July 7, 2006 -- Pork recently took the lead over its main competitor, chicken, in the battle to be the leanest white meat.
An analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that a 3-ounce piece of pork tenderloin had 2.98 grams of fat while a 3-ounce skinless chicken breast contained 3.03 grams of fat.
The reason? Careful breeding by pork farmers.
"A pig 25 years ago is different from one today," said Mark Boggess, director of animal science at the National Pork Board.
While this is good news for dieters, this may not make much of a difference to consumers. Despite being heavily marketed as "the other white meat," pork has been consumed steadily over the last decade.
"Their very best product can barely match our biggest seller," said Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, the trade organization for the chicken companies.
The race to make pork as healthy as chicken began 25 years ago when the industry realized that Americans wanted healthier, low-fat meat options.
Leaner hogs brought a better price, so the industry had an incentive to breed pigs with less fat.
As technology developed, breeders began using ultrasonic technology to measure the pigs' fat and protein content. They even formulated mathematical equations to predict the fat levels of future generations of piglets.
A 'Cloud' Over Pork
Despite these strides, the public still holds onto the idea that pork is not healthy, said Keith-Thomas Ayoob, a pediatric nutritionist.
"The study helps correct a misconception about pork," said Ayoob, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y.
"It's not news to nutritionists, but it's news to the public."
He also said there had been a "cloud" over pork because it was considered a forbidden food for people of Muslim and Jewish faiths.
Also, fears of catching trichinosis, a worm parasite that can be found in raw or undercooked pork, has made the public cautious even though it is no longer a problem in the United States.
According to Ayoob, pork is not only low fat, it also contains higher amounts of Vitamin B-6 than most meats.
Pork Consumption Holds Steady
The data seem to confirm what Ayoob says about pork fears.
According to the National Pork Board, the average amount of pork eaten by a single American has stayed steady -- at about 67 pounds per year for the last 10 years. Meanwhile, the percentage of saturated fat in the six common cuts of pork has decreased by 27 percent.
On the other hand, chicken consumption has increased each year. Ten years ago, the average American ate 70.2 pounds per year. Today that number has risen to 89.2 pounds per person.
While the competition has been over "total fat content," what's most important in regards to health is the amount of saturated fat found in meat, nutritionists say.
The difference of 0.05 grams is not that significant, said Neal D. Barnard of George Washington University.
Instead, he said it was important for people to know the percentage of fat a food contained when compared to carbohydrates and protein.
In that race, the two meats are about equal: Both pork and chicken contain about 20 percent of fat, much of which is saturated fat.
The National Chicken Council seems open to the healthy competition.
"We're proud to be the protein that the others have to match," Lobb said.