Neal Barnard MD, head of the Physicians Committee for (Ir)Responsible Medicine, tried to round up an army of vegans to protest a Bacon Festival in Iowa last spring, but succeeded in recruiting only six volunteers. 1
Why so few? Probably fear of bacon! Not fear of death by bacon, which is what Dr. Barnard hoped to fuel with anti-meat rhetoric and billboards of skulls and crossbones, but vegan fears of succumbing to the lure of bacon itself! Bacon’s smell and taste are so seductive that many vegetarians fear it as “the gateway meat.”
But what of those health risks? What about all that fat, cholesterol and sodium? And what about nitrites? It’s not just vegans after all who warn us against bacon. Indeed, the bacon question has been argued for years, now with most non-vegan internet bloggers concluding that bacon’s “not so bad” if used to add a bit of flavor and crunchiness to “healthy” foods such as salads and vegetables. Comedian Jim Gaffigan spoofed this on Late Night with Conan O’Brien when he described bits of bacon as “the fairy dust of the food community” and eating a salad sprinkled with bacon as “panning for gold.”
A bit more bacon—even a few strips—sometimes even gets the Food-Police stamp of approval; provided it’s a special treat, of course, and not a daily indulgence. But such recommendations usually come complete with a warning to stick with lean bacon, and then cook it so it’s firm but not soft. While that last sounds a bit naughty, it’s actually anti-fat puritanism—the goal being to render the soft parts into fat that can be poured or patted off.
But what if bacon is actually good for us? What if it actually supports good health and is not a mortal dietary sin after all? What if we can eat all we’d like? And feel better too? Naughty propositions to be sure, but ones The Naughty Nutritionist is prepared to argue. And that promise is not just a strip tease!
Bacon’s primary asset is its fat, and 50 percent of that fat—surprise!—is monounsaturated, mostly consisting of oleic acid, the type so valued in olive oil, and three percent as palmitoleic acid, a monounsaturate with valuable antimicrobial properties. About 40 percent of bacon fat is saturated, a level that worries fat phobics, but is the reason why bacon fat is relatively stable and unlikely to go rancid under normal storage and cooking conditions. That’s important, given the fact that the remaining 10 percent is in the valuable but unstable form of polyunsaturates.2 Pork fat also contains a novel form of phosophatidyl choline that possesses antioxidant activity superior to Vitamin E. and a reason why lard and bacon fat are unprone to rancidity from free radicals.3 Bacon also comes replete with fat-soluble vitamin D, provided it’s bacon from foraging pigs that romp outdoors in the sun for most of year.4 As we would expect, the good fat in bacon comes accompanied by cholesterol, a “no no” according to the Food Police, but a “yes yes” when it comes to a “feel good” food.5
Even so, “everyone knows” bacon’s bad for us, and Dr. Barnard would have us think it’s a veritable risk factor for heart disease. In fact, bacon might be good for the heart. And not just because it makes us happy, though that’s surely a plus! Monounsaturated fat is widely lauded for reducing inflammation and lowering blood pressure, while antimicrobial palmitoleic acid can keep plaque at bay. Triglycerides too may improve because bacon fat is so good at helping us achieve satiety and stable blood sugar. Bacon can thus be useful for diabetics and prediabetics as well as everyone else coping with sugar cravings and carbohydrate addictions. Bacon’s signature salty and savory sweetness not only make it a treat that reduces feelings of deprivation and lack, but could help stabilize blood sugar sufficiently to prevent mood swings, reduce anxiety, improve focus and enhance coping skills.
Those not worried about bacon’s fat and cholesterol often fret about the salt, though low-salt diets actually increase the likelihood of heart disease, hypertension, cognitive decline, osteoporosis insulin resistance and erectile dysfunction. Clearly, salt plays a vital role in Naughty Nutrition.
Finally, fear of bacon is wrapped up with fear of nitrites. These have been so associated with cancer and other ills that nearly all educated, health conscious consumers think they should either avoid processed meats altogether or choose “uncured bacons” that are advertised as “nitrite free.” Popular brands assumed to be healthy include Niman, Bieler, Applegate, Coleman’s and nearly every other bacon brand found at Whole Foods Market or other health food stores.
The question is, are these “uncured” bacons healthier?
The short answer is no. Dr. Nathan Bryan, University of Texas Houston Biomedical Research Center, pulls no punches when he states, “This notion of ‘nitrite-free’ or ‘organically cured’ meats is a public deception.”6 Traditionally bacon was cured by adding sodium nitrite salts directly to the meat. Today’s manufacturers of “nitrite free” brands add celery salt, which is about 50 percent nitrate, plus a starter culture of bacteria. This transforms the nitrate found naturally in the celery salt into nitrite, which cures the meat. Although manufacturers label this bacon “nitrite free,” this method actually generates more nitrite from the celery salt than would ever be added as a salt. Indeed, “nitrite free” bacon can have twice the nitrite content of bacons cured directly with nitrite salts. “Some convert 40 percent, some convert 90 percent, so the consistency of the residual nitrite is highly variable,” Dr. Bryan says. Yet his biggest concern is not nitrite content but the possibility of bacterial contamination. “I think it is probably less healthy than regular cured meats because of the bacteria load and the unknown efficacy of conversion by the bacteria.” 7 And plenty of studies back him up on the value of nitrates and nitrite for food safety.. Indeed, nitrite can convert to desirable nitric oxide in the body. 8-13
Could it be our ancestors were right to dry cure bacon through hand rubbing with a mixture of herbs, sugars, salt, and the sodium nitrite curing salts? Vitamin C in the mix helps form the nitrosylheme pigment that gives cured meats their wonderful red color. Producers then leave the bacon to cure for anywhere from a day to a month before slow-smoking it over applewood, hickory or other wood fires, generally from one to three days. The extended curing time intensifies the pork flavor and shrinks the meat so that the bacon doesn’t shrivel and spatter as it cooks. Flavor can vary quite a bit from producer to producer, and is determined by the ingredients of the cure, the method of smoking, and the timing. The age, gender, and breed of the pig, as well as its time outdoors, forage and feed all influence the final flavor of the bacon.
Supermarket bacon may also use sodium nitrite, but not in a traditional way. Instead, manufacturers opt for fast and cheap methods by which inferior quality factory-farmed meat is pumped and plumped with a liquid cure solution that includes sodium erythorbate and sodium nitrite, along with “liquid smoke,” spices and flavorings heavy in MSG. After “curing” for a few hours, the pork is sprayed with more “liquid smoke” and heated until a smoke-like flavor permeates the meat. The pork is then quickly chilled, machine-pressed into a uniform shape, sliced, and packaged for sale. Pumped and plumped bacon may look big in the package, but shrinks, shrivels and spatters when cooked.
Researchers have consistently found carcinogenic nitrosamines in fried bacon,14,15 but the bacon studied almost certainly comes from factory farms where pigs are fed feeds that include inferior oils such as corn and soy. Fatty acid composition has a major effect on nitrosamine formation, with levels correlating well with the levels of unsaturation of the adipose tissue.16-20 Far riskier than frying bacon is consuming readymade sources of nitrosamines, such as occur in soy protein isolates, non-fat dry milk and other products that have undergone acid washes, flame drying or high temperature spray-drying processes.21,22
The takeaway? Chose traditionally cured or simple salt-cured artesanal bacon, which truly has no nitrites added but depends upon proper refrigeration for safety. Not the newfangled celery salt “uncured” bacon, which is deceptively marketed. Certainly not supermarket pumped and plumped bacon-like products or fakin’ bacon from turkey or soy. What we want is good old-fashioned bacon cured with a precise amount of sodium nitrite curing salts.
If the idea of nitrite still seems scary, consider this: Ascorbic acid is routinely added to cured meats along with the nitrite in order to promote beneficial nitric oxide formation from nitrite, and to inhibit nitrosation reactions in the stomach that can lead to carcinogenic nitrosamines.23 Bringing alpha tocopherol (Vitamin E) into the mix seems to further prevent occurrence of nitrosamine formation.24,25 Old-fashioned processing, involving leisurely time for curing and smoking, further enhances the conversion of nitrite to the beneficial nitric oxide (NO) molecule. And a growing body of evidence shows nitrates (which are in all plant foods) and nitrites (which we need to produce desirable nitric oxide) can be a very good thing.26,27
So what’s the last word on America’s favorite meat? Indulge bacon lust freely, know that the science is catching up, the media lags behind, and, as usual, our ancestors got it right.
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© copyright 2012 Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD, CCN
1. Neuman, Jeannette. Vegetarian Doctors Go Whole Hog to Burn Bacon in Iowa. Wall Street Journal, Feb. 18, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204792404577227201273665554.html
2. Enig, Mary G. Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutriton of Fats, Oils and Cholesterol (Silver Spring, MD, Bethesda Press, 2000. p 135.) Note: Dr Enig’s figures are for the fatty acid composition of lard, not bacon fat, but the percentages should be very close. Percentages of fat may also vary according to the animal’s diet and lifestyle.
3. Koga T, Terao J. Antioxidant Activity of a Novel Phosphatidyl Derivative of Vitamin E in Lard and Its Model System J Ag Food Chem, 1994, 42 (6), 1291–1294. This study looks at lard, but likely applies to bacon fat as well.
4. Daniel, Kaayla T. Save Your Bacon! Sizzling Bits about Nitrites, Dirty Little Secrets about Celery Salt and Other Aporkalyptic News. Posted March 12, 2012. http://www.westonaprice.org/blogs/kdaniel/2012/03/29/save-your-bacon-sizzling-bits-about-nitrites-dirty-little-secrets-about-celery-salt-and-other-aporkalyptic-news/. This article contains a full discussion of Vitamin D in bacon and other pastured animals, including reports in USDA and other databases.
5. The cholesterol debate is thoroughly covered on the Weston A Price Foundation’s website www.westonaprice.org, on Chris Masterjohn’s website www.cholesterol-and-health.com and in Gary Taubes’ excellent book Good Calories, Bad Calories (Knopf, 2007).
8. Skovgaard N. Microbiological aspects and technological need: technological needs for nitrates and nitrites Food Addit Contam. 1992 Sep-Oct;9(5):391-7.
9. Pierson MD, Smoot LA. Nitrite, nitrite alternatives, and the control of Clostridium botulinum in cured meats. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 1982;17(2):141-87.
10. Jouve JL, Calier V, Rozier J. Antimicrobial effects of nitrates in meat products, [Article in French] Ann Nutr Aliment. 1980;34(5-6):807-26.
11 Christiansen LN, Johnston RW, et al. Effect of nitrite and nitrate on toxin production by Clostridium botulinum and on nitrosamine formation in perishable canned comminuted cured meat. Appl Microbiol. 1973, Mar;25(3):357-62.
12 Hustad GO, Cervey JG et al. Effect of sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate on botulinal toxin production and nitrosamine formation in wieners. Appl Microbiol. 1973 Jul;26(1):22-6.
13. Pierson MD, Smoot LA. Nitrite, nitrite alternatives, and the control of Clostridium botulinum in cured meats. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 1982;17(2):141-87
14.. Fiddler W, Pensabene JW. Supercritical fluid extraction of volatile N-nitrosamines in fried bacon and its drippings: method comparison. J AOAC Int. 1996 Jul-Aug;79(4):895-901.
15. Havery DC, Fazio T, Howard JW. Survey of cured meat products for volatile N-nitrosamines: comparison of two analytical methods. IARC Sci Publ. 1978;(19):41-52.
16. Gray JL, Skrypec DJ et al. Further factors influencing N-nitrosamine formation in bacon. IARC Sci Publ, 1984;(57):301-9.
17. Mottram DS, Pattterson RLS et al. The preferential formations of volatile N nitrosamines in the fat of fried bacon. J Sci food Agric 1977 28, 1025-1029.
18. Goutefongea R, Cassens RG, Woolford G. Distribution of sodium nitrite in adipose tissue during curing. J Food Sci, 1977. 42, 1637-1641.
19. Walters CL, Hart Rj, Perse S. 1979. The possible role of lipid pseudonitrosites in nitrosamine formation in fried bacon. Z. Lebensm Unters Forsch , 168, 177-180.
20. Canas BJ, Havery DC et al. Current trends in levels of volatile N-nitrosamines in fried bacon and fried-out bacon fat. J Assoc Off Anal Chem. 1986 Nov-Dec;69(6):1020-1.
21. Daniel, Kaayla T. The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food (Washington DC, New Trends, 2005) 122-126.
22. Hotchkiss JH. Sources of N-nitrosamine contamination in foods. Adv Exp Med Biol 1984;177:287-98.
24. Mergens WJ, Kamm JJ, et al. Alpha-tocopherol: uses in preventing nitrosamine formation. IARC Sci Publ. 1978;(19):199-212.
25. Fiddler W, Pensabene JW et al. Inhibition of formation of volatile nitrosamines in fried bacon by the use of cure-solubilized alpha-tocopherol. J Agric Food Chem. 1978 May-Jun;26(3):653-6.
26. Bryan, Nathan and Janet Zand with Bill Gottlieb. The Nitric Oxide (NO) Solution (Austin, TX, Neogenesis, 2010). Although this popular book does not contain citations, a quick PubMed search will turn up Dr. Bryan’s contribution to at least 88 journal articles, establishing NO benefits.
27. Hord NG, Tang Y, Bryan NS. Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jul;90(1):1-10.