To say Americans can't resist their bacon is an understatement. Wait, don't go! There are options other than veggie bacon. I promise.
True, bacon is addictive. Maybe it's the fat...or the salt...or the sugar. The nitrates, or the nitrites. Hmmm, is it starting to sound just a bit less appealing?
These days, there's quite a bit more to the world of bacon than just your Oscar Meyer. If you've gotta have it, the good thing is you've got options. Because eating's not just about your gratifying your taste buds; it's also about protecting your health.
Why is bacon bad for you?
Conventional bacon in the U.S. (as opposed to other cultural varieties around the world) is typically made from pork belly - the fattest part of the animal. (Actually, it's 92% fat.) They take this hunk of meat - well, 8% meat, anyway - and cure it with copious amounts of salt, then add sugar to lessen the saltiness. Finally, nitrites are added for their characteristic reddish color and "cured" flavor.
Whats the deal with nitrates and nitrites?
Nitrates are a very misunderstood element. Nitrates can actually be naturally occurring - think vegetables! - and are added to cured meats for a number of reasons: to prevent botulism, as well as sealing in fat and flavor.
So, specifically for the reason of preserving meat, using nitrates is not a bad thing.
Synthetic nitrates, however, should be avoided. It's the copious amounts of these, as well as the unhealthy cuts of meat, further combined with the added sodium, sugar and artificial colors that make conventional bacon such a no-no.
During the exposure to high heat while cooking, the nitrites mix with amines, a compound naturally present in meat, to form nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic.
In a review of more than 7,000 clinical studies of the correlation between diet and cancer, the World Cancer Research Fund concluded that processed meats - conventional bacon included - are "too dangerous for human consumption." Furthermore, "consumers are cautioned against buying and eating all processed meat products." The sodium nitrite is "used to turn meat red so that it looks fresh. Sodium nitrite causes the formation of cancer causing nitrosamines in the human body.” Indeed, “frequent consumption of bacon was associated with an elevated risk of bladder cancer.” In addition, “(f)requent cured meat consumption was associated independently with an obstructive pattern of lung function and increased odds of COPD.” (COPD is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, such as bronchitis or emphysema.)*
More than 7,000 studies!
What do Americans do with this information?
Well, being Americans, we think of new and exciting ways to use bacon: Bacon-infused cocktails, chocolate-covered bacon, bacon toothpaste! America's fast-food establishments, such as Burger King, which on the one hand claim to offer healthy choices, on the other come out with the appalling bacon sundae. Please.
In a bacon-obsessed world, there are alternatives.
(Click Read More for Healthier Bacon Alternatives and How to read Bacon Labels)
Examples include: Prosciutto and Pancetta
Canadian Bacon - also known as Back Bacon, it is actually a British cut. It is much leaner, as it includes some loin and some belly. Can be brined, cured, boiled, or smoked. In the U.S., Canadian bacon can refer to a round, highly processed ham product.
Turkey Bacon - Be leery of this label, due to the fact that you could still be consuming all the ills of conventional bacon, sans the fatty pork cut. (Also, how is the poultry raised?)
Veggie Bacon - A smoky product generally made of tempe or tofu. Well, hey. For vegetarians like me, it's an option.
Two Labels: the difference may amaze you.
A comparison: In one corner we have the traditional Oscar Meyer bacon, favorite of Americans forever. 92% fat and (according to their ingredient panel) "cured with water, salt, sugar, sodium phosphates, sodium ascorbate, (and) sodium nitrite."
In the other corner, however, we have a modern-day option! As an example, let's use Vermont Smoke and Cure Bacon. They use bacon made from local, humanely-raised, antibiotic and hormone-free pork which has been raised on vegetarian feed. This meat is brined with "Vermont maple syrup, just enough salt and a combination of spices before smoking with the sweet, mellow smoke from corn cobs and maple wood." No added "sodium nitrite, only celery juice and sea salt, which are natural sources of nitrate." But they're not the only one. Consumers who pay attention to their health, and who want to eat their bacon too, have spoken.
The advice? When you've simply gotta have it, seek out today's craft bacon: it's out there. Made from pastured meats, with natural nitrate products, this bacon is a far healthier choice.
Just avoid the highly processed, additive-filled conventional bacon of yore. And enjoy your bacon responsibly.