Bacon is a beloved breakfast staple for many people, but in recent years, concerns have been raised about the potential health risks associated with nitrates and nitrites in cured meats.
As a result, many consumers have been searching for alternatives to traditional bacon. You may have seen labels for “nitrate-free” or “uncured” bacon at the grocery store, but are these options really any better for you?
In this article, we’ll explore the truth about nitrates in bacon and whether it’s possible to enjoy this delicious treat without them.
So sit back, relax, and let’s dive into the sizzling world of bacon!
Can You Get Bacon Without Nitrates?
The short answer is no, you can’t get bacon without nitrates. All bacon is technically nitrate-free, but most bacon contains nitrites, not nitrates. Nitrite has long been used as a preservative in cured meats like bacon, but it has also been linked to the formation of potentially harmful compounds called nitrosamines.
In response to these concerns, some bacon manufacturers have started producing “uncured” or “nitrate-free” bacon. However, these labels can be misleading.
For example, some “uncured” bacon is actually cured with celery powder, which is naturally high in nitrates. While celery and other nitrate-rich vegetables contain antioxidants that can prevent the formation of nitrosamines, the process of concentrating celery powder for use in bacon removes these beneficial compounds.
In fact, lab tests have shown that using celery powder on bacon can actually create more nitrites in the meat than curing with sodium nitrite itself.
Similarly, some “nitrate-free” bacon is actually brined with salt and a bacterial lactic acid starter culture, as well as celery juice (sometimes listed as “natural flavor”). While this method does not involve adding nitrites directly to the meat, the bacteria in the starter culture and saliva during chewing can convert the organic nitrates in celery juice to nitrites.
So while it may be technically correct to label these products as “uncured” or “nitrate-free,” they still contain nitrates and nitrites in one form or another.
What Are Nitrates And Nitrites In Bacon?
Nitrates and nitrites are chemical compounds that are commonly used in the production of bacon and other cured meats. They act as preservatives, helping to prevent spoilage and extend the shelf life of the meat.
Nitrate (NO3) is a naturally occurring compound that is found in many vegetables, including celery, spinach, and beets. When these vegetables are used in the production of bacon, the nitrates in the vegetables are converted to nitrites (NO2) by bacteria in the starter culture or by saliva during chewing.
Nitrite is the more controversial of the two compounds, as it has been linked to the formation of potentially harmful compounds called nitrosamines. When nitrite is heated in the presence of proteins, such as those in bacon, it can form nitrosamines, which have been shown to be carcinogenic.
Despite these concerns, most bacon is still cured with nitrites or a virtually identical chemical called nitrate. Some manufacturers have started producing “nitrate-free” or “uncured” bacon, but these products still contain nitrates and nitrites in one form or another.
The Health Risks Associated With Nitrates In Bacon
Nitrates and nitrites are commonly used in bacon production as preservatives to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and to give the meat its characteristic pink color. However, when cooked at high temperatures, nitrates and nitrites can form nitrosamines, which have been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers.
According to a World Health Organization report, consuming just 50 grams of processed meats, such as bacon, per day increases the odds of colorectal cancer by 18%. This is why some health experts recommend limiting your intake of processed meats.
While it’s true that nitrates and nitrites themselves are not necessarily harmful, it’s what they can be converted into that poses a health risk. When nitrates combine with amino acids in bacon during cooking, they can form nitrosamines. The risk of nitrosamine formation is higher when cooking bacon at high temperatures.
Some manufacturers have started adding vitamin C to cured meats to prevent the formation of nitrosamines. However, this does not completely eliminate the risk.
It’s important to note that not all bacon contains the same amount of nitrates and nitrites. Some brands may use lower levels or alternative preservatives. It’s always a good idea to read labels and choose bacon with minimal additives.
Nitrate-Free And Uncured Bacon: What’s The Difference?
When it comes to bacon, the terms “uncured” and “nitrate-free” are often used interchangeably. However, there is a subtle difference between the two.
Uncured bacon is still cured, but with natural sources of nitrates such as celery powder or beet extract instead of synthetic sodium nitrate or nitrite. The USDA requires that bacon labeled as “uncured” must also include the phrase “No Nitrates or Nitrites Added.” While these natural sources of nitrates can still form nitrites during the curing process, they are less concentrated and may be less harmful than synthetic nitrates.
On the other hand, “nitrate-free” bacon is brined with salt and a bacterial starter culture, but without any added sources of nitrates or nitrites. However, as mentioned earlier, organic nitrates found in celery juice or other vegetables can still convert to nitrites during the curing process or during digestion.
It is important to note that both uncured and nitrate-free bacon may still contain small amounts of nitrates and nitrites due to natural sources or incidental contamination. Additionally, these products may not have the same shelf life as traditional cured bacon.
Does Nitrate-Free Bacon Really Make A Difference?
When it comes to the potential health risks associated with nitrates and nitrites in bacon, the question remains: does choosing “uncured” or “nitrate-free” bacon really make a difference?
The answer is not clear-cut. While these products may contain lower levels of nitrates and nitrites than their conventionally cured counterparts, they still contain these compounds in some form. Additionally, some studies have suggested that the nitrates found naturally in leafy greens like spinach and lettuce may actually have health benefits, such as reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease.
Furthermore, the process of cooking bacon itself can also contribute to the formation of potentially harmful compounds like nitrosamines, regardless of whether the bacon is cured conventionally or with celery powder.
Ultimately, the best way to minimize your exposure to nitrates and nitrites in bacon is to focus on the quality of the meat itself and how it is cooked. Choosing bacon from high-quality sources that do not use added hormones or antibiotics, and cooking it at lower temperatures, can help reduce your risk of consuming harmful compounds.
Other Alternatives To Traditional Bacon
If you’re looking for a bacon alternative that doesn’t contain nitrates or nitrites, there are a few options available. One popular choice is beef bacon, which is made from select cuts of beef and has a similar flavor profile to traditional pork-based bacon. Beef bacon can have a crispy or tender texture, depending on how it’s prepared, and many people find that it has a rich and complex flavor that outperforms pork bacon.
Another option is tofu bacon, which is a healthier alternative to traditional bacon. Tofu is rich in protein and contains all eight essential amino acids, as well as calcium and iron. To make tofu bacon, you’ll need to cut very thin slices of tofu and marinate them in a blend of Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, soy sauce, and maple syrup for added flavor. When cooked in a skillet, the tofu will become crispy and delicious.
Turkey bacon is another popular alternative to traditional bacon. Made from smoked and ground turkey meat that’s reformed to resemble strips of bacon, turkey bacon is lower in fat than pork bacon but still has a smoky and salty flavor that many people enjoy. It’s a great option for those who are watching their fat intake or who keep kosher.
Finally, there are several vegetarian and vegan options for those who don’t eat meat. Baconnaise is a kosher mayonnaise-based product that’s designed to taste like bacon but contains no actual bacon. Eggplant bacon is another popular choice, which is made by curing eggplant in salt or brine. Vegetarian and vegan “bacon” products are also available in supermarkets, made from ingredients like smoked and chopped turkey or soy protein. These products are typically high in protein and fiber but low in fat and cholesterol.