Many people have a love-hate relationship with bacon. They love the taste and crunchiness, but are still worried that all that processed meat and fat may be harming them. Well, there are many myths in the history of nutrition that haven’t stood the test of time. Is the idea that bacon causes harm one of them? Let’s find out…
How is Bacon Made?
There are different types of bacon and the final product can vary between manufacturers. Bacon is most commonly made from pork, the meat from pigs, although you can also find “bacon” made from the meat of other animals like turkey. Bacon typically goes through a curing process, where the meat is soaked in a solution of salt, nitrates, spices and sometimes sugar. In some cases the bacon is smoked afterwards.
The curing is done in order to preserve the meat. The high salt makes the meat an unfriendly environment for bacteria to live in and the nitrates also fight bacteria and help the bacon preserve its red color. Bacon is a processed meat, but the amount of processing and the ingredients used vary between manufacturers.
Bacon is Loaded With Fats… But They’re “Good” Fats
The fats in bacon are about 50% monounsaturated and a large part of those is oleic acid. This is the same fatty acid that olive oil is praised for and generally considered “heart-healthy” (1). Then about 40% is saturated fat, accompanied by a decent amount of cholesterol.
But we now know that saturated fat isn’t harmful and cholesterol in the diet doesn’t affect cholesterol in the blood. Nothing to fear (2, 3). Depending on what the animal ate, about 10% are polyunsaturated fatty acids (mostly Omega-6). These are the “bad” fats in bacon, because most people already eat too much of them (4). However, if you choose bacon from pastured pigs that ate a natural diet, then this won’t be much of an issue. If your pigs are commercially fed, with plenty of soy and corn (like most pigs are), then the bacon may contain enough Omega-6 to cause problems.
Bacon is Fairly Nutritious
Meat tends to be very nutritious and bacon is no exception. A typical 100g portion of cooked bacon contains (5):
Bacon is also pretty high in sodium, which makes sense given how it is cured with sodium during processing. I personally think the risks of sodium are way overblown. Some studies show that excess sodium can elevate blood pressure and raise risk of heart disease, while other studies show that too little sodium leads to the opposite result (6, 7). If you’re already avoiding the biggest sources of sodium in the diet (processed, packaged foods) then I don’t think you need to worry about the amount of sodium in bacon. For healthy people who don’t have high blood pressure, there is no evidence that eating a bit of sodium causes harm (8).
Nitrates, Nitrites and Nitrosamines
Now that we know saturated fat, cholesterol and normal amounts of sodium are usually nothing to worry about, this leaves us with the nitrates. Apparently, some studies conducted by some scientists a long time ago linked nitrates with cancer. However, these studies have since been refuted (9). Nitrates aren’t some artificial compounds unique to bacon. Our bodies are loaded with them and the biggest dietary source is vegetables. Yes, vegetables are loaded with nitrates. Even our saliva contains massive amounts of them. These are compounds that are natural parts of human bodily processes.
There is some concern that during high heat cooking, the nitrates can form compounds called nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens (10). However, vitamin c is now frequently added to the curing process, which effectively reduces the nitrosamine content (11). The harmful effects of nitrosamines are outweighed by potential benefits, but dietary nitrates may also be converted to Nitric Oxide, associated with improved immune function and cardiovascular health (12, 13).
Other Potentially Harmful Compounds
When it comes to cooking meat, we need to find balance. Too much is bad, too little can be even worse. If we use too much heat and burn the meat, it will form harmful compounds like Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons and Heterocyclic Amines – which are associated with cancer (14).
On the other hand, some meats may contain pathogens like bacteria, viruses and parasites. For this reason, we need to cook meat well enough to kill the bacteria. So cook your bacon properly. It should be crunchy, but not burnt.
What The Studies Say
There are concerns when it comes to bacon and other processed meats. Many observational studies do show a link between consumption of processed meat, cancer and heart disease. In particular, processed meat has been associated with cancer of the colon, breast, liver, lung and others (15, 16). There is also an association between processed meat and cardiovascular disease.
A large meta-analysis of prospective studies on meat consumption did show that while regular meat had no effect, processed meat was significantly associated with both heart disease and diabetes (17). Of course, those who eat processed meat are also more likely to smoke, exercise less and live an overall unhealthier lifestyle than people who don’t.
People who are eating processed meat in these studies may be eating them with pancakes, soft drinks or beer and might even have ice cream for dessert afterwards. Therefore, we can’t draw too many conclusions from these findings. Correlation does not equal causation.
How to Make The Right Choices
As with most other types of meats, the quality of the final product depends on a lot of things, including what the animals ate and how the product was processed. The best bacon is from pasture-raised pigs that ate a diet that is appropriate for pigs.
If you can, buy bacon from local farmers that used traditional processing methods. If you don’t have the option of purchasing your bacon directly from the farmer, then eat supermarket bacon at your own risk. Generally speaking, the less artificial ingredients in a product, the better. You can buy nitrate free bacon, but I don’t think it’s worth the extra cost. Nitrates are probably harmless. If you want to make your own bacon, you can buy pork belly and then process or prepare the bacon yourself.
Take Home Message
There are several studies showing that bacon is linked to cancer and heart disease, but all of them are so-called epidemiological studies, which can not prove causation.