthier, according to Aliza Green, chef and author of Starting with Ingredients. "If you're working with a Boston butt roast or ribs," she says, "try to cook the meat the day before you want to eat it. Then let it cool in the refrigerator overnight." That way, the fat will rise to the top. Just scrape it off, and reheat the meat. "You get the advantage of mouth-watering food that's been cooked in juicy fat, without actually eating the fat," says Green.
Essentials for Pigging Out
A decade or two ago, all pork used to be relatively fatty-hence the unhealthy reputation. In the kitchen though, this was a good thing. Even if you were a terrible chef, you could cook pork to well done, or overcook it, and it still ended up juicy and tender. But that's no longer the case. Today's pork producers have become more health savvy, and the meat you find in grocery stores now comes from much skinnier hogs. It's a direct response to breeders attempting to meet the demand for lower fat foods. On the positive side, because of these advances, six common cuts of pork now have 16% less fat and 27% less saturated fat than they did 15 years ago.
In fact, some studies now show pork tenderloin can be every bit as lean as skinless chicken breast. That's great news for your heart but not necessarily for your taste buds. Without all that fat, it's now incredibly easy to overcook lean pork-since the meat lacks the fat needed to keep it juicy. Marinades can help, but you've still got to know when to stop cooking the meat.
The USDA recommends cooking pork to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Trichinosis-a type of bacteria sometimes found in undercooked meat-can't survive above 145 degrees, so Green recommends cooking pork to 150 degrees, which will make it safe without drying it out. The easiest way to tell when pork is done is to use a digital meat thermometer. This inexpensive device gives you an instant reading and keeps you from having to slice the meat open-letting out all the juices-just to see if it's done. But be sure to take the meat off the heat when the thermometer reads 140 to 145 degrees, says Michael Symon, winner of Food Network's The Next Iron Chef.
"Cover the meat with foil and let it rest for 10 minutes before cutting it," he says. "The internal temperature will continue to rise another 5 to 10 degrees, so you get great-tasting meat without ending up with something that's overcooked."
Pork vs. Chicken
Pork has been pitched as "the other white meat" since 1987, when chicken, which had a reputation for being low in fat, started to become the more popular choice. Some pig products should definitely be avoided-lard, for example-but pork can do a body good.
Pork tenderloin is actually lower in total fat than a skinless chicken breast (2.98 g vs. 3.03 g). It's also considered an excellent source of several important nutrients: vitamin B12 and the B vitamins thiamine and niacin, all of which help protect against heart attacks and strokes. Pork is also high in protein, which is important for rebuilding muscle mass after a workout.
And a recent study from Purdue University found that people who ate a reduced-calorie diet high in protein-including 6 ounces of lean pork a day-lost only 3.3 pounds of lean muscle mass, while a group that ate a low-protein diet lost 6.2 pounds of lean mass.
The nutrition benefits don't stop there. Pork is also a good source of riboflavin (a B vitamin that helps preserve your vision), zinc (which promotes growth, immunity, wound healing, and appetite control), and potassium (which may help regulate blood pressure and protect against stroke). All the more reason to pile up your plate with the stuff-in moderation, of course.
Pork Tenderloin, Sirloin Chops, Loin Roast, Top Loin Chops, Loin Chops, Sirloin Roast, Rib Chops, and Rib Roast.
Boston Butt, Bacon, Sausage, Side Ribs, Pork Belly, Riblets, and Pulled Pork.
Click Here for Healthy Pork Recipes
Now that you know you can eat pork, here's how to cook it. We've got the recipes you've gotta