Disastrous Trends in American Bacon

In The Croissant Diet specification, I advise against the consumption of pork fat. This is ironic since The Croissant Diet is loosely based on the historical diet of France and when I was at The French Culinary Institute every recipe started with the line “Saute pork belly in butter”. So why am I now saying not to eat pork fat on The Croissant Diet?

ASIDE: I’m going to be talking a lot about MUFA, PUFA and SFA. If you need a primer on fats check out my blog post on the topic.

Unlike ruminant animals, who actually hydrogenate their dietary fats, pigs and chickens are what they eat, at least from the perspective of fat composition. Animals are not capable of producing polyunsaturated fats (PUFA), therefore their fat will only contain PUFA if we feed them PUFA, period. The PUFA levels of pork and chicken are completely in our control. Modern American pork and and chicken, I’m going to argue, has FAR MORE PUFA than their traditional European counterparts, and that’s why I recommend against them. Of course, if you’re reading this in Denmark, go ahead and eat the pork.

Historical Hog Diets

It has been known for well over 100 years that pigs fed barley and skim milk, as opposed to corn and soybeans make the best, firmest bacon, and that the reason for this is that the fat of pigs fed barley and skim milk have low levels of Omega 6 PUFA (linoleic acid) and high levels of Saturated fat (Stearic acid and palmitic acid). Consider these passages from 1912 in the Cyclopedia of American Agriculture:

Stearin in that passage means stearic acid, palmatin is palmitic acid, the 16 carbon length fat that is named after palm oil, and olein is oleic acid – monounsaturated fat found in olive oil. How did the European market value the soft American bacon?

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Bacon without the corn oil! Almost all american pork – conventional, organic, pastured or otherwise, is high in polyunsaturated fats. Firebrand Meats is the first American meat company specializing in making low-PUFA pork. It is a subscription based service that is shipping to all 48 continental states. It’s based on a CSA (community supported agriculture) model, which means we need a bunch of folks to sign up to get production started.

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Barley is The Corn Of The North

You may have noticed that all of the countries producing firm pork are Northern countries. Corn was domesticated in Mexico and it likes long, hot summers. They don’t grow it in Denmark. Barley has only half (less than 1.5% by weight) of the polyunsaturated fat linoleic acid (Omega-6 PUFA) of corn (3%). 3% may not sound like a lot but pigs seem to preferentially store it and so it bio-accumulates. Corn or barley is going to provide as much as 85% of the calories in a finishing pig diet so small differences add up. A 1.5% difference in the linoleic acid content of the base diet might translate to a 6% increase in the linoleic acid content of the finished pork with a corresponding decrease in saturated fats – stearic acid and palmitic acid.

Here is the recipe that produced the historical firm fat in Denmark:

Skim milk was used as the protein source. Danish bacon had a PUFA free protein source whereas in America we use defatted soybean meal, which still contains some PUFA. Look at the difference in the crops grown in the Northern countries versus the US. I’m using data from 1961, which is the earliest date that data is available from the FAO. All production data is in thousands of metric tons.

1961 Production
United States85469138818468

PUFA in Modern American Pork

Believe it or not, the situation in the US has gotten significantly worse since the 1960s. There have been two major developments that have increased the PUFA content of pork. The first was the changing hog genetics in the 1990s due to the low fat craze. The second development was the birth of the ethanol-as-fuel industry in the early 2000s, which created a cheap stream of high-oil Dried Distillers Grains (DDGS) as a byproduct, a cheap oily hog feed.

In the 1990s, the consumer was demanding leaner pork and the industry obliged. They selected for leaner and leaner hogs, to great effect. This had a positive effect on the bottom lines of meat packing companies because the hogs had a higher percentage of salable lean meat. It wasn’t intentional, but when scientists looked at WHY these pigs remained lean, they found out that the pigs had downregulated the genes involved in de novo lipogenesis – they had become very bad at turning starch into fat! Now, while this may sound like a neat trick, the outcome is actually disastrous.

As I’ve mentioned, animals can only create saturated and monounsaturated fat through de novo lipogenesis. All PUFA has to come from the diet. These ultra lean pigs, however, are forced to get all of their fat from their diet since they can’t make their own. And the vast majority of the fat in their diet is Omega 6 PUFA. I’ve raised a few of these ultra-lean pigs on a wheat based diet that created firm fat in heritage breeds. I’ve raised them side by side with the heritage pigs and the diet actually doesn’t matter for those pigs, they never produce firm fat.

The second event was the dawn of the ethanol industry. Currently 30% of the American corn crop is converted into ethanol and added to the nation’s gasoline supply. Corn starts off as a combination of starch, protein, fat and fiber. Only the starch gets converted to alcohol. The spent grains, therefore have a much higher proportion of fat, protein and fiber. This is a cheap feed for hogs and so it is used widely across the Midwest where the vast majority of the nation’s pork is produced. This study shows the disastrous results of feeding DDGS to pigs. The table shows the percentage of pork fat that is SFA, MUFA and PUFA. I have three different sources of lard on the chart. A heritage hog I finished on wheat and pasture and sent in for testing, the theoretical lard listed by the USDA and the pig from the linked paper. I also included chicken fat and eggs, which we’ll get to next. As comparisons I’ve added butter and canola oil.

Butter (According to the USDA, as a reference)632649:1
Lard (Pig from my farm, wheat finished)43%46%6%6:1
Lard (According to the USDA)39%44%11%10:1
Lard (Finished with corn and 16% DDG)30%40%28%33:1
Chicken Fat (According to the USDA)31%45%24%24:1
Egg Yolk (According to the USDA)36%44%16%35:1
Canola Oil7%63%28%2:1

As you can see from the table, not only is the fat from pigs fed DDGS as high in PUFA as canola oil, the Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio is disastrous! Pigs don’t like to store Omega 3 fats. Omega 3 fats are HIGHLY prone to oxidation, can you blame them?

How much US pork is fed DDGS?

I can’t say exactly, but I can say that it is VERY difficult making money as a pig farmer and that DDGS is a cheap feed and growers in the US aren’t penalized for low meat quality (that is the topic of another post in and of itself). So I imagine that the vast majority of growers use it who have access to it. Let’s take a look at where DDGS are produced and where pigs are produced. Read the comments in the first picture, it’s worth it.

And where are the ethanol plants, according to the Renewable Fuels Association?

So yeah, I’m guessing most American hogs are eating DDGS.

PUFA In Chicken

At the risk of repeating myself, animals cannot make polyunsaturated fat (PUFA), they can only make saturated (SFA) and monounsaturated fat (MUFA). If you don’t feed them any PUFA, they won’t have any. SO where is all of the PUFA in the chicken diets coming from? This paper makes this very clear.

That’s right. Almost ALL poultry diets in the country have added soybean oil. Conventional, organic, GMO-free, you name it.

Look at this chicken supplement. Three of the four main ingredients are flaxseed (Omega 3 PUFA), flaxseed oil and sunflower seeds (OMEGA 6 PUFA). It’s like a PUFA bomb!

A Note about Organic and Non-GMO

Unfortunately I have to report that the situation with organic and Non-GMO pork and chicken isn’t much better. It might actually be worse. I guess at least they’re not using DDGS.

Almost all feed mills in America use soybeans as the main source of protein, with corn as the bulk of the feed. Soybeans are about 20% oil, which is mainly linoleic acid, Omega 6 PUFA. Livestock can’t make much use of raw soybeans, there are too many anti-nutrients, so you have to cook them first. There are multiple ways of doing this: you can roast them or you can press the oil out of them and the heat of the extrusion process can cook them for you. Furthermore, you can either extract the oil with a mechanical press or using hexane as a solvent.

Whole roasted beans have 20% oil, mechanically pressed meal has 8-10% oil and hexane extracted meal has about 2% oil. Guess which type of meal is banned from being used in organic production? Hexane extracted meal. So organic feeds are handicapped on oil content right out of the gate. Much of the same argument can be made about Non-GMO soybeans. These are sometimes harder to find than organic. Building a hexane extraction plant isn’t done at the local level, so the local options tend to either be whole beans or mechanical extraction.

Additionally, there is a prevailing belief that soybean oil is good for livestock because of the “essential omegas!” So the VAST majority of organic and Non-GMO feeds use corn as a base with some combination of whole roasted soybeans or mechanically extracted soybean meal. Not great.

Is This Relevant to An Overall Diet?

Of course The Croissant Diet is based on the traditional French diet. Let’s look at how different the traditional French diet would have been if they had used phenotypically lean, DDGS fed American pork. For background, check out my previous post The French Diet In France. Do we know what the PUFA content of French pork would have been traditionally?

I calculated this based on total production plus imports minus exports for France and the US in 1961. Wheat was also widely grown in the two countries but my assumption is that the wheat was largely for human consumption whereas the corn and barley and rye were for livestock feed. Rye is also low in linoleic acid.

Knowing that European consumers understood and valued the difference between firm and soft pork and knowing that the easy majority of grain available for pig feeding in France was barley, I think it is safe to conclude that the pork eaten in the traditional French diet was relatively high in saturated fat and relatively low in PUFA. It would have been a lot closer to the wheat finished heritage breed pig from my farm to a DDGS fed lean pig.

This is relevant because in France, whether they’re sitting down to a meal of Cassoulet – slow cooked beans with pork belly, pork skin, pork shoulder, pork hocks, pork sausages and duck confit; or choucroute – sauerkraut braised in Riesling with pork loin, pork shoulder, pork hocks and pork belly; the french eat a LOT of pork. It is a major source of dietary fat for them.

France, 1970%US, 2013%
Total Fat126 g100%161 g100%
All Animal Sources93746842
All Plant Sources33269358
High PUFA Plant Oils13105836

in 1970, 33 percent of the French diet was already plant oils, mostly lower PUFA oils such as olive and canola but a good percentage of VERY high PUFA sunflower oil had already snuck in. If the French were eating high PUFA American pork and chicken, that would mean that a whopping 51% of the diet in 1970 would have come from sources averaging over 20% PUFA. That diet would never drive enough superoxide production at the bottleneck in the electron transport chain to cause physiological insulin resistance and keep the French lean! Not with all of those baguettes!

Relevance in the Here and Now

So you’re on the keto diet and life is great because you can eat all of the bacon you want. And it went great at first, but then the weight loss stalled. The singular premise of The Croissant Diet is that a primary regulator of whole body energy balance is the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fat.

If you’re trying to up your ratio, you may want to reconsider that bacon?

Do I plan on producing the best bacon in the US, from heritage hogs with a PUFA level of less than 4%, with SFA/MUFA/PUFA ratios that match those of beef? Within the next year?

You’ll just have to stay tuned and find out,

46 thoughts on “Disastrous Trends in American Bacon”

    1. Not necessarily. Egg yolks are very nutritious and most likely will be a small percentage of overall fat intake.

  1. I’m beginning to think that Tim and Eric’s song “All the Food is Poison” is the soundtrack of my life…

    1. I doubt it! People in the field of livestock nutrition are some of the least creative, most inside-the-box thinkers I’ve ever met!

  2. This is superb, like you’re reading my mind! Except one thing, the feed for organic livestock must itself be organic. Non-gmo isn’t enough.

    In a bizarre twist, I have to buy my organic pork in tiny packages shipped from Canada. There’s one hog farmer near me that is organic, but “near” is theoretical, since it’s an hour’s drive to pick something up. He started delivering though, thank God. You’ve got a great idea there to produce a better bacon.

    I remember hearing on the news about the “leaner pork” in the 1990s, and thinking “why?” I don’t buy the idea that it was a request by consumers.

  3. My brother-in-law is a farmer in the Midwest. He stopped raising pigs some years ago because the demand for “lean” pork was so great, he said, “the pigs are so skinny they can’t tolerate the cold.” And the “paleo” bacon I have been getting (“all-vegetarian raised”) fries up into little sad sticks with all the fat left in the pan–not bacon!

    I look forward to a return to “nice, fat hams”!

  4. What about the fat content of wild hogs? If you harvest a feral hog I’m curious about the fat content. Thank you.

  5. hi, Maybe you find this interesting for both pigs and for the croissant diet:

    The pigs loose weigth linearily with coconut consumption (after 10E%).

    The Romans tried to do the same to pigs as to geese: “According to the invention of Marcus Apicius, pigs were starved, and the hungry pigs were crammed with dry figs and then suddenly given all the mead they wanted to drink. The violent expansion of the figs in the stomachs, or the fermentation caused acute indigestion which killed the pigs. The livers were very much enlarged, similar to the cramming of geese for the sake of obtaining abnormally large livers”

    The word “liver” is actually conducted from “fig” in latin, i.e. portuguese still have wordpair “figo” and “figado”. Must have come from the fatty liver experiments from goose.

    Modern translation: fig =soda and geese = teenager? The sum remains the same:fatty liver?

    Rgds JR

  6. Bacon in the UK is little better, and I expect this is the same for Danish these days. From Farmer’s Weekly – advice on pig feeding. This is the finishing diet, but soya and rapeseed feature at other stages too.

    “The ration can typically include wheat, barley, wheat feed, high-protein soya, rape seed extract and co-products of human food production, such as bakery by-products or even crisps. Other protein sources such as extracted sunflower meal and field beans are also not uncommon”

    1. Prosciutto di parma is known for being whey finished, fed the whey from making Parmesan cheese. Whey makes a very firm fat but IDK what else they are fed.

    1. Correlations are tricky, it’s impossible to control for all variables, but yeah that is interesting. Also the number one pork food is likely bacon and the processing of bacon may be extra hard on the liver. Also peeps who eat a lot of bacon may also be more likely to eat a lot of McDonalds burgers and french fries. Correlation data with zero effort at controls can be a very ‘dirty’ measure for so many reasons. ;-P That being said, i found out about this ROS thing on new years and what better time to try a super saturated diet and see what happens! One thing I am already noticing is that I feel ‘full’ a lot and am rapidly losing appetite which is interesting, since I have not made special efforts to limit carbs, perhaps with blood stream full of fatty acids, brain no longer is crying for carbs anymore to feed it? Yesterday my friend came over to go to the buffet with me, that was 7 hours after me eating a backed potato with tons of butter, which I guess was about 600 calories worth. But I still felt so full, for the first time in ever, I really did not want to go to the buffet that much. I went for social reasons but only ate half my normal amount and I slathered butter on some things to try to counterbalance any of the likely pufa, hehe. I am wondering, should I start bringing MCT oil or some such to all eating out events and drizzle it on?

  7. Hey Brad, how would you think a diet of pasture grass, organic brown and white rice and milo would affect PUFAs?

    1. Rice is realtively low in PUFA – similar to barley, I think. White rice is even lower! Sorghum is also fairly low and grass would provide some Omega 3 and raise the protein levels. You’d probably want some supplemental lysine in that diet.

  8. Great write-up Brad! I dug up a great paper that looked at different methods for extracting the fat from food sources like egg yolks and using GC (have an old HP at work) to quantify the profile. I hope to start manipulating my chickens diets next spring with coconut to see how the profile changes. Should be interesting. Maybe I should also come up with a custom feed of barely, coconut and something else to try and limit the pufa intake more.

    When I buy bacon at the store, I always pick out the firmest pack I can. It’s amazing how much it can very!

    With regards to the comment about cirosis, I wonder if the Spanish have higher incedence since they seem to consume a lot of it. I have read that post by the Jaminet’s in years and don’t remember if they touch on that. Need to go back and re-read it.

    Thanks again for sharing all of this information!

    1. The only problem with feeding cocnut is that the chickens may become very lean! I’d recommend barley with peas or a hexane extracted meal (commercial soy meal actually has very little fat left because they’ve removed it to sell back to us in processed foods) or maybe some fishmeal.

  9. Hi Brad—I ran across this while researching stearic acid on pubmed. I can’t make heads or tails of it because I don’t know what they mean by “digestibility”. But you might find it of interest.


    “Digestion and deposition of individual fatty acids in growing-finishing pigs fed diets containing either beef tallow or sunflower oil.”

    1. Interesting link, I hadn’t seen that. I don’t have time to read the whole paper at the moment. It’s disappointing that they only used 5% of the diet as tallow or sunflower oil, I’d loved to see what happens at 30%. It’s a strange discussion of digestibility, I’ll have to come back to it.

    2. I think the apparent digestibility is the diff between intake and what is measured in the poop. So what they are curious about is that for the sat fat diet, the animal growth rates were the same as the pufa diet but yet more of the sat fat diet seemed to come out in the poo and so was ‘apparently’ not digested as well as the pufa. But if so, how did growth rate not get slowed if less digestion took place? Apparent digestion is not a perfect measure of actual digestion so they may have missed something due to that.

  10. All true, no doubt. BUT, perfection is the enemy of good enough. Once you get rid of PUFA’s as intentional parts of a diet….meaning using “vegetable” oils in the kitchen, the remaining tag alongs that come with eating American pork, the perfect food known as an egg, the occasional fast or Asian food….aren’t going to make an identifiable difference in your health.

    As one alcoholic to another, I would be far more concerned about that that “stray” PUFA’s. You are probably aware of the many published papers that show SFA’s are protective and even repairative of the liver. My doctors have always been amazed at my perfect liver enzyme scores while drinking heavily. BUT, I have suffered peripheral neuropathy in my feet, and my nose doesn’t look attractive.

    I have been high satfat, low PUFA for many years. I discovered your diet and blog from Mark Sisson. Glad I did.

    I made stearic acid ghee, went to 25% instead of your 20%. Low carb, high protein, weight is plummeting, energy is high, thank you!

    1. I think the amount of tag along PUFA’s, and whether they effect you, is going to vary a lot by the individual. And like I say, I don’t recommend drinking as much wine as I do!

      I’m glad it’s working out for you!

  11. They must be doing something right with pig production in Hungary, well at least part of the country anyway. The paleomedicina (PKD) group base most of their diet recommendations on pork & their results are pretty impressive.

  12. Hi Brad, Here’s a horrifying one, there was discussion on Twitter recently about used vege oil from restaurants/fast food joints being fed to pigs here in Australia. A trucker driver chimed in on the thread to confirm this. It would be interesting to find out how widespread this is, may have to do some investigating.

    1. Oh, that’s just lovely. It’d be interesting to know. Around here there is a company that will pick up used oil to turn into biodiesel. IDK how prevalent the use is, though.

  13. Thanks for all this useful information. DDGs sound awful.

    As a result, my husband and I drove miles yesterday to buy bacon from a farm shop in the back of beyond. They said their pigs are pasture raised and have no soy or grains.
    Didn’t mention barley (we are in California) so I assume the pigs eat grass?

    1. Maybe?! Most pigs are given some kind of feed supplement. It’s not impossible for them to grow on just grass, but you need to be really good at what you’re doing and it’s not economical. Many farms supplement with waste products like stale bread from bakeries, spent barley from beer brewing or whey from cheesemakers. I’ve done all three at some point!

  14. I try to eat braunschweiger and liverwurst, as I’ve read that organ meats are the most vitamin-dense. I’ve found, however, that nearly all the available options are made of pork liver. Is offal meat from pigs also high in PUFA? Would you advise cutting these products out for the croissant diet?

    1. Pork liver itslef is low in fat but Braunshweiger and liverwurst are typically made with a lot of pork fat, so it’s tricky. I like the nutrient density of Braunshweiger, but if you eat a lot in America it could be a lot of n-6.

  15. Something I have wondered is that when fat is rendered through cooking (such as when I pressure cook pork belly, which generates lots of lard), does the PUFA fat render out faster, such that the percentage of PUFA decreases in the fat left in situ. Given PUFA is more fluid, I wondered if that might cause a difference in the rate at which each type of fat is rendered during cooking.

    1. I suspect that the first fat to render out will be higher in PUFA and MUFA by proportion than what remains. Look up “fractionated butter” for more discussion about fats assorting by melting points.

  16. Hi Brad,
    I’ve read through ur blog and it’s awesome! Very interesting ideas! But by thinking about it a bit I came up with a problem in the theory I couldn’t solve. Maybe u can help?
    To my knowledge, the rational behind the croissant diet is that burning SF (primary stearic acid) will cause RET –> ROS and thus insulin resistance (IR). In adipocytes that resist insulin at least two things will happen:
    1. lipolysis continues (–> elevated FFA in the blood)
    2. They won’t suck up all the energy (glucose/fats) out of the circulation leaving it for the “lean” tissue.
    Together, these effects will lead to satiety, high metabolic rate and no weight gain.
    So now comes the point I don’t understand:
    It’s not only adipocytes that burn SF! It’s almost all the other cells as well! I don’t know to which extend adipocytes burn fat relative to glucose but I know there are tissues (the heart for example) that almost exclusively burns fat. … Saturated fat… Creating ROS. So heart cells should according to the theory become the most IR.
    So when burning SF creates ROS and this then IR, this would happen in all the cells, not just adipocytes!
    So what do we end up with? – the whole body being IR (more or less depending on the level of SF burn) and the tissue that’s the least IR (that burns the least fat) will get the most energy.
    This is basically the same situation as without the resistance, just at higher insulin levels…
    Am I missing something? Where is the mistake in my reasoning?

    1. I’m working on a post this week that might clarify this. One of the questions I’ve had is how does the body decide in any given instance to use dietary VS stored fat. Dietary fat moves through the blood in chylomicrons and stored fat moves through the blood as FFAs. Chylomicrons deliver their fat only where Lipoprotein Lipase (LPL) is anchored to the epithelium – abdominal fat has the most LPL and therefore is the most affected by dietary fat content, seemingly. Heart, skeletal muscle and lactating mammary glands also express LPL. So dietary fat only targets certain tissues and it targets abdominal fat the most. Of course, when stearic acid is stored, much of it is converted to oleic acid, so the IR producing effects of sat fats are minimized after storage.

      From an evolutionary perspective, I’d argue that we evolved to eat the backfat of wild ruminants, which is VERY high in both stearic acid and saturated fat, so I’m not too worried about it.

  17. This comment hasn’t much to do with US bacon composition, but with Brads intriguing experience with the high-stearic croissant diet.
    A slimmer waistline, increased lean mass, and boundless athletic energy eccoes the effects of anabolic steroids. Searching the internet for whether stearic acid has independent anabolic properties, the most relevant thing I found was this ancient rodent study:http://www.jbc.org/content/122/2/297.full.pdf Stearic acid enhanced the effect of testosterone on reproductive tissues in castrated rats. Seemingly, the rats injected with testosterone and higher stearic acid doses also grew to a larger (lean ?)body mass.
    So, in addition to developing the ROS theory of obesity, Brad may also have stumbled upon an alternative treatment of low T.

  18. Firstly, interesting blog.
    If you’re searching for food sources having high stearic acid content, I’d like to bring to your attention the humble
    Kokum (Garcinia indica) which is a fruit bearing tree. The outer cover of fruit is dried in the sun to get aamsul or kokam.It is used as a souring agent typically in Maharashtrian cuisine, Goan cuisine, and in some parts of Karnataka.
    Kokum oil is a seed oil derived from the seeds of the kokum tree (Garcinia indica; also known as wild mangosteen or red mangosteen). Kokum oil is edible and can also be used for things other than cooking.
    Kokum oil contains up to 60-65% saturated fatty acid, making it solid at room temperature, so this oil is known as kokum butter or kokum fat. Its triglyceride composition is uniform and consists of up to 80% of stearic-oleic-stearic (SOS) triglycerides.
    In India we do have access to food grade kokum butter. I’m planning on trying some. One of the other benefits is that consumption of kokum butter supports traditional rural/cottage industry.
    Your thoughts?

    1. I’ve never heard of it but it sounds interesting! stearic-oleic-stearic triglycerides are pretty ideal from a physiological melting point but still high FADH2:NADH ratio perspective.

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