Everything's Better With Bacon: Making the Case for Bacon in a Healthy Diet
Forget your pescatarians, your flexitarians, your lacto-ovo-vegetarians. If I ever decide to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, I would have to be a baco-vegetarian. Yes, that's a person who abstains from eating all meat and animal flesh except bacon.
I love bacon that much. I eat it for breakfast, of course. I've had bacon for dessert. My favorite sandwich is the BLT. I've even invented a drink called the BLTini (bacon vodka with a splash of Bloody Mary mix, garnished with an endive spear and, what else, a slice of bacon).
As a connoisseur of bacon, I'm troubled by the bad rap bestowed upon my favorite cured meat. Bacon is bad for you, they say. It's full of saturated fats and the chemicals used in the curing process are virtually toxic. It's high in sodium, high in cholesterol, it's a heart attack on a plate.
But it's so very, very good.
So I set out to find whether bacon is guilty as charged or whether it's been unjustly condemned. Let's examine the arguments for and against bacon as part of a healthy diet and then you, the jury, can decide.
The Case Against Bacon
The prosecution's case against bacon begins at the industrial farm. Pork production, like all mass livestock production, is resource-intensive, meaning it demands more water, energy, and grain than other foods.
Hogs are housed in crowded factory farms on slatted floors, making it impossible for them to act upon their natural instinct to root and forage. The stressful living conditions make the animals susceptible to disease and physical maladies, while the waste they generate threatens air and water quality. Hogs receive antibiotics to prevent disease and artificially increase weight, and drug residue may linger in the meat after slaughter.
Bacon is one of the most highly processed foods we eat. Bacon in the United States comes from pork bellies, the fattiest part of the hog. The meat is injected with salt and a chemical curing solution before heat processing. It gets its smoky flavor from a sprayed-on liquid smoke extract that contains even more chemicals. The end product, before cooking, is pink-gray and slimy.
Cooked bacon is high in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. These raise cholesterol levels and blood pressure, increasing the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Eating bacon and other processed meats also leads to a higher risk of cancer, studies have shown. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends that people avoid all forms of processed meat until more is known about the cancer risk.
So in the face of all this damning evidence, what's a bacon lover to do? Must one resign oneself to a sad, baconless existence? Reserve judgment until the defense is heard.
USDA Bacon Fact Sheet
- Bacon and Food Safety | USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
Learn about more about the production of bacon, its safety and proper storage, and labeling requirements.
In Defense of Bacon
Bacon can be part of a healthy diet. It is a protein, after all, and a complete one at that, meaning it has all the essential amino acids in the proper proportions. Because it is high in protein, it has a greater satiating effect (fullness factor) after a meal than other foods so you are less likely to overeat. It's also a good source of niacin, phosphorus, and selenium.
For persons watching their blood sugar levels due to diabetes or metabolic syndrome, bacon has little effect. Because it's so low in carbohydrates, Dr. Atkins touted it as part of his controversial diet.
The cancer risk comes from nitrites used to cure bacon. At the high temperatures used for cooking, nitrites are converted to nitrosamines, which may cause cancer. The use of nitrites has decreased over the last four decades and the USDA regulates the amount of sodium nitrite that may be used in processing bacon. Researchers have questioned the link between nitrites and cancer, and have suggested that the higher rates of cancer seen in bacon eaters may be the result of processed meat displacing fruits and vegetables and their beneficial effects in the diet, rather than some cancer-causing agent in the bacon itself.
Commercial pork producers are responding to an increasing public awareness of food safety and environmental issues. The National Pork Board, which provides industry oversight, pledges to protect and promote animal well-being, protect public health, and safeguard natural resources. Through the voluntary Pork Quality Assurance Plus program, the pork industry promotes the use of responsible antibiotic practices to avoid sending adulterated food to market and to minimize the development of antibiotic resistance. Regulations require a withdrawal period between the time medicine is administered to an animal and slaughter, and the USDA randomly samples pork to detect violations.
Some pork producers go above and beyond the regulatory requirements and employ traditional, sustainable production methods. Producers like Niman Ranch, which works with a network of family farms across the United States, raise hogs in pastures or in deeply bedded pens where they are able to follow their natural instincts to root and roam. Waste is used to fertilize crop land and fewer animals are raised per acre to ensure the health of the land. No antibiotics are used. These producers offer bacon that is processed without nitrites using natural curing methods like infusion of celery juice.
Mmm ... bacon
How to include bacon as part of a healthy diet
To make bacon part of a healthy diet, begin by sourcing your bacon from a producer using traditional farming methods. The closer the producer to you, the better, so research family farms in your area.
At the supermarket, look for labels indicating the use of sustainable and humane farming practices. "Certified Organic" means the animals were given organic feed and provided access to the outdoors, although not necessarily a pasture.
For animals that were pastured or had significant access the outdoors, look for the following labels: "Animal Welfare Approved," "Food Alliance Certified," or "Free Range/Free Roaming."
Use bacon in moderation. One slice of cooked bacon has just 41 calories and one gram of saturated fat. But that one slice packs a lot of flavor and you need no more than that to feel satiated. Think of bacon as a seasoning instead of the focal point of the dish. When you flavor a dish with bacon, you won't need to add extra salt.
Don't skimp on the fruits and veggies when eating bacon. Load up your BLT with colorful, antioxidant-rich tomatoes and leafy greens. Have a salad of citrus fruit and berries with your bacon at breakfast. Limit your consumption of other fats. Instead of topping your baked potato with butter and sour cream, try crumbled bacon, spicy salsa, and diced avocado.
If saturated fat is a concern, look for lower-fat bacon alternatives like turkey bacon or Canadian bacon, also known as back bacon, which is cut from the leaner pork loin. If you insist on traditional pork bacon, look for center cut bacon, which is slightly leaner. To reduce your exposure to nitrites, look for bacon labeled "uncured" or reduce your consumption of other processed meats.
Sugar Snap Peas with Bacon
And if I still haven't convinced you that bacon can be a part of a healthy diet, try this easy and delicious vegetable dish flavored with a modest amount of pork bacon and, remember, everything's better with bacon.
4 slices bacon
1/2 small onion, minced
1/3 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pound sugar snap peas, trimmed
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
Ground black pepper
Cook the bacon in a deep skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove from heat and drain on paper towels; reserve.
Drain off all but one tablespoon of the bacon fat from the skillet. Return to the heat and add the minced onion. Stir constantly for one minute. Add the water, salt, and sugar snap peas. Bring the water to a boil, then cover and steam over medium-high heat until the peas are bright green and just tender, about 5 minutes. While the peas are steaming, chop the cooked bacon slices.
Remove the lid and stir in the thyme. Continue to cook until the liquid evaporates, stirring occasionally, for another 2 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat. Stir in the bacon. Season with pepper. Serves 4.