Pork tenderloin is a heart-healthy option

If you’ve been scanning restaurant menus for chicken and fish to find healthful dishes, you can widen your gaze. Pork, which often gets overlooked as a leaner entree possibility, has officially joined the list.

Pork tenderloin is now certified with the American Heart Association’s “Heart Check” mark, indicating it qualifies as an extra-lean, heart-healthy protein.

Bacon may be getting a lot of culinary attention lately, and a rack of baby-back ribs slathered in barbecue sauce can rack up 1,000 calories, but there’s more than one way to serve a pig.

In fact, ounce for ounce, pork tenderloin is as lean as a skinless chicken breast. A 3-ounce portion of pork tenderloin contains less than 3 grams of fat and 120 calories. Isn’t it great when you can please desire for flavor and good health with the same meal?

“Pork tenderloin is very popular on our menus,” said chef de cuisine Brian Horn of JCT. Kitchen & Bar. “It goes well with so many other flavors.”

On JCT.’s lunch menu, the “Cracker Jack Salad” features thinly pounded pork tenderloin cutlets topped with an arugula salad lightly dressed with Georgia apple vinaigrette and garnished with the crunch of spiced caramel popcorn.

Not your grandma’s pork chop

Over the past couple of decades, changes in feeding and breeding techniques have produced leaner pigs.

According to the National Pork Board, today's pork has 16 percent less fat and 27 percent less saturated fat than 21 years ago. Pork tenderloin may be the trimmest of them all, but the loin cuts, including pork chops and roasts, are the next leanest with 147 calories and a smidge over 5 grams of fat per 3-ounce serving.

“For those who love the great taste of pork, the new certification is a wonderful reminder to incorporate more heart-healthy foods into their diet without sacrificing flavor,” said Pamela Johnson of the National Pork Board.

In the pink

Recipes for preparing pork have changed, too.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made it official that pork can be safely cooked to medium rare, at a cooked temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit, followed by a three-minute rest time to continue cooking. This is 15 degrees less than the previous recommendation and means the meat will be slightly pink in color.

Because pork is leaner today, it’s important not to overcook it, so the meat is juicy and tender. Slightly pink is considered very safe by the USDA.

Pork’s nutrition power

While cured pork products such as bacon and ham are relatively high in sodium, fresh pork is naturally low in sodium.

Pork tenderloin and other loin cuts are excellent sources of protein, thiamine, vitamin B6, phosphorus and niacin and good sources of potassium, riboflavin and zinc.

Carolyn O'Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of "The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous." Email her at carolyn@carolynoneil.com.