My family usually buys our bacon right from the meat counter, so I was blissfully unaware of the latest “bacon without nitrates” trend. The story, quite honestly, reminds me of the “pink slime” scare.
So what exactly is this trend?
Apparently a study came out which linked the nitrates in bacon to cancer. This set of a firestorm of sorts, where the general consensus became that the curing process bacon goes through pumps a bunch of dangerous, artificial nitrates into the meat. Those nitrates then accumulate in your body when you consume the bacon, raising your risk for all sorts of things, including cancer. (Check out this explanation from a “health” website.)
Unfortunately, the story stuck. And now you can see lots of bacon packaged on supermarket shelves that tries to take advantage of this scary story. Bacon will be labeled as “nitrate-free” or “natural.” (I’ve already explained in Debunking the Organic Myth, Part 2, why you should be leery of anything labeled “natural” — because “natural” has no meaningful legal definition.)
So what’s the real story behind nitrates, bacon, and the curing process?
First, let’s talk about curing bacon to begin with. The process of preserving our meat has been going on for centuries. If you can’t eat it all right when its cut, you need to find a way to keep it safe from bacteria. For bacon in particular, you have to guard against botulism (also known as “the black death”). Curing also keeps the meat from turning color, having weird flavors, and smelling bad. The typical way to cure meat is by using sodium nitrate (also known as “salt”). (Source: Nitrite in Meat)
But what about those nitrates? Even though we’ve been doing it for centuries, maybe they aren’t so healthy for us after all? The problem is, meat is not a major source of nitrates in our diet! In reality, most vegetables that we consume contain more nitrates (good reason not to eat celery, in my opinion). More than our vegetables, however, is our own saliva. In fact:
“It may surprise you to learn that the vast majority of nitrate/nitrite exposure comes not from food, but from endogenous sources within the body. In fact, nitrites are produced by your own body in greater amounts than can be obtained from food, and salivary nitrite accounts for 70-90% of our total nitrite exposure. In other words, your spit contains far more nitrites than anything you could ever eat.” (Source: Chris Kessler, L AC)
So your body is creating this stuff naturally (there’s that word again).
What about all of those “nitrate-free” bacon products? Better safe than sorry? Not quite. All bacon is cured in some way; otherwise it wouldn’t be safe. The “natural” products are usually cured using celery and sea salts. As just explained, vegetables actually contain many more nitrates than any of our meats. Therefore, if you’re going to cure meat with vegetables, you can actually end up with many more nitrates than you would from traditional curing methods. We also know that nitrates do not accumulate in our bodies. The nitrates that are not used by our bodies are completely out of our systems within 5 hours of ingestion. (Source: Chris Kessler, L AC)
What’s more, you don’t need to really worry about nitrates because they can actually be beneficial for us. The original study linking nitrates and cancer has been debunked. Since then, we’ve found out that “…nitrites are beneficial for immune and cardiovascular function; they are being studied as a potential treatment for hypertension, heart attacks, sickle cell and circulatory disorders.” (Source: Chris Kessler L AC) So not only are nitrates not dangerous, they’re actually good for you!
But even if you’re still worried about overdosing on nitrates when eating bacon, consider that the USDA has a lid on how many nitrates can show up in your slice of bacon. Unlike “natural,” there is a legal limit to how many nitrates can be used when curing meat. Since 1978, the USDA has said that only 1 pound of nitrates can be used for 5,000 pounds of bacon. (For a much deeper explanation of the curing process, the USDA’s limits, nitrates, parts per million, and bacon, check out the description and math laid out by the University of Minnesota).
If you really want to find out more about bacon or curing, check out the USDA’s Bacon and Food Safety page. I guarantee you’ll find everything you need to know about bacon there.
So, please, don’t pay a premium for “natural” or “nitrate-free” bacon. It isn’t anything more than a marketing gimmick set to capitalize on a scary and fake study. Just eat your bacon and enjoy it!
Image courtesy of piyato/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net