Want to know a little-known fact about McDonald’s french fries? Before Mcdonald’s starting using hydrogenated vegetable oils to fry its fries, the company used good, old-fashioned beef tallow.
Many other fast food restaurants did, too, including Burger King, Wendy’s, Hardee’s, Arby’s, Dairy Queen, Popeyes and Bob’s Big Boy.
For centuries, tallow (or beef fat) was considered a healthy and delicious fat for frying, baking and more. It was only once cheap, highly processed vegetable oils became widely available in the U.S. and elsewhere that tallow and similar animals fats (like schmaltz and lard) went out of fashion.
Can you still eat tallow? Yes — and in moderation, some would still consider it to be a healthy fat to cook with, especially compared to margarine or processed shortening.
Grass-fed beef fat can be a great source of oleic acid, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and other fatty acids that are thought to be good for increasing “good” cholesterol levels and supporting cognitive/brain health and a strong metabolism.
Tallow is fat rendered from beef (or less often mutton), which is why it’s sometimes called beef lard. Like many other saturated fats, it’s solid at room temperature but melts into a liquid when heated.
Tallow’s appearance and texture are described as being similar to butter’s, since it’s solid and beige/white color when cooled. However, it has a drier, waxy texture and somewhat different taste than butter.
Although most people refer to only beef fat as tallow, technically other animal fats can also be called by the same name. Some commercial types of tallow contain fat derived from multiple animals, including mutton, pigs and hogs.
Most often tallow is made by rendering suet, which is a hard, white type of fat found in the tissues surrounding animals’ organs.
Many consider the best quality beef tallow to be rendered from the fat around the kidneys, although it can also be made from rendering other fat. This fatty tissue around the kidneys stores many nutrients, especially when the cattle is grass-fed.
Tallow can also sometimes be referred to as shortening, which is defined as any fat that is solid at room temperature and used in baking.
Tallow is a mostly saturated animal fat, although it contains some unsaturated fats too. The breakdown of fats in tallow is estimated to be 45 percent to 50 percent saturated fat, 42 percent to 50 percent monounsaturated fat and 4 percent polyunsaturated fat.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one tablespoon of tallow has about:
In terms of nutrient content, the highest-quality beef tallow comes from grass-fed cattle, as opposed to those conventionally raised on feedlots and fed grains. Grass-fed cattle tend to store more omega-3s, CLA and other beneficial compounds in their bodies compared to cows that are fed less healthy diets.
Tallow rendered from grass-fed cattle provides some of the following nutrients:
What are the benefits of tallow? Here are some of the reasons this fat has been used in cooking, baking and more for centuries.
In the 1950s, researchers first began advocating for a lower-fat diet since animal fats were being linked to development of coronary heart disease. However, since this time we’ve come to understand that foods high in fat and cholesterol actually provide certain health benefits.
As mentioned above, tallow provides both saturated and monounsaturated fats. It’s made up of about 40 percent to 50 percent monounsaturated fats, which are considered one of the most heart-healthy fats in our diets.
This is the same type of fat found in olive oil.
The type of saturated fat found in tallow is believed to have a mostly neutral effect on blood cholesterol levels, or the ability to raise “good” HDL cholesterol, meaning that consuming it in moderate amounts shouldn’t increase your risk for cardiovascular disease.
Consuming saturated fat as part of a healthy diet has also been shown in some cases to have an inverse relationship with obesity-related type 2 diabetes.
Another benefit of consuming natural fats is for cognitive health, since a high percentage of your brain is made up of cholesterol and fat.
Tallow is rich in CLA, a fatty acid that studies suggest can support a healthy metabolism and may lead to fat burning. There’s some evidence demonstrating that CLA also has anti-inflammatory and immune-supporting properties, possibly even fighting growth of tumors, as does the fatty acid oleic acid.
Consuming animal fats can be especially helpful for weight loss if you follow a high-fat keto diet, which leads to ketosis and can also have benefits such as reducing inflammation and oxidative stress.
You need fats in your diet to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E and K. These essential vitamins help support your immune system, skeletal system, heart, skin and more.
Compared to other cooking fats and oils, including olive oil and butter, tallow has a higher smoke point around 420 to 480 degrees Fahrenheit. Smoke point refers to the temperature at which an oil starts to burn, smoke and lose many of its nutritional benefits.
Tallow can be used at high temperatures without causing its chemical composition to change. When cooking at high heat — such as roasting, frying and baking — use it over oils like canola, corn and even virgin olive oil, which are prone to oxidizing at high temperatures and can contribute to problems such as formation of free radicals.
Why is tallow good for your skin? It’s rich in fatty acids that help form the lipids that keep skin protected and moisturized.
These include palmitoleic acid, stearic acid and oleic acid (the same type of fat found in olive oil).
Consuming fats can help support the skin, while some fats, including tallow, can also be applied topically to your skin. Some benefits of tallow for skin health include:
In terms of cooking, what is tallow good for? Because it has a high smoke point (between 400–420 degrees F), it’s a good fat for frying, baking, sauteing and roasting.
It can help give crusts, pastries, fried foods and baked goods a crumbly texture.
Some popular uses for tallow include making:
Where to Buy Tallow
Look for organic tallow sourced from grass-fed cows at a local farmers market or health food store. You may also be able to find it at your local butcher shop.
How to Make Tallow
If you’re familiar with making soap at home using vegetable oils, you can try using tallow instead. To make homemade tallow soap, combine it with sodium hydroxide, water, jojoba or almond oil, along with essential oils, such as lavender, to improve the smell and soothing quality.
What can you use instead of tallow (besides lard)?
Grass-fed butter is a good alternative and can be used in similar ways as tallow, since they contain mostly the same types of fats. Both are between 40 percent to 60 percent saturated fat.
Some people may prefer the taste of butter, especially in baked goods. However, one advantage of tallow is that it’s dairy-free and tolerated by those with lactose intolerance/dairy allergies.
Good quality oils, such as coconut oil and avocado oil, can also be good alternatives that supply you with a mix of healthy fats. However, refined vegetable oils are not the best choice, since they are often rancid due to exposure to high heat and are very high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids.
What is the difference between tallow and lard?
Lard is “fat from the abdomen of a pig (or swine) that is rendered and clarified for use in cooking.” In other words, it’s a type of rendered pork fat or what some have nicknamed “bacon butter.”
Lard is actually considered to be the “original shortening,” popular long before the creation of partially hydrolyzed vegetable oils and man-made trans fats. This semi-soft white fat is high in saturated fat but contains no trans fat.
That means it may actually provide some benefits, such as supplying you with fats and cholesterol that are needed to fuel the brain and produce hormones.
Many respected chefs and bakers consider lard to be one of the best fats for frying and making pastries. Not only does it have a neutral taste and high smoke point, but it helps makes fried foods crispy and crumbly.
The downside to eating lard is that it’s likely to be derived from pigs that are contaminated with toxins. Pork/pigs are commonly raised in unhealthy environments that causes them to become ill, and this can affect both their meat and fat.
There’s now expansive evidence suggesting that natural animal fats may actually be healthier than partially hydrogenated vegetable shortenings, especially the kinds that contain trans fats, which have been linked to conditions including heart disease.
That said, most health authorities still recommend that you consume tallow and other animal fats in moderation or small amounts — and that you include unsaturated fats in your diet as well.
Purchasing high-quality tallow from grass-fed cattle/mutton is also important, since today many types sold in supermarkets come from conventionally raised cows that may be raised with use of hormones, antibiotics and so on. It’s also important to avoid hydrogenated animal fats (meaning they contain not only cholesterol and saturated fat, but also dangerous trans fats).
If you are at high risk of heart disease and have a history of high cholesterol, consider limiting your use of pure animal fats or at least getting your doctor’s advice.
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