Many people have a love-hate relationship with bacon.
They love the taste and crunchiness but are worried that all that processed meat and fat could be harmful.
Well, many myths in the history of nutrition didn’t stand the test of time.
Let’s find out if the idea that bacon causes harm is one of them.
There are different types of bacon and the final product can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.
Bacon is made from pork, although you can also find similar products like turkey bacon.
Bacon typically goes through a curing process, during which the meat is soaked in a solution of salt, nitrates and sometimes sugar. In most cases, the bacon is smoked afterward.
Curing and smoking are ways to preserve the meat, but these processing methods also contribute to the characteristic taste of bacon and help preserve its red color.
Adding salt and nitrates makes the meat an unfriendly environment for bacteria to grow. As a result, bacon has a much longer shelf life than fresh pork.
Bacon is a processed meat, but the amount of processing and the ingredients used vary between manufacturers.
Summary Bacon is made from pork and goes through a curing process where it is soaked in salt, nitrates and other ingredients.
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.
The remaining fat in bacon is 40% saturated and 10% polyunsaturated, accompanied by a decent amount of cholesterol.
In contrast, the health effects of saturated fat are highly controversial. Many health professionals are convinced that a high intake of saturated fat is a major cause of heart disease.
In the end, the health effects of saturated fat may depend on the type of saturated fat, the dietary context and people’s overall lifestyle.
You shouldn’t be worried about the high fat content of bacon, especially since the typical serving size is small.
Summary Bacon is high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which are not as harmful as previously believed. Also, the typical serving size of bacon is small.
Meat tends to be very nutritious and bacon is no exception. A typical 3.5-ounce (100-gram) portion of cooked bacon contains (8):
- 37 grams of high-quality animal protein
- Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6 and B12
- 89% of the RDA for selenium
- 53% of the RDA for phosphorus
- Decent amounts of the minerals iron, magnesium, zinc and potassium
However, all nutrients found in bacon are also found in other, less processed pork products.
Summary Pork is rich in many nutrients, including protein and several vitamins. The same holds true for bacon.
Since salt is used in the curing process, bacon has a pretty high salt content.
Eating food high in salt has been associated with an increased risk of stomach cancer (9).
Excessive salt intake may also raise blood pressure in people with salt sensitivity (10).
Although high blood pressure is harmful in the long term, studies have not revealed a consistent association between salt intake and death due to heart disease (11).
Nevertheless, if you have high blood pressure and suspect you may be sensitive to salt, consider limiting your intake of salty foods, including bacon.
For more information on the health effects of salt, check out this article.
Summary Eating a lot of bacon and other salty foods raises blood pressure in salt-sensitive people. It may also increase the risk of stomach cancer.
Processed meat also contains additives like nitrates and nitrites.
The problem with these additives is that high-heat cooking causes them to form compounds called nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens (12).
However, antioxidants like vitamin C and erythorbic acid are now frequently added during the curing process. These effectively reduce bacon’s nitrosamine content (13).
Bacon contains much less nitrosamine than it did in the past, but scientists are still concerned that a high intake may increase the risk of cancer (12).
It also contains various other potentially harmful compounds, which are discussed in the next chapter.
Summary Fried bacon may be high in nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. However, food producers have managed to reduce the nitrosamine content significantly by adding vitamin C.
When it comes to cooking meat, it is important to find balance. Overcooking is unhealthy, but undercooking can also be a concern.
If you 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, you need to cook meat well enough, but not too much.
Summary All meat should be cooked well enough to kill potential pathogens, but not so much that it gets burnt.
For the past decades, nutritionists have been concerned about the health effects of bacon and other processed meats.
Many observational studies have associated a high intake of processed meat with cancer and heart disease.
There are also links between processed meat and heart disease.
A large analysis of prospective studies found that processed meat was significantly associated with both heart disease and diabetes (17).
However, people who eat a lot of processed meat tend to follow an unhealthy lifestyle in general. They are more likely to smoke and exercise less frequently.
Regardless, these findings should not be ignored because the associations are consistent and fairly strong.
Summary Observational studies consistently show a link between processed meat consumption, heart disease and several types of cancer.
Many studies have linked processed meat products, such as bacon, with cancer and heart disease.
All of them are observational studies, which cannot prove causation. Nonetheless, their results have been fairly consistent.
At the end of the day, you have to make your own choice and take a look at the matter objectively.
If you think including bacon in your life is worth the risk, then stick to a simple rule that applies to most processed food products: moderation is key.