Pigs are getting thinner, but it is still questionable how much leaner the meat is despite a favorable new study.
A recently released study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded that eight common pork cuts -- from loin chops to country spare ribs -- are 31 percent leaner after cooking and trimming of outside and seam fat than they were a decade ago. It also found that calories were down 17 percent and cholesterol dipped 10 percent.
The pork industry attributes the fat, calorie and cholesterol reductions to improvements in breeding and feeding pigs as well as closer trimming of fat at the retail store.
But government experts familiar with the study say the fat reduction figures may not be totally accurate because the pork cuts analyzed in the old and new studies were not always comparable.
Furthermore, spokeswomen for a consumer group and the American Dietetic Association emphasize that shoppers should be selective in buying pork because many cuts are still way too fatty to be recommended for a healthful diet.
The study, paid for by the National Pork Producers, was monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Results will be published in USDA's Handbook 8-10, updating the 1983 data that was gathered in 1979-'80.
"Comparisons are difficult," says Margaret Hoke, leader of the animal products section of USDA's Nutrient Data Research Branch. "When you do one study and then do another and change some things, they are never exactly comparable. This study probably has a margin of error.
"I think sometimes these studies go for a big number for publicity and 31 percent sounds good. But the important thing to look at is the fat content of what is currently on the market."
Dr. Gary Beecher, research leader for USDA's Nutrient Composition Laboratory, agrees it is difficult to make clean comparisons between the two surveys. Mr. Beecher monitored the Wisconsin analysis and the scientific methods that were used for the fat extraction.
The 1983 handbook data was gathered by obtaining pork carcasses from packers and breaking them down into primal cuts and some retail cuts. But, for the new survey, retail cuts were purchased at 68 supermarkets in 15 major metropolitan areas, including Baltimore. Each retail cut in the new survey "was paired with its most closely related sub-primal cut from the handbook," the Wisconsin study noted. For example, blade steaks were matched with "shoulder, blade, Boston," which could include blade steaks or roasts.
Dennis Buege, Ph.D., professor and meat extension specialist in charge of the Wisconsin study, admits there are fat differences in various parts of the primal cuts, but he says the random sampling in his retail survey should even out.
"We didn't figure out the margin for error," he says. "But we wanted to make our comparisons fair comparisons . . .
"I think it was a good study. I think it does give a nationwide breadth because we went to 15 cities and many different supermarket chains. Hopefully, this gives us a good cross-section of producer and retailer practices. One of the study's strengths is we got the pork right out of the meat case. We found that retailers and processors were trimming cuts more closely in response to consumer demand."
The study found that external fat on pork is now 1/8 -inch thick, down from about 1/4 inch a decade ago. And USDA's Mr. Beecher says its closer trim accounts for the bulk of the fat reduction.
Pork industry press releases point to the comparison between 3 ounces of skinless, roasted chicken breast and roasted, boneless, trimmed pork tenderloin. The chicken has 140 calories, 3 grams fat, 0.9 grams saturated fat and 72 mg. cholesterol. The pork has 133 calories, 4 grams of fat, 1.4 grams saturated fat and 67 mg. cholesterol.
Jayne Hurley, a registered dietitian with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says comparisons should be made on what people actually eat -- about 5 ounces per serving. And she points out that all cuts of pork, including tenderloin, are higher in saturated fat than a skinless chicken breast and skinless turkey breasts, legs and wings.
"Pork sure sounds good on paper," she says, "but a 30 percent drop in a product that is high in fat to begin with doesn't necessarily make it low in fat. If you are going to eat pork, stick with the tenderloin."
Press materials also point out that study results were announced at the American Dietetic Association's annual meeting, but that's not exactly true. Colleen Pierre, a Baltimore registered dietitian and ADA spokeswoman, says the study was presented to some members of the ADA at a breakfast. It was not part of the conference agenda and it was not sanctioned by the ADA.
"I have to remind people that the really lean cuts of pork are specific," she says. "Pork is still a high fat food and you have to be selective about what you choose. Pork tenderloin is not the same as fatty spareribs."
Adding pork to your diet