Is Bacon Considered A Processed Food? An Expert’s Guide

Bacon – the crispy, salty, and oh-so-delicious breakfast staple that many of us can’t live without. But have you ever wondered if bacon is considered a processed food?

With all the talk about the health risks associated with processed meats, it’s important to know what we’re putting into our bodies. In this article, we’ll explore what makes a food “processed” and whether or not bacon falls into that category.

So grab a cup of coffee and let’s dive in!

Is Bacon Considered A Processed Food?

Yes, bacon is considered a processed food. Processed meats are meats that have been preserved by smoking, salting, curing, or adding chemical preservatives. Bacon goes through a curing process where it is soaked in a solution of salt, nitrates, and sometimes sugar. In most cases, the bacon is smoked afterward. Curing and smoking are ways to preserve the meat, but these processing methods also contribute to the characteristic taste of bacon and help preserve its red color. Adding salt and nitrates makes the meat an unfriendly environment for bacteria to grow. As a result, bacon has a much longer shelf life than fresh pork.

Processed meats are convenient, affordable, and woven into our collective diet. For many, bacon is a prized breakfast treat and cookouts wouldn’t be the same without hotdogs on the grill. Unfortunately, when these processed meats are preserved, cancer-causing substances form. Evidence has been accumulating over the years that processed meats cause cancer. There are three chemicals in particular that have been linked to colorectal cancer: heme, nitrates and nitrites, and heterocyclic amines and polycyclic amines.

Defining Processed Foods

Processed foods are any foods that have undergone some form of alteration during preparation. This can include basic processing methods such as freezing, canning, baking, drying, and heating. However, the definition of processed foods can vary widely depending on the source. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines processed foods as any raw agricultural commodity that has been washed, cleaned, milled, cut, chopped, heated, pasteurized, blanched, cooked, canned, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed or packaged. This definition includes the addition of preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products such as salt, sugars and fats.

The Institute of Food Technologists includes additional processing terms like storing, filtering, fermenting, extracting, concentrating, microwaving and packaging. According to these standards, virtually all foods sold in the supermarket would be classified as processed to some degree. However, not all processed foods are unhealthy. Some processed foods such as precooked whole grains, Greek yogurt, nut butters, organic stock, tofu, frozen vegetables and unsalted canned beans are actually very healthy and can help you build nutritious meals.

Processed meats such as bacon fall under the category of processed foods. Bacon goes through a curing process where it is soaked in a solution of salt, nitrates and sometimes sugar before being smoked. These processing methods contribute to the characteristic taste of bacon and help preserve its red color. However, when these processed meats are preserved by smoking, salting or adding chemical preservatives such as nitrates and nitrites cancer-causing substances form which have been linked to colorectal cancer.

The Process Of Making Bacon

Bacon is made through a process of curing and smoking. Fresh pork bellies are shipped to processing companies in large containers called “combo bins.” The bellies are then sorted by size and fat percentage to reduce variability throughout the process and yield more consistent bacon in the end. Smaller batches are compiled to further reduce variability. If the bellies come with skin, special attention is paid during the skinning step to ensure higher yield.

The curing process involves soaking the bacon in a solution of salt, nitrates, and sometimes sugar. This helps preserve the meat and adds flavor. Wet curing is the most common method used today, where the bacon is either placed in the brine to soak or injected with the brine. After curing, the bacon can be smoked for enhanced flavor and preservation. Smoking can take multiple days, but commercially produced bacon is often put into a convection oven which takes around six hours or more. Liquid smoke may be added to help achieve a smoky flavor.

Once cured and smoked, the bacon is sliced using an Anco slicer. Premium slices are separated from secondary slices and ends and pieces. The bacon is then packaged for sale.

It’s important to note that commercially produced bacon is aimed at mass production rather than exceptional quality. If you want to make your own bacon, start by procuring a pork belly from organic or humanely raised hogs or heritage breeds like Berkshire, Duroc, or Kurobuta. The belly is then cured using a mixture of pepper, sugar, paprika, salt, and curing salt for seven days before being smoked using apple or cherry wood for three hours at 200°F until it reaches an internal temperature of 150°F.

The Ingredients In Bacon

The ingredients in bacon include salt, sugar, sodium nitrite, and potentially other chemicals or seasonings. Wet curing is the most common method used to cure bacon, where the ingredients are mixed to create a brine. The bacon is then either placed in the brine to soak or injected with the brine. After curing, the bacon can be smoked for enhanced flavor and preservation. However, commercial bacon-making methods often involve putting the cured pork into a convection oven, which takes around six hours or more. This process results in bacon that is higher in moisture and generally lower in flavor intensity.

Chemical additives such as sodium erythorbate and sodium nitrite are also commonly added to bacon during processing. Nitrites are converted to nitric oxide in the meat and react with different things to create desired compounds. Nitrite-derived compounds act to stabilize the pink color of the meat and inhibit the growth of pathogenic and spoilage organisms. However, studies have consistently found that the consumption of processed meat, including bacon, is linked to increased mortality and an increased risk of developing serious health conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.

It’s important to note that while bacon may be a tasty treat, it is considered a processed food and should be consumed in moderation. Opting for uncured bacon that’s free of any additives and has fewer ingredients listed on the label is a healthier option for those who still want to enjoy this popular food item.

Health Risks Associated With Processed Meats

Processed meats, including bacon, have been linked to various health risks. Studies have found that consuming processed meats on a regular basis can increase the risk of colorectal cancer, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even early death. The World Health Organization’s International Agency on Research for Cancer (IARC) has classified processed meat as carcinogenic (potentially cancer-causing) to humans. Eating just 50 grams of processed meat daily has been linked to increased risk for breast cancer, colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and prostate cancer. Another recent study found that eating 25 grams of processed meat per day may increase the risk of dementia by 44% and Alzheimer’s disease by 52%.

In addition to cancer risks, processed meats have also been linked to cardiovascular disease. Eating more than 150 grams of processed meat per week has been found to increase the risk of heart disease and death by 46% and 51%, respectively. A National Institutes of Health study found that those who consume the most processed meat have an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Processed meat consumption has also been tied to 57,766 deaths from cardiometabolic diseases in 2012.

Processed meats contain harmful chemical compounds that may increase the risk of chronic diseases. Heme, nitrates and nitrites, and heterocyclic amines and polycyclic amines are three chemicals that have been linked to colorectal cancer. While studies on processed meat consumption in humans are all observational in nature and cannot prove that processed meat caused these diseases, the evidence is convincing because the links are strong and consistent. Therefore, it is recommended to limit the consumption of processed meats, including bacon, in order to reduce the risk of these health problems.

Moderation Is Key

While bacon is a beloved food, it should be consumed in moderation. Bacon is high in saturated fat, which has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Additionally, processed meats like bacon have been linked to chronic health conditions including migraines, asthma, heart failure, kidney disease, and several types of cancer. The World Health Organization found that every daily portion of processed meat raises colorectal cancer risk by 18%. While this may sound alarming, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about relative risk. For a healthy person, eating bacon every day will raise their overall risk of colon cancer from something like 5% to 6%.

It’s important to maintain a sensible and healthy overall diet. Make sure to include plenty of fruits and vegetables on your plate, aiming for color and variety. Whole grains like whole wheat, barley, quinoa, and brown rice are also important components of a healthy diet. Protein sources like fish, poultry, beans, and nuts are healthy alternatives to red meat and processed meats like bacon and sausage. Healthy plant oils like olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, and peanut are good choices for cooking. Don’t forget to stay hydrated by drinking water, coffee, or tea instead of sugary drinks.

If you do choose to eat bacon, there are ways to reduce its fat content. You can cook it in the microwave on a paper towel to absorb grease or bake it in the oven on a rack that lets fat drip off instead of frying it in a pan. You might also consider substituting less fatty cuts of pork like Canadian bacon. However, beware of bacon replacements like turkey bacon which are still processed and high in sodium. Remember that all things should be consumed in moderation and it’s important to maintain a healthy overall diet to reduce the risks associated with processed meats like bacon.