Bacon!! It’s what weekends are ABOUT.
Bacon and extra coffee and thick sliced sourdough toast and jam and butter softened on the countertop and… BACON.
Bacon in white bread baps, bacon eaten flaming hot from the pan… bacon shoved with tomatoes and lettuce if we’re feeling a bit healthier (cough).
Bacon fried in a bit of butter or left to go crispy under the grill or even shoved in the microwave if you’re like me and just CANT WAIT TO EAT IT.
Bacon signifies everything that is good about the weekends… everything that is tasty and lazy and decadent. The reason it appeals to us so much is apparently because it literally ticks nearly all of our ‘innate taste’ buttons: it’s salty, it’s fatty, it’s meaty. Serve it with soft white bread and it even ticks the ‘sweet’ box too.
This means there’s only one small problem. Bacon really isn’t all that healthy for you. Like kind of definitely not that healthy for you at all. I know this is the classic opinion, but for me it’s pretty rare because there are hardly any ‘whole foods’ that I really try to restrict at all. I still enjoy bacon on fairly regular basis, but I’m a lot pickier about when and how often, that I used to be. Bacon Lovers (that’s everyone right?!): read on at your own peril.
Intro to Bacon:
- Bacon is a cured meat, meaning it is marinated in a combination of salt and a preservative. This preservative is sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate or a combination.
- Sodium nitrate is a naturally occurring form of salt, that can also be synthesised in a lab. It helps to colour meat pink, prevents the growth of bacteria and also adds to the cured taste we now associate with bacon.
- Sodium nitrate has been added to cured meat since the 1800′s, when people realised the flavour they loved in cured meats was a result of the salt and the lactic acid in the meats forming their own nitrates. Meat producers realised they could speed up the flavouring process, enhance the result and inject an appealing colour into the meats, just by adding a mixture of salt and sodium nitrate right from the start.
- Sodium nitrite is the non-oxidised form of sodium nitrate; without oxygen sodium nitrate will break down into nitrite. Sodium nitrite is considered the more concentrated product and is also used to inhibit the growth of bacteria and to colour the food. When cured meats are cooked, the sodium nitrate gets broken into nitrites so all bacon effectively has nitrites by the time we eat it.
- All nitrites have the potential to be converted to nitrosamines, within the human body. Nitrosamines have been shown to be highly carcinogenic in a number of animal tests, and this is also backed up by evidence showing countries who consume high amounts of cured meats, to have particularly high rates of gastric and colon cancers. Nitrites have also been linked to diabetes, alzheimers and other diseases of cellular degradation. According to the World Cancer Research fund, cured meats are so dangerous we should never eat them at all.
- Given that sodium nitrate has been shown to be so dangerous, some companies have looked for ways to avoid it. A number of meat producers in the US now produce meat that is labelled ‘no added nitrates’. However, these are not without problems. Whilst the companies don’t add sodium nitrate per se, in it’s place they add some sort of celery juice, or refined celery salt. These help to colour and flavour the no-added nitrates bacon, but they can also (you guessed it!) form nitrates within the meat. Just like in the 1800′s, when these salts combine with the lactic acid found in the flesh of meat, nitrates are formed. People who are sensitive to added nitrates are often just as sensitive to these ‘nitrate free’ products. In fact a 2010 study in Cooks Illustrated found the ‘no added nitrate’ bacon, to actually have higher levels of nitrates than the generic versions.
- Most people prefer smoked bacon and smoking meat enhances the dangers. When the salt in the bacon reacts with the smoke, further nitrates are formed. (This is also true for smoked fish, and other smoked products without added nitrates). Just the process of smoking food is not considered healthful.
- All bacon is very high in salt. Whilst I don’t have much against un-refined salt, commercial salt is not something we want to eat in high quantities. It is essentially sodium, without the additional minerals that occur with sodium in nature and consuming too much of it can lead to mineral imbalances. It is also fairly strongly associated with high blood pressure.
- Most people like their bacon crispy and cooking meat fats at high temperatures enhances the dangers. High temperatures encourages the formation of heterocyclic amines (HAC’s) another known carcinogen. HAC’s have been strongly linked to formation of various cancers in tests on rodents. Bacon also has a tendency to drip and when meat fat drips onto hot surfaces polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can be formed. These PAH’s are then transported in the smoke, back to the food. PAC’s are now widely accepted to be a human carcinogen and are part of the reason BBQ meats are considered something we should avoid eating too regularly.
- Taste, Taste, Taste!
And that’s about it. Not only is bacon not a very healthful food, it also usually replaces something with health benefits (mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, chicken in your sandwich) when it appears on your plate..
The Final Picture:
Despite the health concerns, I’ve chosen to carry on eating bacon! For me life is way too short to give up something I love so much. However, I do have some proviso’s:
- Limit intake 1/2 x per month and make sure it’s good quality. Bacon is definitely the meat I am most strict about with. Generic supermarket bacon has all the problems I just outlined, plus a host of other additives, including cheap fillers and sugar. Also, it taste likes crap. When I do eat bacon I want to make sure I really enjoy it.
- Eat bacon with Vitamin C. There is some evidence that eating vitamin C inhibits the formation of nitrosamines, so I always make sure I have some oranges and berries on any day I am eating bacon. (Not too hard when orange juice and bacon sandwiches taste so amazing together!).
- Cook carefully: I always try to cook bacon without burning it, and have even experimented with microwaving with bacon with some good results. I try to cut off parts that have been burnt.
- Do not worry about sourcing nitrate-free: The evidence in favour of ‘naturally formed’ nitrates is pretty inconclusive in mind. Whilst I prefer the idea of using something non-synthetic, the fact that sensitive people respond just as badly, combined with higher levels of nitrates in found in testing, does not fill me with confidence. I prefer to reduce consumption and focus on other factors.
- Do not worry about whether it’s smoked or not: Smoked bacon does have higher levels of nitrites but, for me, the taste difference is incomparable. I’d rather eat less, and eat smoked.
- Try to find good alternatives. Although I eat bacon, I’ve made the effort to read up on good bacon substitutes as well. Roasted mushroom, lettuce and tomato sandwiches (with lots of mayonnaise!) make a great substitute for BLT’s …. and a pinch of smoked paprika in either stews or eggs, gives a great bacon-like twist. Sometimes when you have a bacon craving all it really is is a smoked food craving, and having some smoked tempeh, whilst not totally ideal, is a whole bunch healthier than bacon (in my mind). It’s also a lot more filling and goes great on salad!
Interestingly, now I eat bacon this much less I find I enjoy it lots more – and the one hit tends to get rid of the craving. Bacon is so salty and such a strong flavour that once I’ve had it I’m sort of over it for a few weeks. But then I am very ready to have it again!
How about you? How do you feel about bacon….do you eat it regularly? and what’s your favourite way to eat it?