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Pork Rinds Have Some Dieters in Hog Heaven

Following the low-carb trend, they're loading up on the deep-fried pigskins, thrilling manufacturers and horrifying nutritionists.

By MARLA DICKERSON, Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles (August 3, 2000)  If pork-rind makers were assembling a consumer dream team, Sandy Clark would be the last one drafted. Clark is female, white-collar, health-conscious and Jewish. Lousy demographics for peddling deep-fried pigskin.

But that was before the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet craze. Clark, a West Hollywood computer programmer, now munches the zero-carbohydrate skins instead of potato chips. She tosses them in salads for a crouton-like crunch and pulverizes them as a coating for fried chicken. Tale of the tape: Clark has lost 17 pounds in just over two months while consuming two bags of pork rinds a week with her co-dieting husband.

Call it the pigskin paradox. Weight watchers have helped catapult pork rinds, that Southern-fried scourge of the food pyramid, into an unlikely diet aid and one of America's fastest-growing snack foods.

Boosted by weight-loss gurus such as Dr. Robert Atkins, whose regimen includes fried pigskin dipped in sour cream, pork-rind sales grew a sizzling 18% last year. That's triple the growth rate of the snack industry as a whole.

Long a fixture at truck stops and liquor stores, pork rinds are turning up in high-end grocery chains, executive lunch boxes and Internet chat rooms. Epicurean dieters are elevating the blue-collar snack into full-fledged cuisine, tossing it into recipes from French toast to meatballs.

Hungry dieters are ecstatic. Nutritionists are horrified. And jubilant manufacturers are as puffed up as their product. Weary of insults heaped on a Southern specialty known to some as the "cracker's cracker," some purveyors are tickled that salted, deep-fried hog flesh is catching on with the dieting in-crowd.

"I'm not sure you could call this health food," said a grinning Rudolph Gaytan, inspecting mounds of sizzling skins tumbling fresh from the fryer at his Industry-based Gaytan Foods. "But we're thrilled that more people are trying the product."

And how. Pork-rind sales grew faster than any other salty snack-food category except for jerky last year, topping $420 million, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Snack Food Assn.

Old stalwarts such as pretzels and potato chips still dominate the $19-billion munchies market. Still, for a product that barely registered on the snack-food radar a few years back, pork rinds are now outselling such niche players as sunflower seeds and are fast gaining on such popular categories as ready-to-eat popcorn.

Industry watchers credit America's surging ethnic populations for some of that growth. A favorite with Midwesterners and Southerners, fried pork skins are known as chicharrones to Mexican Americans and Filipinos, who often top them with fiery salsa or spicy vinegar sauce. Inventive cooks also use chicharrones as an inexpensive meat substitute in main dishes, or sprinkle the ground product over entrees for flavoring.

"It's the Filipino Parmesan," said Barry Levin, president of Industry-based Snak King, whose pork-rind sales in the Western United States have been expanding by 30% a year. Ethnic consumers "are a great market for us because they already know the product," Levin said.

But with low-carb mania sweeping the nation, even consumers whose previous exposure to pigskin was limited to footballs and Hush Puppies are gobbling up the culinary version.

They are people like Steve Beilinson, a dieting Los Angeles banker who keeps a bag in his office for afternoon snacking, along with plenty of napkins to keep grease off his tie. And Deana Cheever, an administrative assistant in Cincinnati whose pork-rind meatloaf is such a hit that dieters are swapping the recipe on a low-carb Web site. And Debbie Anderson, a San Diego waitress who has shed 80 pounds on a low-carb diet, aided in part by her newest favorite comfort food.

"My friends can't believe I'm eating stuff like this and losing weight," said Anderson, who plows through a "good-sized bag" of Frito-Lay's Baken-ets brand pork skins every week. "They think I'm cheating on my diet."

Indeed, eating fat-laden, high-calorie foods such as pork rinds as part of a weight-loss plan is the antithesis of traditional dieting. But that was before rebels such as Atkins began shaking things up with the notion that fat and calories alone are not the culprits.

His plan and similar regimens such as the Zone diet contend that the energy-catalyst insulin is the key to weight control. By restricting carbohydrates, and thus the blood sugar that triggers insulin production, so the theory goes, dieters can force their bodies to burn fat for fuel instead.

So it's out with carbohydrate-rich pasta, bread and sweets and in with steak, eggs, butter, bacon and other foods rich in protein and fat. Nutritionists warn that the diet, if taken to extremes, could be a recipe for heart disease and kidney damage. But dieters' biggest concern appears to be monotony, which is where pork rinds come in.

Puffy, gnarled, a few shades lighter than cardboard, pork rinds look and taste vaguely like a cross between packing peanuts and crisped bacon. Their real appeal, aficionados say, is the texture. With crunchy treats like potato chips, crackers and popcorn forbidden on a low-carb regimen, fried pork skin is one of the few remaining refuges for dieters seeking a crispy fix.

"It has filled a big hole in my diet," said James Akin, a crunch-craving weight watcher who works for a Catholic organization in San Diego. His favorite memory of a recent business trip to the Deep South: Pork rinds were available in almost every vending machine. "Now, that was heaven," he said wistfully.

No one knows just how much of the recent rind sales boom can be attributed to dieters. Still, industry watchers said they haven't seen this much interest since 1988, when another would-be president named George Bush courted the Joe Six-Pack vote by declaring his love for the folksy food.

Today's pork-rind tent is bigger and more upscale than ever. On Los Angeles' Westside, where restaurants and personal trainers cater to the low-carb crowd, Brentwood's Vicente Foods supermarket reports pork-rind sales have jumped more than 20% in recent months, according to general manager Bob Inadomi.

Ohio-based Rudolph Foods, the nation's largest producer of pork rinds, just elevated low-carb dieters to its list of prime target markets, based on feedback from retailers and consumers. The company also has introduced a new line of microwaveable pork rinds, whose fans are shattering the food's good-old-boy mystique.

"About 80% of the e-mail we're getting right now is from women," said Rudolph spokeswoman Dori Coldwell. "And I'd say most of them are on that diet."

Even so, pork-rind purveyors have yet to openly court weight watchers--or change their labeling to highlight the product's high-protein, low-carbohydrate content--for fear of turning off core consumers.

"We make authentic Mexican-style chicharrones," declared pork-rind maker Gaytan. "When customers buy our product, they want to know they're getting the real thing . . . not some diet food."

Gaytan knows a thing or two about tradition. His grandfather Domingo cooked chicharrones by hand in an old-fashioned kettle that now serves as the company logo. Today the equipment is automated and Gaytan Foods has expanded into a $3-million operation with 75 employees. But the process is essentially the same one that set mouths watering back in old Michoacan.

It begins with fresh pork skin, about 125,000 pounds a week or so, purchased from a local meat packer. Gaytan is fussy. He buys only well-trimmed back skin, sliced into 8-by-36-inch rectangles carved from the flesh on either side of the hog's backbone. He says shoulder skin smells funny. Belly skin is too dicey--customers would flip if an errant nipple ever made it into the final product.

The fresh skins are sliced and then rendered, or slow-cooked, for up to three hours on low heat in giant stainless steel tanks bubbling with 800 gallons of melted lard. Just as bacon shrinks in the frying pan, the rubbery pork skins are reduced to hard, amber-colored "pellets" about one-quarter of their original size. These are drained, then transferred to another cavernous fryer to be "popped."

The humid shop floor is rich with the scent of scalded pork fat, salt and chili pepper. Here, perspiring workers shovel the pellets into the gullet of the deep-fat fryer like firemen stoking a locomotive. The nuggets explode upon impact with the 400-degree oil, ballooning instantaneously like thousands of tiny parachutes.

After 60 to 90 seconds of sizzling, the now-puffy skins are hoisted by conveyor from the fryer onto the flavoring line, where a mechanical sifter drizzles seasoning for one of half a dozen flavors, including salt-and-vinegar and chili-lemon.

An automated bagging machine packages much of the product. But Gaytan's specialty "gourmet" pork rinds--giant, golden-brown beauties--are still hand-packed by nimble workers clad in smocks and hairnets who seal each bag with an old-fashioned twist-tie.

"Don't ask me why. My customers just like it that way," says Gaytan, a ruddy, energetic man as ebullient as the boiling lard around him.

He and other industry veterans aren't sure how long all of these new low-carb converts will remain loyal to the humble chicharron. Diets come and diets go, they say. Real pork-rind lovers eat them for their taste, not their carbohydrate count.

And although no one wants to discourage dieters in their weight-loss quest, experience tells them that pork rinds and waistlines make for uneasy companions.

"I've gained 20 pounds since I started working here," moaned Enrique Arteaga, production manager at Snak King. "How do they do it?"