Bacon. It’s there calling to you on the restaurant menu, or sizzling on the stovetop, or tempting you in all its fatty goodness from the ever-expanding bacon section of your supermarket.
And why is that section ever-expanding? Because bacon manufacturers keep coming up with new ways to make bacon sound even better, with descriptions like applewood, center cut, and Irish bacon.
But, the only thing about bacon that might make a difference in terms of your health is whether your bacon cured or uncured.
Bacon is typically high in sodium, total fat, and saturated fat. And if you aren’t eating small servings, you’re getting even more sodium and fat.
High sodium is a risk factor for high blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium daily. Overconsumption of saturated fat is linked to high cholesterol, which can build up in the arteries and cause heart problems.
The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting saturated fat to no more than 10 percent of total calories.
In addition, fat contains 9 calories per gram, more than double that of protein and carbohydrates, which both contain 4 calories per gram. People who aren’t mindful of total calorie intake when consuming foods with higher fat may experience weight gain.
So how does cured vs. uncured bacon make a difference regarding your health?
Curing is a process used to preserve food. It also adds flavor. You can cure foods yourself with smoke or by packing them with salt. A combination of salt, sugar, and other flavors tastes better, though.
Cured bacon technically means any form of preserved bacon. Since all bacon is preserved with either smoke or salt, there is no such thing as uncured bacon. But that fact hasn’t stopped marketers from seizing on the terms “cured” and “uncured.”
So what do these terms mean?
Cured bacon is preserved with a commercial preparation of salt and sodium nitrites. Nitrites are additives responsible for giving bacon its pink color, among many things.
There are two methods of curing: pumping and dry-curing. The concentration of nitrites can’t exceed 200 parts per million (ppm) in dry-cured bacon and 120 ppm in pumped bacon, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
Uncured bacon is bacon that hasn’t been cured with sodium nitrites. Usually, it’s cured with a form of celery, which contains natural nitrites, along with plain old sea salt and other flavorings like parsley and beet extracts.
Uncured bacon has to be labeled “Uncured bacon. No nitrates or nitrites added.” However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have nitrites from naturally occurring sources.
You might have heard that the nitrites used to cure bacon and other meats are associated with a higher incidence of certain cancers. Or that nitrites are in rat poison. So why are nitrites added to food in the first place?
Along with making bacon pink, nitrites maintain bacon’s flavor, prevent off odors, and delay the growth of the bacteria that cause botulism.
Nitrites also occur naturally in many foods, including many vegetables. However, a vegetable diet is less likely to put you at risk for colon or pancreatic cancer than a diet containing lots of processed bacon and hot dogs.
This is because vegetables also tend to contain a lot of vitamin C, among many other healthy vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. In the highly acid environment of your stomach, nitrites can be converted to nitrosamines, a deadly carcinogen. However, vitamin C appears to prevent this conversion.
Since the vegetables that contain nitrites also have high levels of vitamin C, eating them sidesteps the risks involved in eating lots of high-nitrite foods that don’t contain vitamin C.
So is uncured bacon better for you than bacon cured with nitrites? Not by much. It’s still unknown if the natural nitrites found in celery are less harmful than those added to cured bacon.
And bacon still ranks high in salt and saturated fat content, both of which should be limited to decrease risk of heart disease.
Enjoy bacon in very moderate portions, and keep your diet filled with healthy vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.