It seems there has been a bacon explosion in America, in more ways than one. Bacon recipes are sweeping the blogoshere (like the famously fatty Bacon Explosion appetizer recipe). Fast-food chains are peddling double bacon burgers, and upscale restaurants are wrapping steaks in bacon -- even adding it to chic desserts. That’s right; chocolatiers are sprinkling bacon bits in chocolate bars like they are almonds. It’s the old sweet and savory marriage of flavors that seems to work so well.
Although there's no arguing that bacon is a tasty treat, what about all that fat, sodium, and cholesterol? Is there any way for bacon to be part of a healthy diet?
Just How Unhealthy Is Bacon?
You probably won't be surprised to learn that 68% of bacon's calories come from fat, almost half of which is saturated. Each ounce of bacon contributes 30 milligrams of cholesterol (not to mention the cholesterol from the eggs that often accompany bacon.
Eating foods rich in saturated fats can raise your cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke. And if those saturated fat-rich foods are also high in dietary cholesterol, cholesterol levels tend to rise even higher.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 7% of your total calories (that’s less than 16 daily grams of saturated fat for someone eating 2,000 calories a day). So under those guidelines, it might seem sensible to occasionally enjoy a small amount of bacon, or switch to turkey bacon, which is lower in fat and cholesterol.
But here's the bad news: When it comes to increasing the risk for certain cancers, things get downright scary for bacon lovers. Not only is bacon considered a red meat, it’s also a member of the dreaded "processed meat" group (even turkey bacon falls into this category. And NO amount of processed meat is considered safe to eat, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
Processed meat is usually red meat preserved via smoking, curing, or salting and it includes many favorite American foods in addition to bacon:
- Hot dogs
Many researchers have concluded that regular consumption of processed meats may lead to higher risk for prostate cancer and several other cancers. That’s why AICR advises people to avoid all forms of processed meat until we know more about what it is specifically about processed meat that increases cancer risk.
It’s not clear how exactly processed meat raises cancer risks, but it might have to do with:
- Nitrates, which are often used as preservatives in processed meat, change into N-nitroso (compounds that promote cancer) in the meat and also in the gut when it is being digested.
- Carcinogenic PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) compounds can be produced during processing.
Want Bacon or Sausage With That?
OK, so the news about bacon is not all bad. Some restaurant breakfast entrees come with a side of bacon or sausage. And believe it or not, it’s usually best to choose bacon. Although both meats are high in fat and saturated fat, two links of sausage will cost you a bit more in calories and fat than three strips of bacon. Call it the lesser of two evils:
- 2 pork sausage breakfast links (45 g) have 140 calories, 12 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 7 grams protein, and 310 mg sodium.
- 3 hickory smoked bacon strips, pan-fried (26 g) have 120 calories, 9 grams fat, 3.8 grams saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 7.5 grams protein, and 435 mg sodium.
Bacon: One Ounce is Enough
Probably the best news about bacon it’s that one ounce is usually enough to sideline your breakfast, round out your BLT sandwich, or top your baked potato.
Even with the highest-fat type of bacon, 1 ounce adds up to 140 calories (the same as one cup of low-fat milk or two small slices of whole wheat bread). Choose a slightly leaner type (such as Oscar Mayer Center Cut Smokehouse Thick Sliced), and 1 ounce adds up to 105 calories and 7.5 grams of fat.
In the mid-1990s, bacon didn’t even make the top 15 food sources for total fat among U.S. adults, although sausage was No. 12 and eggs were No. 14, according to USDA dietary data. Bacon didn’t make the list of top 15 food sources of saturated fat either, but sausage came in at No. 12 and eggs, No. 15.
Bacon Options (from highest to lowest in fat)
Per approximately 1 ounce
|Fat (g)||Protein (g)|
|Hormel Center Cut, 4 slices||140||10||4||10|
Hickory Smoked Bacon, 3 slices
Oscar Mayer Center Cut Naturally Smoked, 6 slices
|Farmer John Premium, 3 slices||105||7.5||4.5||9|
|Oscar Mayer Center Cut Smokehouse Thick Sliced,
|Oscar Mayer Real Bacon Bits||100||6||2||12|
|Oscar Mayer Turkey Bacon,
|LightLife Smart Bacon (veggie protein strips), 3 slices||60||3||0||6|
|Jennie-O Extra Lean Turkey Bacon, 2 slices||40||1||0||
A note on cholesterol: The cholesterol per ounce in the pork options above range from 22 to 30 milligrams. The cholesterol per ounce in the turkey bacon options above range from 30 to 40 milligrams.
A note on sodium: The sodium per ounce in the pork options above range from 420 to 600 milligrams. The sodium per ounce in the turkey bacon options above range from 280 to 360 milligrams.
Healthier Bacon Alternatives?
The reduced-fat bacon lookalikes are definitely not all created equal in terms of taste and texture.
Oscar Mayer’s Turkey Bacon (formerly Louis Rich Turkey Bacon) is a good bacon substitute for many people. But in my opinion, the Jennie-O Lean Turkey bacon, with admittedly a lot less fat and no saturated fat, would be enjoyed by precious few.
There are veggie bacon options, but I don't think any true bacon lover would be satisfied with their texture or taste. And why bother with bacon bits when Oscar Mayer Turkey Bacon has fewer calories and the same amount of fat?
The Bottom Line on Bacon and Health
Don’t make bacon a daily indulgence. When you do treat yourself, keep the serving size small, and include antioxidant-rich fruits or vegetables in the meal whenever possible.
If you're a true bacon lover, cut way back on other processed meats to keep your total consumption of processed meat low.
If you want a lower fat and saturated fat pork bacon, choose from the center cut bacons, namely Oscar Mayer Center Cut Smokehouse Thick Sliced. If you want turkey bacon, try a few types until you find a brand you really like.
Here are three recipes featuring pork or turkey bacon in modest amounts: a salad, a popular appetizer, and a pasta dish. Each recipe contains at least one antioxidant-rich vegetable, too.
Salmon Cobb Salad with Light Dill Dressing
6 tablespoons low-fat buttermilk
4 tablespoons light mayonnaise
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
8 cups romaine lettuce leaves, torn into bite-size pieces
4 hard- boiled eggs
4 ounces smoked or grilled salmon, skin removed, then flaked with fork into bite-size chunks
1/2 avocado, pitted, peeled and diced
6 strips center- cut bacon, cooked until crisp and crumbled
- In medium bowl, combine dressing ingredients with whisk. Cover and keep in refrigerator until needed.
- Place lettuce pieces in the bottom of a large salad serving bowl. Discard two of the yolks from the hard-boiled eggs, coarsely chop what’s left and sprinkle chopped egg over the top of the lettuce. Top with salmon pieces, avocado, and bacon bits.
- Drizzle dressing over the top and toss salad to blend well. Portion into 4 bowls and serve.
Yield: 4 servings
Nutrition Analysis: Per serving: 233 calories, 15 g protein, 11 g carbohydrate, 14.5 g fat, 3.3 g saturated fat, 6.5 g monounsaturated fat, 4 g polyunsaturated fat, 130 mg cholesterol, 4 g fiber, 775 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 56%.
Light Potato Skins
4 medium russet potatoes, scrubbed, baked or microwaved, then cooled slightly
About 2 teaspoons canola oil
1/2 cup shredded, reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese
4 strips Oscar Mayer Turkey Bacon (or similar), cooked until crisp and crumbled into pieces
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
Garnish: light ranch dressing or fat-free sour cream (optional)
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Line a thick cookie sheet with foil.
- Cut potatoes in half lengthwise. Scoop out most of the inside, leaving about 1/4-inch of potato attached to the skin.
- Brush the inside and the skin side of each potato half lightly with canola oil, and set it on the prepared pan, skin-side down. Bake in preheated oven about 10 minutes, until lightly brown.
- Place grated cheese, crumbled bacon, and green onions in a small bowl and toss to blend. Sprinkle evenly over potato skins and top with freshly ground pepper, if desired.
- Bake until the cheese is bubbly, about 8 minutes. Set potato skins on a serving dish and serve with light ranch dressing or fat-free sour cream if desired.
Yield: 8 potato skins
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as: 1/2 cup starchy foods with 1 tsp fat maximum OR 1/2 cup hearty stews
Nutrition Analysis: Per serving: 123 calories, 5 g protein, 17 g carbohydrate, 4 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 11 mg cholesterol, 1.3 g fiber, 156 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 29%.
Pasta with Spinach and Bacon
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
3/4 cup frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained well
1 cup reduced-sodium chicken or beef broth (vegetable broth can be substituted)
8 ounces whole-wheat spaghetti (about 4 cups cooked and drained)
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2/3 cup grated or shredded smoked fontina cheese (or cheese of choice)
5 strips center-cut or turkey bacon, cooked until crisp and then crumbled
- Begin heating olive oil in a large nonstick skillet or frying pan over medium-high heat. Stir in the garlic and sauté for a minute.
- Stir in the spinach and continue to sauté for about 1 minute. Pour in the broth and continue to cook the spinach mixture, stirring frequently, until broth is almost evaporated (2-3 minutes).
- Stir in noodles and continue to cook mixture about 1 more minute. Turn off the heat, add black pepper to taste, and then sprinkle cheese and bacon bits over the top. Serve.
Yield: About 4 servings
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as: 1 cup starchy foods with 1 tsp fat OR 1 1/2 cups hearty stew OR 1 portion frozen dinner light + 1/2 cup vegetables with 1 tsp fat
Nutrition Analysis: Per serving: 343 calories, 17 g protein, 44 g carbohydrate, 11 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 4.5 g monounsaturated fat, 1.5 g polyunsaturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 7 g fiber, 358 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 29%.
Mini Bacon-Save Your-Life Appetizer (Based on The Bacon Explosion)
Although it's not exactly a health food, this is a lighter version of the original Bacon Explosion recipe found on the BBQ Addicts website.
12-ounce package Louis Rich turkey bacon (or similar)
1 tablespoon favorite barbecue rub or spice blend
12 ounces Jimmy Dean Reduced Fat Pork Sausage (or similar)
1/2 cup favorite barbecue sauce
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan with foil.
- Create a square of woven turkey bacon slices by laying 5 slices of turkey bacon on a flat surface from north to south and 5 more from east to west then create a tight weave of turkey bacon.
- Sprinkle a teaspoon or two of your favorite barbecue seasoning on top of your bacon weave. Fry up the remaining turkey bacon until crisp, drain on paper towels then crumble the slices into smaller pieces; set aside.
- Unwrap your package of light sausage and stretch out the sausage to create layers so it covers the bacon weave, leaving one row of bacon uncovered at one end.
- Take the crumbled pieces of bacon and sprinkle them evenly over the layer of sausage. Drizzle the barbecue sauce all over the bacon pieces. You can sprinkle some more barbecue rub (a teaspoon or two) over the top of this if desired.
- Carefully separate the front edge of the sausage layer from the bacon weave and begin rolling up the sausage with the bacon filling, Once the sausage is all rolled up, pinch together the seams and ends to seal all of the bacon goodness inside. Now roll the sausage forward, completely wrapping it in the turkey bacon weave. Set the rolled up turkey bacon and sausage roll into the prepared loaf pan (it will just barely fit).
- Sprinkle some barbecue seasoning on the outside of the bacon weave roll if desired. Cover the loaf pan with foil and bake for about 30 minutes. Uncover the dish and continue to bake until the sausage is cooked throughout and the bacon weave on the outside is dark brown (about 10 to 15 minutes more). Let the bacon roll rest for 10 minutes. You can brush a couple of tablespoons of barbecue sauce over the outside of the roll if desired.
- Cut with serrated knife into 8 or more slices. Serve this by itself as an appetizer or serve it with whole wheat crackers or sliced baguette bread.
Yield: This mini version makes about 8 appetizers.
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as: 1 serving lean meat with 1 tsp fat maximum
Nutritional Analysis: Per serving: 220 calories, 12 g protein, 8 g carbohydrate, 15 g fat, 4.4 g saturated fat, 59 mg cholesterol, 930 mg sodium.
Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2009 Elaine Magee
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for WebMD and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.