Bacon. You know it’s not good for you, but there it is, calling to you on the restaurant menu, or sizzling on your mom’s 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 — “applewood,” “center cut,” “Irish bacon.” But the only thing that might make the slightest bit of difference in terms of your health is this: whether your bacon is “cured” or “uncured.”
Let’s review the basics. Bacon is bad for you because it’s high in sodium, high in fat, and the serving sizes are so small that there’s very little nutritional benefit to offset the risks. 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, and the highly processed saturated fat might clog your arteries and cause heart problems, in addition to making your body expand in ways you don’t want.
What Is Curing?
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. And since all bacon is preserved with either smoke or salt, there really 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 actually mean?
Cured vs. Uncured
Cured bacon is preserved with a commercial preparation of salt and sodium nitrites. Nitrites are additives that are responsible for giving bacon its pink color, among many other things.
There are two methods of curing — pumping and dry-curing. The concentration of nitrites cannot exceed 200 parts per million (ppm) in dry-cured bacon and 120 ppm in pumped bacon, according to the U.S. 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, and plain old sea salt, as well as other flavorings like parsley and beet extracts. Uncured bacon has to be labeled: “Uncured bacon. No nitrates or nitrites added.” However, that does not mean that it does not contain nitrites.
Are Nitrites Bad for You?
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 — that’s a pretty good reason to preserve meats with nitrites.
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 bacon and hot dogs. This is because vegetables also tend to contain a lot of vitamin C. 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 dangers you find when you eat 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 is 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 fat content, and low in nutrition.
Enjoy it in very moderate portions, and keep your diet filled with healthy vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.