They say that everything is better with bacon, and unless you’re vegetarian or keep Kosher or Halal, chances are, you probably agree.
According to Statista, more than 268 million Americans ate bacon in 2020. And over 16 million of those pork lovers ate 5 or more pounds of the savory strips that same year.
With fat-focused diets like keto all the rage, it’s not surprising people are going bonkers for bacon. But can those delicious strips be part of a balanced and nutrient-dense diet? This pork-loving (and Jewish *gasp*) dietitian says HELL YES.
If you’ve got bacon on the brain, you’re probably dreaming of salt-cured pork, usually from the belly or less fatty parts of the pig’s back — though bacon can be made from many parts of the pig. Pork bacon is usually brined in salt, water, and sodium nitrite, then cold or hot smoked to give it that fireside flavor we all crave.
There are different styles of bacon, too. Canadian bacon (aka peameal, back, Irish or English), from our maple leaf neighbors to the north, is sliced from pork loin. It’s typically dusted in cornmeal, cut into round slices, and offers a tender, juicy texture when pan-fried or grilled.
And if you prefer bacon with a Mediterranean flair, pancetta is the Italian version, which is cured but not smoked, gratzie mille.
Not into pork? Bacon can be made from other meats, like beef and turkey, and nonmeats too. For all those “I would be vegan — except bacon,” yes, there’s even a bacon for you. You can find vegan bacon made from tempeh, shiitake mushrooms, coconut, breadcrumbs, and even rice paper.
Despite the misnomer, “uncured” bacon is actually cured (say what?!) — albeit differently than standard bacon. Uncured bacon is brined in celery powder, sea salt, and juice, avoiding the use of added nitrites in the brining process.
First, let’s cover the facts. One slice of standard American-style bacon contains about 44 calories, 0 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of protein, 3.5 grams of fat, including 1 gram saturated fat, and 177 milligram of sodium. So a slice or two is really not a big deal in the grand scheme of a balanced diet.
It’s rich in metabolism-supporting B vitamins and is a solid source of selenium, one of the most powerful immune-boosting antioxidants in our diet. It’s also a good source of phosphorus, which is important for strong bones and tissue repair.
But before we give bacon an honorary spot on the pantry shelf alongside kale, let’s take a look at why indulging in moderation may be the best course.
In a nutshell, bacon isn’t typically known as a “health food.” But how bad is it really?
For one, bacon is a processed meat. And according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, processed meat may be carcinogenic — meaning it’s associated with cancer, but doesn’t necessarily cause it. Indeed, consuming any type of processed meat is associated with development of certain cancers, like colorectal, gastric, and even breast cancer.
Processed meats have also been associated with increased risk of dementia. So, while not everyone who eats bacon gets cancer or dementia, there could be some association.
Bacon also contains a lot of fat. (Which is pretty much WHY we love it, amirite?) While eating a plateful of the stuff isn’t a fab idea for your heart, the typical serving size of bacon is small, making the fat content less of an issue than it may seem.
If the fat content is a concern, you can choose certain types of bacon that contain less fat. Center-cut bacon contains about 30 percent less fat than its regular-cut counterparts. Regular cut usually comes in longer strips with more fat at the ends that tends to render away, while the center-cut comes in shorter strips with most of that fat removed.
Bacon also tends to be saltier than a sailor. A high salt diet has been linked to elevated blood pressure in some people and may increase the risk of stomach cancer.
Shave off a bit of salt by comparing nutrition labels between bacon brands and choosing a lower-sodium version. Two slices of regular-cut bacon contain around 354 milligrams of sodium, while low sodium versions can slash that almost in half.
And remember, it’s not just bacon that’s salty, but also foods we tend to pair it with. A typical fast food bacon cheeseburger with salty condiments like cheese, mayo, ketchup, and mustard, and a side of fries could be a serious bloat bomb.
While nonpork bacons may fair slightly better in the nutrition department, they still go a little hog wild in the salt department. Turkey bacon is technically a healthier choice with about 2/3 of the fat and calories of pork, but it can have more sodium to make up for the less palatable mouthfeel.
Enjoy turkey bacon in moderation the same way you would its pork-cousin and opt for reduced sodium whenever you can.
Nitrates and nitrites are often used in curing bacon to help preserve flavor and improve its color. These compounds exist naturally in the human body and in many foods, including vegetables. On their own, nitrates and nitrites cause no problem, and in some cases may even be beneficial.
The problem arises when they are exposed to high heat in the presence of protein (think pan frying on high or roasting on high in an oven) — sizzling bacon anyone? Cooking bacon, or any processed meat for that matter, at high heat transforms the nitrates and nitrites into cancer-causing chemicals known as nitrosamines.
The good news is that today, cooked bacon contains fewer nitrosamines than it did in our parents’ day because manufacturers add vitamin C to reduce the formation of these cancer-causing chemicals.
What about choosing uncured bacon? Does that eliminate the risk?
Insider tip: Don’t be fooled by claims about “uncured” or “natural” nitrates. While natural ingredients like celery salt may be used in place of sodium nitrate to cure bacon, these products still contain nitrates that form nitrosamine when exposed to high heats.
Reduce the formation of harmful chemicals in your bacon by cooking it at a lower temperature for a longer amount of time, and not allowing it to burn. Cooking bacon in a microwave is actually a fab way to reduce nitrosamine production — finally a convenience cooking method that actually makes food healthier! You can also cook bacon in an oven at 350°F (176°C), which also allows you to easily cook for a larger group of people. Bonus.
If you just can’t imagine life without a little bacon, rest assured you can include it in a nutrient-dense diet to get the most deliciousness without leading you straight to the cardiologist.
America is obsessed with bacon for a reason. It’s flavorful AF. You really don’t need a lot to get the mouth-watering effect.
Rather than thinking of bacon as the star of your plate, dice or crumble up a few strips to add flavor to your salads, soups, and pasta. We love it tossed it with roasted brussels sprouts and butternut squash or sprinkled in these veggie-packed egg muffins.
Bacon is salt-cured smoked pork that packs hella flavor. While high in fat and salt, a typical serving of bacon is pretty small, so a slice or so won’t do much to diminish an otherwise balanced diet.
As a processed meat, bacon has been associated with development of certain types of cancers as well as increased risk of dementia. Both cured and uncured bacon contains nitrates and nitrites that transform into carcinogenic nitrosamines when it’s cooked at high heat.
When you enjoy bacon in moderation as a flavoring to meals rather than a main course and balance it out with lots of fresh produce, whole grains, and other lean proteins, bacon can certainly be part of a nutrient-dense, flavorful diet.