The mere thought of bacon activates the taste buds. The crispy, savory meat product accents salads, sandwiches, main dishes, and even desserts. We find the flavor and texture irresistible, yet the question lurks behind each bite: “Is bacon healthy?” Red meats like pork have long endured a blighted reputation for contributing to poor health. However, recent research suggests that these foods could be a viable source of nutrition after all. Ultimately, how the meat is processed determines whether it is wholesome or unhealthy. Believe it or not, a moderate intake of high-quality bacon can be beneficial to your overall health.
Bacon comes from pork belly, which is skinned and trimmed. The meat is treated with salt and nitrate for curing, then smoked or heated in convection ovens. Next, the bacon is chilled to prevent bacterial growth and lengthen shelf life. Salt is always a primary curing agent in making bacon, and it curtails some growth of bacteria. Nitrates and nitrites impart a pinkish hue to the meat and help accelerate the curing process. Bacon typically contains other additives such as spices, wood smoke, flavorings, and sugar.
Nutrients in Bacon
Bacon is a rich source of protein. Since it comes from the fattiest part of the pig, it naturally contains a high amount of fat and calories. The curing process involves salt, so bacon also has a higher sodium content than many types of meat. A three-slice serving of bacon provides:
- 161 calories
- 12 g protein
- 12 g fat (18% DV)
- 581 mg sodium (24% DV)
- 172 mg potassium (5% DV)
Bacon is naturally low in carbohydrates, making it a favorite among low-carb dieters. However, many brands add sugars; check labels for unwanted carbs.
Fats in Bacon: Good or Bad?
Bacon’s high-fat content is a primary concern. About half of the fats in bacon are monounsaturated, the same type present in olive oil. These fats contain oleic acid, which has demonstrated strong potential for boosting heart and immune health. Approximately 40 percent of the remaining fat in bacon is saturated and polyunsaturated, as well as cholesterol. According to recent research in the British Medical Journal, high amounts of saturated fats and dietary cholesterol may not lead to cardiovascular disease as once widely believed. Instead, overall eating and lifestyle habits, along with types of fat, are major determinants of heart health. Since the average serving of bacon is small, its fat content may not be a significant issue for most healthy individuals.
Nitrates and Nitrites
Nitrates occur naturally in water, animals, and plants; most of our dietary nitrates come from vegetables. Nitrites are present in our saliva, gut, and tissues. However, adding artificially produced nitrates and nitrites to foods such as bacon may diminish the length and quality of life for consumers over time. In 2015, the World Health Organization reported that these chemicals contribute to a host of chronic health conditions including asthma, kidney disease, migraines, and cancers.
Most commercially produced “uncured” bacon still contains added nitrates and nitrites, even if their labels claim otherwise. The Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health notes that manufacturers typically treat these products with celery derivatives that naturally have high nitrate levels. These “natural” curing agents produce the same carcinogenic nitrosamines as synthetic additives.
Is Old-Fashioned Bacon Better?
Nutritionists recommend choosing bacon from pastured pigs that receive higher quality feed than those fed the conventional diet of corn and soy. Even traditionally cured bacon treated with nitrites may be healthier than most products because small manufacturers often add vitamins C and E. Studies suggest these nutrients help prevent nitrosamine formation and facilitate beneficial nitric oxide formation.
Health-Conscious Ways to Enjoy Bacon
Each person must decide whether the benefits outweigh the risks of processed meat intake. Including foods rich in antioxidants may help prevent the conversion of nitrites into nitrosamines. Here are some tips to help you enjoy bacon in moderation.
- A little still adds big flavor: Include fewer slices in your servings and fill up with other satiating whole foods.
- Make it a treat: Limit bacon consumption to once or twice a week.
- Pair with antioxidant-rich foods: Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains provide nutrients that help prevent the conversion of nitrites into nitrosamines.
Non-Pork Bacon Alternatives
Nothing fits the bill like pork bacon, but you may be able to satisfy your longing with other meats or vegetarian options. Season to taste and avoid fillers and preservatives when preparing a tasty protein source.
- Beef bacon: Beef bacon comes from cow belly, the same cut from which we get pastrami.
- Duck bacon: This product is made from duck breast; it contains less fat than its porky counterpart with no nitrates or nitrites.
- Homemade jerky: Thinly slice lean pork, chicken, or beef; marinate and dehydrate.
- Eggplant or mushroom “bacon”: Thinly slice an eggplant or portobello mushroom; marinate and roast until crispy.
Bacon allergies are rare, but they can occur at any stage of life. Symptoms include digestive upset, rash, headaches, and potentially fatal anaphylaxis. Preservatives used in bacon may trigger allergic responses as well. Individuals who take monoamine oxidase inhibitors should curb consumption of bacon; overconsumption may induce malignant hypertension, a severely dangerous condition.
Is bacon healthy? Most commercial bacon products are not as healthy as we would like them to be. Many dieticians advise that consumers curtail the intake of processed foods. Traditionally produced bacon appears to offer more health benefits without the risks of artificial preservatives. If you choose to eat pork bacon, consume it moderately along with plenty of plant-based foods. Although some individuals have undertaken a 30-day “Bacon Experiment” with favorable results, seek medical advice before increasing consumption of this or any food dramatically.