From breakfast to burgers, maple doughnuts to bacon-wrapped just about anything…seems like there’s no shortage of opportunities to tantalize your taste buds with those savory, crispy, and greasy strips of BACON! But should you indulge? Will each bite of that chocolate-covered bacon effectively remove five years from your life expectancy? Is bacon a secret conspiracy to control the masses? Can bacon be enjoyed, like most any indulgence, in moderation (spoiler alert, it’s this one)?
Perhaps the biggest concern with bacon is the association between nitrite intake and cancer. Nitrites in cured meats like bacon, ham, pastrami, or hot dogs preserve flavor, give them an appealing pink color, and prevent bacterial growth. All good things. It gets complicated, however, when those nitrites are converted into nitrosamines, a potent carcinogen. Nitrosamines are formed when amines (part of protein) react with the nitrites used to cure the bacon. That reaction happens more readily at high heat (cue frying bacon sound). That’s why, of all the processed meats, bacon gets such a bad rap. Bacon is generally cooked at higher temperatures so often has higher levels of nitrosamines.
What about uncured bacons? You’ll see them on the shelves touting, “no nitrites added” or, “all natural.” Unfortunately they’re not the answer to our cured meat woes. Most of these products use celery powder. Celery is rich in nitrates (that’s nitrate with an A). To act as a preservative, however, the nitrates in the celery are converted to nitrites before being used to cure bacon. Nitrites from celery seem to form nitrosamines just as readily as sodium nitrite added to conventional bacons. There are truly nitrite-free bacons, however (read on for our recommendation). As for turkey bacon, we’ll be pitting the various bacon options in an epic cage match for breakfast domination on social media later this week.
What about USDA regulations? One glimmer of sunlight in the bleak nitrite storm engulfing bacon are the regulations imposed by the USDA, not only limiting the amount of nitrite that can be added to bacon but also requiring that certain curing methods more prone to nitrosamine formation also contain sodium ascorbate or sodium erythorbate (antioxidants shown to limit the formation of nitrosamines). Limit but not eliminate. And the effects may not apply to other carcinogenic byproducts of nitrites like notrosyl-haem. USDA regulations help, but they don’t completely eliminate the risk.
What’s to be done? Let’s put things in perspective. Eating two strips of bacon daily has been shown to increase the risk of gastrointestinal cancer by about eighteen percent. Cut that to two strips a week and your risk becomes much much smaller. Combine it with a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables and your risk virtually disappears (studies have found those with low fruit and vegetable intake have the highest risk). You can also reduce the formation of nitrosamines by cooking your bacon at low temperatures (under 300° is ideal) for longer (may take up to twenty minutes on the stovetop for those crispy strips). Microwaving is also a good option that produces few nitrosamines and can speed up the cooking time to about five minutes.
Still worried about nitrites? Truly nitrite-free bacon is available in your butcher block. Try Daily’s natural bacon with no added sodium nitrite or celery powder. The bacon has a slightly grey cast but don’t let that scare you, it’s one of the most delicious bacons you’ll ever eat. Plus, the grey color is how you know it’s truly nitrite-free. You can also swap bacon for sausage (which are typically nitrite free) at some meals (vegetarian breakfast “meats” are also a great option with the added benefit of less fat and sodium).