Nolan Thevenet, the owner of Stryker Farm in Pennsylvania, said it wasn't that long ago that lard was destined for the garbage at his operation rather than a serious way to make money.
In just a few years, the pig byproduct has suddenly become a hot commodity on his farm as more consumers embrace the ingredient coveted for its flavor and color despite the decidedly unhealthy reputation that has followed it for decades.
Thevenet said Stryker Farm sells between 100 and 300 pounds of lard a month to consumers, restaurants and health food stores. The going rate for a pound is between $5 and $6, and $8.50 online to factor in shipping costs.
"All the other parts, the pork chops, bacon, things like that, that’s really what makes the money off the pig but it’s nice to be able to not have to throw that away," Thevenet said. "There were probably years when everyone was hating on fat when a farm really couldn’t sell that fat and they were throwing it in the garbage. We’re getting more and more requests now."
The global lard market revenue was $15.7 billion in 2018, an increase of 2.9% from the previous year, according to a report by ResearchAndMarkets.com. Consumption for the animal fat is forecast to grow by 1.6% annually through 2025, fuelled by rising demand in China, the firm said.
Lard consumption in the U.S. trails demand overseas, where the ingredient is embraced more widely by consumers. ResearchAndMarkets estimated 40% of total consumption, amounting to 2.87 million tons, was in China — four times more than No. 2-ranked Germany.
"I do see it making a pretty good comeback lately," said Whitney Linsenmeyer, an assistant professor in the department of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University.
A major reason for the rebound, she said, is that unlike the prevailing thinking 30 years ago where low fat was in vogue and scientists believed the substance consumed in food contributed to excess fat in the body, the attitude on both fronts has changed. It's a big reason why butter, which saw its popularity wane for decades in favor of vegetable-based shortenings like Crisco, hydrogenated vegetable oils and margarine, is being consumed in record amounts.
Losing its stigma
Lard typically comes in two varieties: leaf lard, which is found near a pig's kidney and is coveted in pie crusts and other foods when the baker wants to avoid a porky flavor; and regular lard that is harvested from back fat.
A part of lard's resurgence is tied to the fact that consumers are doing more to reduce waste and use more of the animal for food. They also are increasing their purchases of local products to help area businesses and reduce the environmental footprint of transporting the ingredient.
"I see a huge shift. It started off gradual and gradual. Now, I sell everything we have. I don't have anything left over."
Rose O’Dell King
Owner, Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm
Rose O’Dell King, the owner of Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm in Florida, said she used to sell her lard online but stopped more than five years ago as consumers locally became more educated about the ingredient and started buying all she could produce.
O’Dell King said lard is finally losing the stigma that has been dogging it for years, though there remains plenty of room to convince skeptical consumers. "I see a huge shift. It started off gradual and gradual," she said. "Now, I sell everything we have. I don’t have anything left over."
Nutritional profile may keep ingredient niche
Penny Kris-Etherton, past chair of the Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health for the American Heart Association and a professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State University, said consumers tempted by the taste or functional attributes in cooking that come from lard should look elsewhere for healthier fat options, such as liquid plant oils or trans fat-free, solid options like margarine or shortening.
Kris-Etherton said with obesity "raging out of control" in the U.S., the public needs to be more cautious about what they eat. Messages like "eat more of this" must be coupled with messages about consuming less of something else. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the obesity rate in the U.S. at 42.4%, up from 30.5% in 1999-2000. According to the latest data, 73.6% of the U.S. population is overweight or obese.
"Lard does taste good. We all know that," she said. "So this is what my concern is: It's ... telling people you can have some lard, eat lard in moderation, for what, all those pie crusts and desserts and pastry crusts? I really think people shouldn’t be eating lard."
Rui Hai Liu, a professor of food science at Cornell University, echoed the mantra that eating too much is the overarching problem and that limited amounts of lard aren't inherently bad for the consumer. Despite its recent surge in consumption, he said it's likely to remain a niche ingredient as far as fat because its nutritional profile trails that of olive oil and canola oil.
Still, many nutritionists point out the body needs a certain portion of its daily caloric intake from fat, and lard could be one way to meet that target. The knock on lard is it has a higher proportion of saturated fat compared to plant oils coming from canola, olive or sunflower.
These alternatives also frequently have higher levels of monounsaturated fat — the healthy fat — as well as omega-6 and omega-3, which are good for the heart and body. However, lard does have a nutritional advantage over butter. The popular ingredient not only has salt but is composed of nearly 70% saturated fat, compared to 45% for lard. Butter also has less omega-6 and omega-3 than lard.
"A lot of times lard gets demonized because of public perception or because it’s coming from an animal, but it’s actually quite a bit less percent saturated fat compared to something like butter," Linsenmeyer said. "There isn't any need to avoid it whatsoever. Bottomline, I think it can definitely fit within a diet."