Many Americans have come to think of pork as "the other white meat," thanks to a long-running pork industry campaign. But a recent study linking red meat consumption to an overall increased risk of death lumped pork in with red meat. So what is pork -- red meat or white? Does it matter?
Since 1934, the unabridged version of Webster's dictionary includes under "white meat" the phrase, "a meat (as veal or pork), light in color, esp. when cooked," says Peter Sokolovsky, an editor at Merriam-Webster Inc. in Springfield, Mass.
Many scientists today, however, use a different definition, says Susan Brewer, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In general, she says, they define as "red" any meat product derived from mammals and "white" any meat from fowl.
But that distinction isn't very helpful for consumers. Saturated fat content is generally higher in meat from mammals than meat from fowl, but among mammals, cud-chewing ruminants, like cows, produce meat higher in saturated fat than that from single-stomach mammals, such as pigs.
That means whether a meat is red or white isn't the best indication of the type and amount of fat it contains, Brewer says. A serving of chicken from the leg, skin on, contains more saturated fat and about the same amount of cholesterol as the same-sized serving of 95% lean ground beef.
Pork, generally, lies somewhere in the middle. A 3.5-ounce serving of pork loin, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides more saturated fat than one of skinless chicken breast, the same amount as 95% lean ground beef and less than a skin-on chicken leg. But it contains more cholesterol than 95% lean ground beef.
"If this sounds really confusing, that's because it is. Heck, I'm confused," says Judy Stern, professor of nutrition and internal medicine at UC Davis.
Pork is leaner today. Several decades ago, the meat industry responded to consumer demand by finding ways to make meat less fatty. The pork industry, in particular, began to breed for leaner pigs. The result, says Ceci Snyder, assistant vice president of the National Pork Board in Des Moines, was that the average pork loin on the market in 1982 was 64% leaner than one in 1970. The fat content of pork has continued to drop -- albeit more slowly -- since then.
That decrease formed part of the basis for the campaign that began marketing pork as "the other white meat" in 1987, Snyder says. The industry also noted that pork contained about the same amount of myoglobin, an iron-containing molecule, as chicken. Pork was in this sense "white."
How, then, to explain results of a study published last month in the Archives of Internal Medicine? That report looked at diet in half a million adults, and linked high consumption of red and processed meats (including pork) with a higher death risk, in particular from heart disease and cancer. The authors speculated that the association was due to high levels of saturated fat in meat generally, presence of cancer-causing compounds formed in meats cooked at high temperatures -- or, simply, the fact that people who eat more meat may eat fewer fruits and vegetables.
Pork, Stern says, has pros and cons but, overall, it's a high-protein, low-fat meat that helps maintain lean body mass. She eats it, though not daily.
"Will this study change the way I eat pork? No," she says.