Rendered Beef Fat: Just How Bad Is It?
January 1, 2010 6:04 AM   Subscribe

Lately I've been using a lot of rendered beef fat in my cooking. Is this a reasonable replacement for cooking with plant based oils, or am I flirting with a heart attack with every fried egg and handful of popcorn?

I should note that this isn't fat rendered from organically raised, grass fed cattle, either; it's trimmings from run-of-the-mill Ralph's tri-tip roasts. If you've bought tri-tip before you've noticed that that untrimmed cuts have a huge slab of fat across the top. I was buying the untrimmed meat on sale & rendering the fat into crunchies for my dog when I found myself tempted to use the leftover tallow to fry eggs. From there I began using a couple of teaspoons to pop popcorn (heavenly!) & use in veggie stirfrys, and I find I'm using it instead of olive oil in a lot of circumstances.
From my googling around I've found sites that make claim for tallow being a 'healthy' fat, but I haven't found much that backs those claims up. Does anyone know how well it stacks up against other oils? And am I making a huge mistake by not going organic?
posted by biddeford to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The best rule of thumb for any food issue is: simply don't overdo it. Don't use any ingredient in every meal. Choose for variety, on every level. As everything can become a poison in big quantities.

Too many widely propagated claims about food -- like cholesterol levels and eggs, or good fat versus bad fat, or which weight is healthy -- have turned out to be not as black and white as stated.

And too many people or companies have a big financial stake in their claims about what is healthy or not.

But, many health issues, like the chance if you will ever get heart problems, have a huge genetical component -- too often igored by health nuts in their simplified messages. Either your family has given you the robust genes, or else you will already know that there are a lot of untimely deaths among relatives; in which case it does no harm to start thinking about your diet and lifestyle a bit.
posted by ijsbrand at 6:31 AM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

If it's not from grass-fed cattle, I would say that its inflammatory properties are significant. In moderation, I say. (Though rendered beef fat from quality meat would be better.)
posted by DeltaForce at 7:05 AM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

or am I flirting with a heart attack with every fried egg and handful of popcorn?

Yes. The whole organic aspect is nearly irrelevant when compared to the saturated versus unsaturated fat issue. Switch to olive oil. It's the nectar of the gods when it comes to fats.
posted by caddis at 7:22 AM on January 1, 2010

Best answer: We're coming around to animal fats again. Beef fat's monounsaruated/saturated ratio is really only about as bad for you as butter and lard is significantly better than either (about half way to olive oil). They taste great, and you can't beat lard in baked goods.

If you're using it to make healthy food taste better (ie, on your popcorn and veggies) that seems fine to me. It's hard to eat enough vegetables and anything you can do to make it easier is a good thing, IMO. You might want to find a real butcher and get them to sell you quality fat, though. And consider using (real, non-hydrogenated) lard as a healthier alternative.

FWIW, I've been seeing preventative cardiologists since I was 12 for high cholesterol, and I saw no change in my cholesterol when I started using lard in baked stuff, tortillas, etc a few years ago.

Go for it.
posted by paanta at 7:25 AM on January 1, 2010

mmmm I love cooking beef bacon and using the leftover fat in the pan to cook other good and yes, probably sinful

one thing i've noticed though- is that when you cook fatty meat, there is NO need to add additional oil, like a lot of people do. So at least don't make the mistake of adding more oil of a different kind.

definitely not the best idea on an everyday basis but once in a while, i'd say it's ok. agree with caddis that it's more of a saturated fat vs. unsaturated fat issue, rather than organic vs. nonorganic.

you should look at overall healthiness of your diet...better that you are eating all natural foods, and occasionally indulging in naturally 'unhealthy' foods, then to be eating only non-hydrogenated foods that come from a box or can every meal.

happy eating!
posted by saraindc at 7:32 AM on January 1, 2010

Get your cholesterol levels checked. And again in a year. If they're high, cut it out. If you really want to keep eating delicious beef fat, make sure you're getting enough exercise to keep your arteries healthy.
posted by theora55 at 8:09 AM on January 1, 2010

Best answer: I am going to point you to

He has a lot of discussions about fats and he links to a lot of scientific research. He will tell you that if you are using grass-fed beef, you are right on target, but using commercial-processed beef is not the best. But read around on his site and find the studies so you can make your own decision.
posted by CathyG at 10:03 AM on January 1, 2010

Holding a deep, half-filled pan below my nose, he says, "This is rendered beef fat. We render all our pork and beef fat. It is extraordinarily unhealthy, but smell it." - John McPhee, "Giving Good Weight"

This from a professional chef in the late 1970s - before, IIRC, heart health anxiety levels were as high as they are today.

Suggesting to me that it's not suitable as a frequent olive oil substitute.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:39 AM on January 1, 2010

Probably the same as butter or lard and I'm coming to your house for dinner.

As long as you have some healthy habits to balance this one out I think erring on the side of deliciousness is a perfectly good idea. It's not a good idea to get dogmatic about things all the time (I don't mean that you are, I just mean, as a society, we love that sort of thing.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:15 PM on January 1, 2010

Animal tissue fats are much worse for your health than, er, fats squirted out of the animal and turned into butter. I think (if I'm not mistaken) that this is because fat is where the toxins get stored in an animal's body. I also understand that this is the reason why red meat should be eaten less often even than sweets.
posted by tel3path at 4:21 PM on January 1, 2010

Best answer: Read Good Calories, Bad Calories if you want a very thorough explanation of why saturated fats came to be seen as the enemy. I hate to say it, but the answers you're going to get on AskMeFi aren't going to be a fraction as useful as that book alone.
posted by Nattie at 5:23 PM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The idea that saturated fat is bad for you, and contributes to cardiovascular or heart disease is an antiquated one, a relic from the days of the "Prudent Diet", Ancel Keys and his widely cited seven countries study.

Modern epidemiology provides little support for the notion that saturated fat is harmful. This blog post outlines more.

A 20 year follow up of the highly regarded Nurses Study suggests the same thing "Intakes of total fat, saturated fat, and monounsaturated fat had no clear relation to CHD regardless of age group"
Dietary fat intake and risk of coronary heart disease in women: 20 years of follow-up of the nurses' health study

Compared to fat from grass fed & pasture raised animals, "corn raised" beef will contain far more omega-6 fatty acids, and less omega-6 fatty acids. Based on the pioneering works of Lands, Hibblen and others, w-6 to w-3 ratios in excess of 4:1 are thought to be major contributors to CHD and other inflammation mediated diseases. This can be mediated by supplementing your diet with a highly omega-3 dominant source of fats (fish oils, flax perhaps if you're female as conversation rates to long chain polyunsaturates like DHA and EPA seem superior to those observed in men).
posted by zentrification at 6:39 PM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful answers. I'm going to take paanta's advice and try a better (grass fed) grade of fat. I'm sure my dog will love that idea as well. I've also put Good Calories Bad Calories on hold at my local library.
zentrification, I also want to thank you for the link to the Whole Health Source site. That's some nice clear science writing!
posted by biddeford at 9:10 PM on January 1, 2010

Glad somebody recommended Taubes's book; I thinl Good Calories Bad Calories is one of those reads that can be life-changing. However, having read it (and also lived low-carb for three years now), I will say that while I wouldn't hesitate to cook every day using tallow, I would certainly hesitate to recommend tallow to anyone on a grain and starch-heavy diet. High carb just doesn't mix well with high fat, in terms of your health (or your weight). But if you scrap the grains and starches, tallow can be a deliciously healthy fixture in your daily cooking.

And now, off to cook some eggs and asparagus and cream cheese in butter...
posted by artemisia at 3:03 AM on January 2, 2010

The major kinds of fats in the foods we eat are saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans fatty acids. Saturated fats and trans fats raise blood cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol also raises blood cholesterol. A high level of cholesterol in the blood is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease, which leads to heart attack, and also increases the risk of stroke. American Heart Association

There remains some doubt about the effects of different fats, and perhaps Woody Allen will still be proven right, but the great weight of evidence still suggests the saturated fats should be limited in one's diet. In the end the best advice is still, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
posted by caddis at 7:29 AM on January 2, 2010

I would look for a meat buying club or form one yourself. I am a member of one (based on a single pig) and also run two (geese and lamb). I visit the animals and see how they live and what they eat, which is very important because it determines the quality and healthfulness of the meat. It's also much cheaper, even though the initial price may seem hefty. It's amazing how far the one eighth of a pig I bought has gone. I've probably been eating it for two months or so now.
posted by melissam at 7:32 AM on January 2, 2010

One more thing, do not eat this.
posted by caddis at 7:37 AM on January 2, 2010

Also, people who put a lot of love on the vegetable oils don't often realize how unstable they are. Olive oil and canola oil, when fresh, are probably pretty healthy, but the fats in them degrade and turn rancid with exposure to heat and light. Rancid fats are carcinogenic and much worse for your cardiovascular system than saturated fat. You are probably doing yourself a huge favor cooking with a stable fat. Other stable fats are coconut oil and lard.

I buy fresh olive oil and never use it for cooking, just in salads.

For that reason, when I eat out, I avoid high fat food altogether. A choice between rancid vegetable oils and factory farmed meat? No thanks.

Saturated fat might be questionable, but rancid fat is unquestionably bad
posted by melissam at 7:37 AM on January 2, 2010

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