By Lorrie Baumann
New research about the role of fats in the human diet, a look back at the weaknesses of older research and concerns about trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils have united to kindle a resurgence of interest in animal fats. Eric Gustafson, Chief Executive Officer of Coast Packing Company, a manufacturer of animal fat and shortenings, is cheering the change.
“I think that the tide is turning, and I think it’s great,” he said. “I think that people are starting to see the fact that animal fats are not really all that bad for you. The links between fats and cholesterol are starting to become more clear, at least that the links are not what we thought they were.”
He cites the 2014 release of Nina Teicholz’s book, “The Big Fat Surprise” as a catalyst for changing common American misconceptions about the role of animal fats in human nutrition, along with the Food and Drug Administration’s 2015 announcement that it would no longer recognize partially hydrogenated oils as “Generally Recognized as Safe.” Teicholz’s book points out weaknesses in the nutrition research that demonized saturated fats as the most important single cause of coronary artery disease deaths in the U.S. and led to a spate of dietary advice calling for rigorous limits on consumption of animal products, especially red meat and eggs, based on the unproven theory that consumption of saturated fats inevitably led to higher cholesterol levels in the bloodstream and ultimately to the buildup of plaques in coronary arteries and therefore to coronary artery disease.
More recent research and the discovery of so-called “good cholesterol” has called that conclusion into question and pointed an incriminating finger at the artificial trans fats formed through partial hydrogenation of unsaturated fats that are liquids at room temperature into forms that are stable and solid at room temperature and therefore easier to handle. “The FDA’s action on this major source of artificial trans fat demonstrates the agency’s commitment to the heart health of all Americans,” said FDA’s Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff, M.D. as the agency announced its decision in January 2015. “This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.”
“That has caused animal fat to regain its place at the table,” Gustafson said. “Artificial trans fats have been found to be more dangerous with respect to coronary artery disease than animal fats.”
Nutritionists still caution against overdoing the use of animal fats as well as other animal products, and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, when they are released later this year by the federal Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, are expected to recommend that Americans cut back on consumption of saturated fats in favor of polyunsaturated fats like canola or sunflower oil or monosaturated fats like olive oil, but they’re not expected to insist that Americans need to cut animal fats and proteins out of their diets altogether. That change in the signal from a red light to a yellow caution light plus the results they see from including lard in their pastries and frying with beef tallow is inspiring many chefs, particularly those in Los Angeles, to put lard and tallow back onto their shopping lists, Gustafson said. “Not everyone’s going to accept animal fats, but we believe when you look at the potential consumers of animal fats and why it’s regaining popularity, you come back to why we eat, and that’s that we want to eat food that tastes good. Animal fats truly make food taste better.”
The shortenings and fats that Coast Packing is selling to those chefs are produced by taking the fat from the animal, grinding that fat into smaller pieces, then using steam to heat it in a tank which melts and liquefies the fat. The liquefied fat or “oil” then enters through a centrifuge that whirls it around to separate out any remaining proteins and moisture. The process is a large-scale version of the fat-washing technique that some modern mixologists are using to infuse cocktails with bacon flavor, leaving the pork fat behind to be discarded. Pork fat is otherwise known as lard, whereas tallow refers to beef fat. In Coast Packing’s case, it’s both the original flavor and the fat component that are the means to an end. “The unique thing about our system is that we can manufacture beef tallow in a way that retains more flavor characteristics, if that’s what people want, or it can have no flavor or odor at all,” Gustafson said. “When you bite into a cake, you don’t want it to taste like a steak. Conversely, if someone wants to fry traditional foods, we can leave a little bit of that beef flavor because it helps to accentuate the flavor of what you’re frying. Minor flavor calibration aside, we’re committed to the concept of ‘minimally processed.’ It’s a way to remain true to the Coast Packing tradition, and it’s a genuine differentiator when stacked up against manufactured (and trans fat-laden) alternatives.”