With discussions on food inflation, hunger and nutrition insecurity at all-time highs, low-income families are challenged to keep nutritious meals on the table. This is a tremendous and concerning problem that impacts the most vulnerable in our communities.

Pork plays a critical role in addressing food inflation, hunger and nutrition security. I’m excited to share the research that supports this high-quality, affordable protein that not only feeds but also nourishes people around the world.

Fresh Pork as Protein Source in the USDA Thrifty Food Plan 2021

This new modeling study published in Nutrients and funded by The National Pork Board, is the first of its kind to look at the nutritional value and affordability of the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) featuring fresh pork as one of the only meat sources. 

The TFP represents the cost of groceries needed to provide a healthy, budget-conscious diet for a family of four (two adults, and two children).

The 2021 update was the first time in its history that the TFP update was not kept cost-neutral. The TFP was revised sporadically in the past but will now be re-evaluated every five years. With the updated TFP, USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits increased by 21%, meaning more access to affordable, nutrient-dense food is possible.

World Class Researchers

I’d like to recognize and thank the research team. Kudos to Principal Investigator Matthieu Maillot, Ph.D. of MS-Nutrition, Romane Poinsot, Ph.D., also of MS-Nutrition and Co-Investigator, Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D. of the University of Washington, on their work to model pork in the Thrifty Food Plan. With help from the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA, these researchers conducted this novel modeling study to look at the nutritional value and affordability of a budget-friendly food plan that featured fresh pork as the only meat source.

I want to pause and underscore the significance of this. These researchers are experts in linear programming analyses like this one and have tremendous familiarity with the relevant databases, making them one of the only research groups in the world that could model food patterns in this way.

The modeling done as part of this research is highly important for evaluating the broad dietary implications that fresh pork has for the general public. That’s pretty impressive if I do say so myself.

Research Findings

Now, back to the research. Of the five food plans simulated in the modeling study, fresh pork fit into the lowest-cost healthy diet that met all nutrient requirements, followed dietary guidance and respected existing eating habits.

“The TFP allocates a quarter of the weekly budget to protein foods: meat, poultry, eggs and beans, nuts and seeds. By replicating the USDA methodology, we found that fresh pork was the food that fits best — providing high-quality protein at an affordable cost.” – Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., Professor of Epidemiology and Director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington

These five food plan models (which closely followed the TFP) generated nutritious food patterns that included all food groups following the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The study findings showed that using fresh pork as a replacement meat source provides high-quality protein at a low cost. Budget-friendly, healthy food plans can be generated with pork as the only source of non-poultry meat or as the only source of all meat, other than fish. While all five food plans met nutrition and practicality criteria, fresh pork had the price advantage.

There were a couple of study limitations.

First, this was not an intervention or feeding study, so results cannot be used to suggest cause and effect.

Also, while the results are promising, the eating plans modeled in this study that feature pork need to be tested in reference households to assess if they are feasible to follow over the long term.

So What Does It Mean? My Top Three Takeaways

At the end of the day, I’m excited for this study to inform future research and education. Here’s what stands out to me.

  1. Pork can fit into a nutritious diet at a lower cost
    • The cost estimate for a family of 4 in Model 1 was $189.88, compared to the purchase price of $192.84 in the TFP.
  2. Selecting pork as the only source of meat protein in the TFP reduced the weekly cost below the current TFP cost levels
    • Replacing beef and poultry with pork in Model 4 led to a modest decrease in the weekly cost of the food plan ($188.57, which is lower but very close to the USDA TFP values).
  3. Selecting pork as the only source of protein still allowed for nutrient-adequate diets in the TFP
    • Model 3 searched for the lowest-cost healthy diet, the market basket contained more pork, less chicken and no cured meats or beef.

In short, making pork one of the only sources of meat protein led to nutritionally adequate diets at the least cost. In this modeling study, there were no feeding interventions and we cannot determine the health impacts, but the results are promising. This research reinforces the role fresh pork plays as a high-quality, nutrient-dense protein in helping Americans of all ages eat healthy on a budget in a way that works for them.  

Pork Is a Nutritious Protein Staple

The convenience and versatility of pork make it a whole and nutritious protein staple option for many dietary patterns. Pork’s delicious flavor can be incorporated into a variety of cuisines, such as Asian, Southwest, Italian, Mediterranean, Latin and more. 

It is important for health and nutrition professionals to meet individuals and families where they are by addressing their top eating priorities and challenges. When we meet consumers where they are, we are building on existing motivations and habits and enjoyment – versus asking them to change something that they are already doing. 

I encourage you to view the research and keep it in mind as you serve your patients and clients. Helping all Americans achieve nutrition security is an all-hands-on-deck situation. Pork, among other foods, is essential in addressing and ultimately ending food and nutrition insecurity.