Pork has its place in healthy, sustainable global diets – National Hog Farmer

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The latest research on pork has some surprising findings regarding its nutrient density, affordability and impact on the environment. Director of Nutrition Research for the National Pork Board, Dr. Kristen Hicks-Roof identified a gap in the science and sought out this evidence-based research for an answer that could help put fresh pork at the center of sustainable diet conversations. She states, “Given all that should be factored in an eating plan that’s good for people and the planet, we aim to extend the awareness of pork’s place as a planet-friendly protein.” 

The food sustainability framework has four domains, nutrition and health, economics, environment, and society, and to qualify as sustainable, foods need to be nutrient rich, affordable, environmentally friendly, and socially acceptable, explains Adam Drewnowski, PhD, professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington and primary author on this new study.  

Pork is one of the most consumed meats globally, providing high quality protein and several priority micronutrients. In the U.S. however, understanding how the affordability and sustainability of pork intersect with its nutritional value has been missing. This new research assessed the place of pork meat protein in the sustainability framework domestically and globally.   

Disentangling pork from other foods 

Nearly all databases used to study nutritional characteristics, prices or environmental footprints, group pork in with other foods, despite it having different characteristics in other forms of measurement. For example, the USDA category of protein foods includes meat, poultry, fish and seafood, eggs, beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds. But these are not equal, as they have different amino-acid profiles, different per calorie prices, and different environmental footprints, measured in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.  

Additionally, most analyses of prices of animal-source proteins combine beef, pork and lamb into a single category of red meat. Again, beef, pork and lamb have different nutrient profiles, different protein costs and different impacts on the environment.   

Drewnowski first untethered pork from other foods in the four domains of the food sustainability framework using nutrient composition and prices data from USDA, food balance sheets from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, country-level incomes from the World Bank, and GHGE data for the U.S. from the scientific literature.  

He realized that treating pork meat as a separate protein food category, distinct from red meat and poultry, leads to some surprising findings regarding its nutrient density, affordability and impact on the environment. 

Nutrition, affordability, environment  

To understand if pork has a place in a healthy and sustainable diet as part of the food sustainability framework, Drewnowski first looked at the nutritional protein quality of pork. He found that pork meat is an excellent source of high-quality protein, providing more than 20 grams of protein per 100 grams. Pork also delivers 100% of daily needs of protein for the least calories. 

Next, he focused on affordability. His analysis suggests pork meat costs less per 50-gram amount of protein compared to other red meats. Pork meat has a clear price advantage over red meat and comes close to chicken in the Thrifty Food Plan market basket, or the USDA food plan that informs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as the cost to purchase groceries in an affordable, nutritious and practical way for a family of four. Drewnowski concluded that pork is an affordable source of high-quality protein.  

Environment came next, where Drewnowski separated pork from other red meats in terms of sustainability data. He shows that the estimated GHGE emissions for pork meat (using U.S. data from other studies) are in fact closer to those of beans and poultry – a clear environmental advantage. 

“At the National Pork Board, we understand that referencing objective data about all four domains of sustainability tells a different story than we’ve previously seen about food agriculture production. These four domains tie in directly the the six We Care ethical principles of animal welfare, environment, our communities, our people, food safety, and public health” explains Jamie Burr, chief sustainability officer, NPB.  

“We also know that cost-effective and sustainable proteins are becoming increasingly important around the world, the most consumed of which we know is pork,” notes Burr. “This is why we invited experts to look more closely at the data specific to pork, which does in fact support the notion that pork could be a perfectly nutrient-dense, affordable, planet-friendly and culturally preferred protein for the future.”

Including pork in a sustainable diet

David Newman, PhD, SVP of Market Growth, NPB, suggests that distilling the benefits of pork in the global food supply can be exactly what farmers and producers in our industry need to see happen right now.  

“This report tells us more people around the world are relying on animal protein for their nutrition because of rising incomes across lower-and middle-income countries, and this creates a growing demand for pork to replace traditional plant proteins. The data suggests there’s no sign of this trend slowing down,” he adds.  

“Extending the reach of this powerful analysis, we intend to share this detail through all channels of our communications.”  

Burr further explains that while pork is an excellent source of high-quality protein and checks all the boxes when it comes to food sustainability framework, taste and cultural acceptance go without saying. “We couldn’t be more excited to see pork become a part of the global nutrition and sustainability dialogue,” he says.  

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