Carnitas is made from pork, which is generally considered a red meat. However, there is some debate as to whether certain cuts of pork should be classified as white meat. When it comes to carnitas specifically, there are a few factors to consider when determining if it’s red or white meat.
What part of the pig is used for carnitas?
Carnitas is made from pork shoulder or pork butt (also called Boston butt). These cuts come from the upper portion of the front legs of the pig. While they contain some darker, fattier parts that are clearly red meat, they also contain leaner sections of light-colored meat.
So carnitas contains meat from areas of the pig that are considered both red and white. Most carnitas recipes call for simmering or braising the pork shoulder/butt until it can be pulled apart or shredded. This mixes together the darker and lighter pieces of meat.
Nutritional profile of carnitas
In general, red meat has a higher myoglobin content than white meat. Myoglobin is a protein responsible for providing oxygen to the muscles. It’s what gives red meat its darker color.
The myoglobin content and nutritional profile of meat impacts whether it’s classified as red or white:
- Red meat has a higher myoglobin content and is higher in nutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin B12.
- White meat has a lower myoglobin content and is lower in iron and zinc but higher in vitamins like niacin.
When we look at the nutritional information for carnitas, a 3 oz serving contains:
The iron and zinc content is closer to that of red meat. But the niacin content is moderate, landing somewhere in between red and white meat. So nutritionally, carnitas exhibits some qualities of both red and white meat.
Fat content and color
Meat with a higher fat content tends to be classified as red, while leaner meat is often considered white. Since carnitas is well-marbled and higher in fat, this suggests it should be categorized as red meat.
The visible color of carnitas also indicates it’s red meat. When cooked, carnitas has a rich, deep red/pink hue. The cooked color isn’t as dark as beef, but is darker and redder than chicken or pork tenderloin.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), pork is considered red meat. So officially, carnitas would fall into the red meat category.
However, the USDA has also acknowledged that pork has some characteristics of white meat, making its classification more ambiguous. They state that pork is generally lighter and leaner than other red meats.
So while the USDA definitively categorizes all pork as red meat, they do recognize the unique qualities of pork compared to other red meats like beef and lamb.
Culinary and cultural perspectives
Within various cuisines and cultures, pork may be considered a white meat.
In Chinese culture, pork is called “the white meat” and is often compared to chicken for its lighter flavor and texture when compared to red meats like beef and lamb.
In Central American and Latin American cuisine, pork takes on more of a white meat role. It’s the main protein in traditional white meat dishes like carnitas, lechon, and chicharrones.
So while the USDA defines all pork as red meat, cultural perspectives may differ based on cooking methods and the role pork plays within the local cuisine.
Based on the nutritional profile, fat content, color, and origin from the front legs of the pig, carnitas would technically be classified as a red meat. However, it contains leaner sections of lighter-colored meat and has some nutritional qualities closer to white meat. Some cultures also perceive pork more as a white meat.
Overall, carnitas falls somewhere in between the red and white meat categories. While the USDA considers it red meat, it has a number of characteristics that resemble a white meat as well. So carnitas could be called both a red meat and a white meat depending on your criteria for classification.
Health impacts of eating carnitas
Let’s now look at some of the potential health implications of eating carnitas, since the health effects of red versus white meat differ.
Some potential benefits of eating carnitas in moderation:
- Protein: Great source of high-quality protein to support muscle growth and maintenance.
- Iron: Provides heme iron, which is more bioavailable than non-heme iron from plants. Important for oxygen transport.
- Zinc: Supports immune function and cell growth.
- Vitamin B12: Essential for nerve tissue health and red blood cell formation.
- Flavor: Many find pork very tasty and satisfying.
Some potential downsides of eating too much carnitas:
- Saturated fat: Carnitas is high in saturated fat, which can raise LDL cholesterol levels when eaten in excess.
- Heme iron: The form of iron found in meat may increase risk of heart disease and some cancers.
- Processed meats: If using cured/processed pork, increased risk of chronic disease.
- Sodium: Many recipes call for added salt; may contribute to high blood pressure.
Tips for healthy eating
Here are some tips for enjoying carnitas as part of a healthy diet:
- Choose lean cuts of pork and trim off excess fat before cooking.
- Limit portion size to 3-4 ounces.
- Eat with vegetables as part of a balanced meal.
- Limit sodium by using minimal added salt.
- Consume along with iron-rich plant foods like beans, lentils, or spinach.
- Avoid eating processed meats like bacon or ham in carnitas.
How does cooking impact classification?
The way carnitas is cooked impacts its nutritional value, color, texture, and fat content. This may also affect whether it seems more like a red or white meat.
Traditional cooking method
Authentic carnitas is made by braising or simmering pork in lard or oil. The meat cooks low and slow, separating into tender chunks of varied color. The mix of dark and light meat along with the rich fat results in a red meat characteristic.
Roasting or baking carnitas in the oven uses less fat. The drier heat crisps and browns the exterior, darkening the color. The inside stays tender and juicy. This can enhance the red meat qualities.
Grilling pork shoulder chops or medallions provides more of a white meat texture and appearance. The high heat caramelizes the exterior while keeping the inside juicy. Grilling brings out the milder, white meat flavor.
Frying small pieces of carnitas makes chicharrones, amplifying the crispy texture. This cooking method renders off fat and can make the pork seem more like a white meat.
So while the cut of meat itself matters, cooking techniques can also shift carnitas along the spectrum between red and white meat characteristics.
Substitutions to make it more “white meat”
If you want to make carnitas seem more like a white meat, here are some ingredient substitutions to consider:
- Pork tenderloin – Very lean with a mild flavor.
- Chicken – Lower fat than pork. Can use chicken thighs.
- Turkey – Extremely lean and low fat.
- Tofu – When marinated and cooked, can shred similar to pork.
- Jackfruit – Unripe jackfruit can mimic shredded pork.
- Mushrooms – Chopped mushrooms can provide meaty texture.
You can also adjust cooking techniques to enhance the white meat characteristics:
- Use minimal added fat when cooking
- Roast, bake, or grill instead of braising
- Cook to just until done instead of falling apart
While these tweaks can make carnitas seem more like a white meat, it will change the traditional flavor and texture. But it may be a helpful way to lighten the dish if desired.
Recipes with a white meat twist
Here are some recipe ideas that give traditional carnitas a white meat spin:
Roasted Pork Tenderloin Carnitas
- 1 pound pork tenderloin
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Combine marinade ingredients: oil, lime juice, oregano, cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, salt, and pepper.
- Coat pork tenderloin with marinade and let sit 15-30 minutes.
- Roast at 400°F for 20 minutes until just cooked through.
- Let rest 5 minutes then slice into strips or shred with two forks.
Crispy Carnitas Chicharrones
- 2 pounds pork belly, skin removed
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- Salt to taste
- Oil for frying
- Cut pork belly into 1-inch cubes.
- Toss with marinade ingredients and let sit 20 minutes.
- Heat 1-2 inches oil in saucepan to 325°F.
- Fry pork in batches 7-10 minutes until crispy.
- Drain on paper towels and season with extra salt if desired.
Carnitas Lettuce Wraps
- 1 pound ground turkey or chicken
- 1 onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 jalapeno, sliced
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- 2 teaspoons oregano
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 14oz can diced tomatoes
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Romaine or butter lettuce leaves
- Brown ground turkey/chicken in a skillet over medium heat. Drain if needed.
- Add onions, garlic, jalapeno, and spices. Cook 2-3 minutes.
- Add tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Simmer 15 minutes.
- Serve turkey/chicken mixture stuffed into lettuce leaves.
While traditionally considered a red meat, carnitas contains cuts of pork that have some white meat characteristics. The classification varies depending on criteria used and perception plays a role as well. From a health perspective, it’s best consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet. Adjusting ingredients and cooking methods can make carnitas seem more like a white meat, but will change the classic flavor and texture.