Pork: The Little White Lie

I just want to clear something up, right here and right now.

Contrary to what the National Pork Board has been saying since 1987, pork is not a white meat.

It is red meat.

End of story.

Well, okay, it isn’t the end of the story, although it should be.

However, 9 out of 10 Americans, because of the pervasiveness of “The Other White Meat” advertising campaign, believe that pork is a white meat.

However, even if pork cooks up to be pale, nutritionally speaking, isn’t a white meat–it is a red meat. Its fat content, protein content, and calorie content is much more akin to beef than to chicken. In addition, when scientists study the effects of red meat on human digestion and the development of colon cancer, pork is one of the meats included in the test protocol.

How is a meat classified as being red or white? It is determined by the amount of myoglobin–a protein-based oxygen-carrying pigment–present in the muscle tissue. Beef, lamb, goat, pork and veal are all considered, by virtue of their myoglobin, content, to be red meats, even though both veal and pork are considerably paler in color both when raw and cooked than beef, lamb and goat.

By some classifications, all mammal meats are considered red meat, although by some gastronimic definitions, rabbit, pork and veal are all considered, along with chicken, turkey and fish as white meats.

(Are you confused yet? Probably–which is why the National Pork Board’s ad campaign worked so darned well.)

How did “The Other White Meat” campaign come about in the first place?

According to The Other White Meat website, in 1987 consumer demand for pork was declining while chicken was precipitously rising in popularity. This was due, in large part, to current nutritional findings about dietary fat and human disease.

After researching the decline of red meat consumption and the rise in white meat consumption, folks at the National Pork Board found that white meat was perceived as being lower in overall fat, saturated fat and calories than red meat, and so was seen as more desirable to the American consumer. So, despite the fact that pork, a red meat, is higher in fat, saturated fat and calories than chicken, a white meat, the pork folks decided to just change the American consumers’ perceptions about it, and just call it, “The Other White Meat.”

In addition, pig breeders developed pigs that carried less body fat in their muscle tissues, which did lower the fat content and calories of pork significantly in the past few decades, which has led to much pork sold in grocery stores in the US being injected with saline so that it will not dry out when cooked. (This is called “value added” marketing, by the way, and not coincidentally, when you add water to a meat product, your customer ends up paying partly for water, not meat. “Value-added” indeed.)

But, even when comparing today’s leaner pork with chicken, nutritionists who are not in the employ of The National Pork Board, generally do not find it at all comparable to chicken. Yes, pork has fewer calories and less fat than beef, but it still has 1/3 more fat and calories than skinless chicken. That is a fact.

Bonnie Liebman and Jayne Hurley, writing for Center for Science in the Public Interests, November 1995 issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter, state:

With pork, you don’t just have to watch out for the fat in the meat. The advertising can get you, too. Take “The Other White Meat” ads that are run by the National Pork Producers Council. They’re bunk. Pork may be light in color, but it’s not as lean as chicken or turkey. According to the USDA, a typical cut of trimmed pork is one-third fattier than skinless chicken and twice as fatty as skinless turkey. And the pork would have been even worse had the USDA included spare ribs in its “typical” pork numbers.

Yes, if you read that carefully, you can see that some cuts of even today’s “leaner” pork, are fattier than some cuts of beef, which is usually held up as the fattiest of meats. Another bit from the same article asks and answers, “Which has more saturated fat: trimmed pork tenderloin or trimmed Select grade beef round steak? (Pork) tenderloin.

You can also infer from the above quotes that the USDA also considers pork red meat, not white meat.

That inference is correct.

In “Safety of Fresh Pork…from Farm to Table”, a USDA fact sheet, consumers are told that the USDA classifies pork as a red meat for these reasons:

Oxygen is delivered to muscles by the red cells in the blood. One of the proteins in meat, myoglobin, holds the oxygen in the muscle. The amount of myoglobin in animal muscles determines the color of meat. Pork is classified a “red” meat because it contains more myoglobin than chicken or fish. When fresh pork is cooked, it becomes lighter in color, but it is still a red meat. Pork is classed as “livestock” along with veal, lamb and beef. All livestock are considered “red meat.”

So, if the USDA classifies pork as a red meat, and it really isn’t nutritionally comparable to chicken, a white meat, then why is The National Pork Board allowed to tell us that it is “The Other White Meat?”

Remember, way up at the top when I noted that even though pork is technically, if you go by the myoglobin content, and the nutritional data, a red meat, gastronomically, it (along with veal, rabbit and chicken) is considered white meat because of their cooked color? That is most likely the legal loophole that the public relations geniuses who came up with the campaign used in order to sell Americans on “The Other White Meat” lie.

Because, if gastrnomical definitions are so confused on the point, and some sources (even if they are not scientific, nutritional or governmental sources) define pork as a white meat, then no one is strictly lying if they call pork a white meat. It isn’t a lie–it is a misdirection. A “white lie,” if you will.

I guess you could call the whole issue The National Pork Board’s “Little White Lie” that brought them a whole big pot of money.

14 Comments

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  1. By definition pork cannot be red meat. Here is the ‘Simple’ reasoning from a gastronomic viewpoint.

    White Meat must be thoroughly cooked all the way through so there is no blood before serving hence ‘White’.

    Red meat is ok to eat with blood still in it, in a rare or semi-rare state. hence ‘Red’.

    Nothing more nothing less. I would definitely recommend you avoid eating ‘Red’ pork, you could end up in hospital, or at least with a very bad stomach, if you do.

    I am also in the UK so know nothing about this white lie you talk of, but it is an irrelevance anyway.

    Comment by Andy Wilson — October 25, 2007 #

  2. I’ve always been mildly amused by the white vs red meat division. Not being American, I wasn’t aware of the sex up pork campaign, but I have to wonder why we are so hellbent on splitting meat into two rigid categories. At home we eat rabbit a lot… domestic but not pet rabbit (sorry, I know you’d know this but I’m tired of people squealing “OMG YOU EAT PETS”) and while in general we don’t give a toss whether it’s white or red (it’s rabbit, it’s good, crack open the wine already!), I’ve heard people make similar arguments about rabbit meat. And rabbit vs hare (whose meat is darker). So I have a sneaking suspicion the problem lies in artificially constructed categories that take beef as the standard.

    Comment by Mamlambo — October 25, 2007 #

  3. Perhaps the PETA propaganda’s getting to me, but I looked at that cute little pig and felt bad that I was reading about eating him. :(

    Comment by Jim — October 25, 2007 #

  4. Andy, I am not talking about a gastronomic definition as you are–I am talking about a nutritional and scientific defintion.

    The red juice you are eating in your red meat is not blood–animals are thoroughly bled before they are cut up to be eating as part of the slaughtering process. There may be a little bit of blood left, but not enough to make the meat bloody–that red juice, if you had read my post, is myoglobin–which pork most certainly has in large amount.

    No, I am certainly not ignorant enough to eat rare pork–I am a chef, after all, and a farmer’s granddaughter.

    But trust me–that red stuff you see coming out of pork or beef when you cook it is myoglobin, not blood. That is, if the animal was slaughtered properly.

    Mamlambo–In the US, the -big- deal about red vs. white meat came about when the health consequences of eating a great deal of “red”–meaning beef, pork, lamb, goat, and the like, meat were most widely publicized–in the 1970′s and 1980′s. When this happened, instead of saying, “eat poultry and fish,” doctors took to saying, “eat white meat” as a shorthand. And when that happened, pork processors saw their opening–and the rest is history. So, now, pork is not only considered a white meat gastromically, but also nutritionally, even if the latter is completely and utterly false.

    Jim–pigs are cute when they are babies. Not so much so when they are grown, though. And some of them have sweet personalities, and others–don’t.

    I have no problem with eating attractive livestock–but then, I grew up on a farm.

    Comment by Barbara — October 25, 2007 #

  5. Great post Barbara! I always like the science behind things… And I do recall wondering why on earth you’d call pork “white” meat. I’ve always considered white meat as not coming from a mammal (fish and poultry), but that was more a gut feeling than a scientifically reasoned position ;-)

    Comment by Jeanne — October 25, 2007 #

  6. Hi Barbara- I have been reading your posts for months and I love your topics and approach to all things culinary! NERDS RULE! I do have to wonder, when I went thru Culinary school in the 90′s we were taught that the dangers of trichinosis in less than well-done pork are issues of the past and that we had to reeducate because of the pervasive fear… I’m not talking rare, but slight pink, so long as the temp was 140. Is that wrong?? EGADS!

    Comment by Dragon2java — October 25, 2007 #

  7. Thanx for sharing

    Comment by Rina — October 25, 2007 #

  8. In the words of Alton Brown: “I’m not saying it’s the best thing in the world for you. I’m just saying it’s the best thing in the world.”

    I still love it!

    Comment by Ann Harste — October 25, 2007 #

  9. Now that I can relax and read this post in a more leisurely fashion… :-) I agree with your point from a scientific perspective. Sorry, it went over my head this morning in the middle of the daily rush.

    PS I made rice and beans today, sorta like a vegetarian chilli because I forgot to defrost mince. Mmmh nice comfort food.

    Comment by Mamlambo — October 25, 2007 #

  10. Dragon2java–I was taught the same thing in culinary school–I graduated about–hrm–eight years ago. So as of then, I was taught the exact same maxim–cook pork to slightly pink. When I say I won’t eat rare pork–I am talking rare, with myoglobin still oozing out in a reddish wave. That will not eat.

    Slightly pink at 140 F. is at best medium well.

    I will serve pork at that temperature from my local organic sources, but I would be hesitant to do so with any commercially available pork–I just don’t trust the stuff from CAFOs to be that clean. I know we are supposed to be able to trust it–but truthfully–I don’t.

    Anne–I agree with you and Alton! We love the pig in this house!

    Mamlambo–you cannot be blamed–this post is pretty much a US-centric post. It came about because I had a couple of folks on a forum elsewhere tell me that pork was white meat. And I got all kinds of irritable, because the reason Americans think that is because of a damned advertising campaign that has been all over the television, magazines, newspapers and radio for umpteen years now.

    And it torques my gizzard.

    Even my own husband thought it was white meat until a few years ago when he said that to me and I looked at him like he was crazy.

    “Tell me you don’t believe “That other white meat” crap,” I said.

    He did.

    I explained.

    Now he knows better.

    Comment by Barbara — October 25, 2007 #

  11. Thank you so much!!! I’m constantly amazed that people will take as fact ANYthing that is said in a television commercial! I am so tired of people looking at me as if I am stupid when I explain that pork is (still) red meat. And then they quote that ridiculous commercial tagline. “It’s the OTHER white meat.” UGH!!!

    Comment by Kaye — January 4, 2008 #

  12. Thank you for your clarity. I knew that eating red meat about doubles your chances of colon cancer, so I stopped eating beef, and I even knew that it was because of the myoglobin. Stupidly I was fooled by the “other white meat” ads. I should’ve know better: cows and pigs are both mammals, how much ‘other’ could pork be? But it’s just so tasty! I guess I wanted to believe.

    David

    Comment by David Smookler — February 7, 2008 #

  13. Hello, David.

    Yeah–it does taste good. But, alas, it is still not so good for you. Not hideously bad, mind you, just not jump up and down good.

    Certainly not as good as real white meat.

    ;-)

    Comment by Barbara — February 7, 2008 #

  14. is it true that red meat has higher levels of myoglobin due to grazing? i’ve been told that since pigs don’t eat grass as cows do, their meat is not as red.

    Comment by marco — May 16, 2008 #

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