Jamón Ibérico is a type of cured ham and one of the finest products in Spanish gastronomy. Although this ham is widely known for its exquisite and delicate taste all over Spain, you will feel more satisfied to hear that it’s also a fantastic source of protein and cholesterol-lowering fats.
This ham obtains its exceptional flavour and unique nutritional composition partly due to the special way the pigs are treated. Firstly, Jamón Ibérico comes from an exclusive variety of pigs known as Iberian pigs that are only raised in four different locations within Spain. Additionally, unlike most other varieties of pig which are normally feed intensively indoors, the Iberian pig is left to roam the fields where it feeds on acorns, grasses and mushrooms. The great freedom and natural diet of the Iberian pig as well as its distinct genetic morphology gives this ham a surprisingly high content of mono-unsaturated fats. Moreover, this ham is an exceptional source of multiple B vitamins and it also contains good amounts of several minerals essential to our health.
Figure 1. The Iberian pig spends most of its life outdoors and is fed a combination of acorns, grasses, mushrooms and fodder. Nevertheless, the supreme Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is a meat that comes from Iberian pigs that are fed a 100% natural diet and the taste speaks for itself. On the other hand, most other varieties of pigs are intensively fed on fodder and they spend most of their lives indoors.
Despite the high content of fats in this ham, scientific studies have revealed that consuming this food in moderation actually lowers the levels of blood cholesterol and helps to protect the arteries. This is because Jamón Ibérico has a very high percentage of mono-unsaturated fatty acids (at least 55% of oleic acid) and a low percentage of saturated fats. Oleic acid is one of the most effective mono-unsaturated fatty acids at raising the levels of High Density Lipoprotein (HDL), which reduces blood cholesterol levels and thereby helps to protect the arteries from atherosclerosis. The exceptional lipid profile of this ham makes it one of the most ‘cardioprotective’ animal fats in the world, even superior to some fats of plant origin.
In addition, Jamón Ibérico favours muscle development and repair due to its extremely high protein content. This meat has twice as much protein compared to other hams; something which is probably due to the fact that the Iberian pig is allowed to roam the fields, exercise and consequently increase its muscle mass. Just 100 grams of this ham has over 40 grams of protein or 50% of your daily recommended protein intake. Moderate consumption of Jamón Ibérico is a healthy alternative to other red meats as a way of getting protein.
Besides the nutritional contribution of fats and protein, this food provides very high amounts of several B vitamins, specially vitamin B1 and B12. Given that individuals going through periods of great physiological stress need higher quantities of several B vitamins, eating Jamón Ibérico moderately can help maintain their levels within the optimal range and prevent deficiencies of such vitamins. Furthermore, the ham is rich in Vitamin K which plays a fundamental role in helping our blood to clot when we get a bruise or a cut. Also, it contains small amounts of vitamin E which is a powerful antioxidant that prevents free radical damage and reduces the levels of oxidative stress.
Moreover, consuming Jamón Ibérico helps the body to produce red blood cells due to the large amounts of iron it includes. Additionally, this ham is beneficial for our bones and teeth as it is a good source of phosphorus and calcium. Other minerals such as zinc, potassium, magnesium and iodine are found in smaller amounts.
Figure 2. This diagram summarises the most important nutritional constituents present in Jamón Ibérico.
The only bad thing that can be picked up with Jamón Ibérico is the very high salt content: there are nearly 3 grams of salt per every 100 grams of ham eaten (50% of your daily requirement of sodium). Nevertheless, Jamón Ibérico has the lowest salt content out of any ham because its veined fat and high pH limit the absorption of salt into the meat. Unfortunately, salt is required to preserve the ham and to enhance its flavour as the meat would otherwise rot and taste insipid. Despite the high salt content, studies have shown that individuals that were consuming 50g of Jamón Ibérico on a daily basis did not report an increase in blood pressure and this could be due to the protective effects of oleic acid on the arteries overruling the negative effects of the salt.
Beyond its incomparable taste, Jamón Ibérico has been shown to be one of the most healthy fats of animal origin due to its low saturated fat and very rich oleic acid content. This ham is a an ideal substitute to red meat and a delicious way to cut down the amounts of saturated fats from the diet; something which will reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and heart attacks in the long-term.