Chewing the Fat

How pork rinds became a health-food fad.

Even the Whoppers had to go.

My wife and I have decided to eat "better," so to speak, and for the next six weeks that means more protein, more veggies, more complex carbohydrates, no fat and no sugar. So she came home the other day with two Wild Oats grocery sacks overflowing with brown rice, whole grains and a loaf of bread with the texture of dog biscuits.

"Sprouted Grain Bread was inspired by holy scripture," she said, reading from the label. "Ezekiel 4:9. Take unto the wheat and barley and beans and lentils and millet and spelt and put them into one vessel and make a bread."

From rinds to riches: Susana Herrera's La Popular is big on pork futures.
John Johnston
From rinds to riches: Susana Herrera's La Popular is big on pork futures.

"This is going to be a long six weeks," I said.


As she unpacked the bag, we took stock of everything that had to go: Pop Tarts, Sugar Smacks, tortillas with butter and jelly.

"Then what are we supposed to snack on?"

"Something that's high in protein and complex carbs, with no fat or sugar."

"What's high in protein and complex carbs, with no fat or sugar?"

She handed me a Baggie filled with something brown and grainy that might have been oatmeal. Or sawdust.

"I guess this means I should take the box of Whoppers to work?" I asked.

"Yeah," she said. "Take the box of Whoppers to work."

News flash: The popularity of high-protein and low-carbohydrate diets such as the Zone and Atkins have had an unforeseen side effect -- a boost in the sale of pork rinds. From Denver to D.C., deep-fried hog skins are flying off the shelves. Since the snacks have only nine grams of protein per serving and zero carbohydrates, they're ideal for the latest weight-loss fads; Atkins even offers a recipe for pork-rind dip in its Quick and Easy cookbook.

"What it basically comes down to is that they have no sugar and have a very low carbohydrate concentration, and that's two of the things we look for," says Dan O'Brien, a media liaison for the Atkins Center in New York. "It's basically an alternative to potato chips and other high-sugar, high-carbohydrate snacks."

And that's good news to Chicago-based Evans Food Products, one of the nation's largest suppliers of pork-rind pellets, the raw material for rinds. At Evans, sales have recently jumped 20 percent.

"It's phenomenal," says Bill Connor, Evans's vice president of sales. "We get calls from people all over the country asking where to buy them. And when I'm in a metropolitan area like New York City or Washington, D.C., I'll see women out for an afternoon walk in a skirt and tennis shoes, carrying a bag of skins!"

In Denver, stores like Cub Foods have moved pork rinds to the meat department. Mexican-food producers like La Popular can't fry chicharrones fast enough.

"They're selling like crazy," says Jesse Herrera, La Popular's owner.

Not since former president George Bush crunched pork rinds in the White House have sales sizzled like this. CEOs and soccer moms are chewing the fat. Evans executives are so excited, they've added a new label: "Zero Carbohydrates."

"Pork rinds are probably the fastest-growing snack on the salty-snack shelves," Connor says. "We used to be barely a blip on the radar screen, but now we're encroaching on popcorn! It's like I always say: 'There's no party without pork rinds.'"

Ingredients: Pig skins, salt, dextrose, monohydrate, corn flour, sugar, paprika, vinegar powder, garlic flavor, soybean oil, citric acid, acetic acid, soy and corn protein, red dye number 40, caramel color, onion powder, yellow dye number 6, apple essence and artificial flavor. (Contents may vary.)

"They're best just after they shave off the hair."

Steve Linder is talking about pork rinds.

"Pigs have hair on their skin, you know, and you have to singe it and scrape it off. So they're better just after they shave the hair."

Linder is from Nebraska and grew up around all manner of pork products. Now that he's on the Atkins diet, he's pretty much an authority on the subject -- at least, the pork-rind part of the subject.

"Wonderful stuff," he says. "Sales have increased 20 percent because I'm eating them."

Linder is a 55-year-old systems operator with the Public Service Company of Colorado. He stands six feet, seven inches tall. When he started the Atkins diet on the day after Thanksgiving -- "a day earlier would have been a lot harder" -- he tipped the scales at 340. Since then, he's lost forty pounds.

"And I feel great," he says.

The Atkins regimen, which Linder discovered through a friend, goes something like this: Eat as much cheese, eggs, butter, meat and veggies as you want, but cut out white bread, pasta, sweets and fruit. The high concentration of protein melts the fat like lard on a hot griddle. That translates to bacon not just for breakfast, but lunch and dinner, too.

"Oh, I can eat a pound of bacon at a time," Linder says. "I don't worry about it at all. I eat it until I'm full."

And pork rinds for dessert.

"Can't get enough of them," he says.

On average, Linder crackles several bags a week. Gourmet chicharrones, available at Cub Foods near the meat department.

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