The Truth About Bacon

If you follow food trends, you know the bacon craze is still on. It seems whatever is served, this popular processed meat can figure in as a flavor-booster, whether it’s for pizza, salad, dessert, or even liquor.

Still, conflicting reports about bacon abound. First you hear it’s bad for you. Then it’s OK. So, should you eat it or not?

“Bacon smells and tastes great. However, I have never seen any evidence that it is actually good for you,” says Sonya Angelone, RDN, a nutrition expert in San Francisco.

People tend to think of bacon as a fresh cut of meat, like a pork chop or a steak. It’s not. It starts out as pork belly. Then it goes through heavy processing: curing, smoking, or salting. This makes the finished product more like hot dogs and lunch meats.

These methods usually use nitrites -- a type of salt -- and nitrates, which are found naturally in vegetables and convert to nitrite as you chew. The additives preserve meat, kill bacteria, and boost flavor and color. But they can also can damage blood vessels and increase the risk of a stroke, Angelone says.

Not-So-Great News for Bacon Lovers

Bacon took a hard blow in October 2015, when the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, named processed meat -- which includes bacon -- a “group 1 carcinogen.”

This means there’s enough evidence that eating these foods can cause colon or stomach cancer, says Marji McCullough, RD, director of nutritional epidemiology for the American Cancer Society. Red meat -- and that’s what pork belly is considered -- was linked to pancreatic and prostate cancer as well.

“Another problem is that bacon is usually part of a not-so-healthy meal like bacon and eggs with toast and butter -- no produce -- or in a sandwich with lots of mayonnaise and other processed meats,” Angelone says.

“It comes back to what you’re eating overall.”

Mix It With Something Healthy

  • Pair it with vitamin C. This can be a small glass of orange or vegetable juice. Better yet, slice a whole food like pineapple or kiwi.
  • If you crave, say, a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, go easy on the meat. Add healthier fillings like fresh avocado or lean turkey.
  • If you eat it in the morning, load up on vegetables and fruit the rest of the day.
  • Most of what people crave is the flavor. Sprinkle crisp bits onto a salad, or use a small dab of fat in your cooking. It can go a long way.
  • Cross the border. Choose Canadian bacon sometimes. It’s much leaner than the regular kind. “Canadian bacon is still processed, but it’s not one big chunk of fat with a little bit of meat,” Angelone says.

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Watch the Packaging

You’ll find nitrates naturally in foods like celery, spinach, beets, and lettuce. So while a package might say vegetables instead of chemicals were used to make the product, those preservatives will still be there. Even if you removed the nitrites, you’d still have a lot of bad saturated fat and salt, Angelone says.

Look for bacon made from pastured pigs fed healthy food instead of cheap corn- and soy-based diets. “You are what you eat, and pigs are what they eat as well,” she says.

What About Those So-Called 'Good Fats'?

Some super-fans claim bacon is a healthy choice because it has “good fats.” It’s true some positive omega-3 fatty acids in it are also in olive oil, a nice-list staple. The amount of saturated fat in bacon, though, is huge compared with other sources. That means this meaty item “is overshadowed by other things that are not so healthy,” Angelone says.

Bottom line? You’re fine if you move bacon from the star of the meal to guilty pleasure status. It’s best to choose poultry, fish, and beans for your main proteins, McCullough says. If you do eat red and processed meats, go for the lean cuts and keep servings small.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on February 24, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Sonya Angelone, RDN, San Francisco.

Marji McCullough, RD, director of nutritional epidemiology, American Cancer Society.

News Release, International Agency for Research on Cancer.

American Meat Institute: “Sodium Nitrite, The Facts.”

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