Is Bacon Cured Meat? A Simple Guide

Bacon is a beloved food that has been a staple in many households for years. Its crispy texture and savory flavor make it a go-to ingredient for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

But have you ever wondered if bacon is considered a cured meat? With the rise of “uncured” bacon options in grocery stores, it’s easy to get confused about the curing process and what it means for your health.

In this article, we’ll dive into the world of bacon and explore the differences between cured and uncured bacon. We’ll also discuss the various methods of curing and what makes each type of bacon unique.

So, whether you’re a bacon lover or just curious about the meat’s preservation process, keep reading to learn more about this delicious treat.

Is Bacon Cured Meat?

Yes, bacon is considered a cured meat. The curing process is what gives bacon its distinct flavor and texture. Curing is a preservation method that involves adding salt, sugar, and other ingredients to the meat to prevent spoilage and enhance flavor.

Traditionally, bacon is cured with a commercial preparation of salt and sodium nitrites. Nitrites are responsible for giving bacon its pink color and preventing the growth of harmful bacteria. There are two methods of curing: pumping and dry-curing. The concentration of nitrites can’t exceed 200 parts per million (ppm) in dry-cured bacon and 120 ppm in pumped bacon, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

However, in recent years, there has been a rise in “uncured” bacon options. These products are still cured but use natural sources of nitrites like celery powder instead of sodium nitrites. The use of natural sources allows manufacturers to label their product as “uncured,” but it’s important to note that these products still contain nitrites.

What Is Curing?

Curing is a process that has been used for centuries to preserve meat. The basic principle behind curing is to add salt and other ingredients to the meat to draw out moisture and prevent bacterial growth. The salt acts as a preservative by inhibiting the growth of microorganisms that cause spoilage and disease. In addition to salt, curing agents like sugar, sodium nitrite, and sodium nitrate are added to the meat to enhance flavor and color.

There are two main methods of curing: dry-curing and wet-curing. Dry-curing involves rubbing the meat with a mixture of salt, sugar, and other ingredients and allowing it to cure for several weeks. This method is often used for hams, bacon, and other large cuts of meat. Wet-curing, also known as brining, involves soaking the meat in a solution of salt, sugar, and other ingredients for several hours or days. This method is often used for smaller cuts of meat like pork chops or chicken breasts.

During the curing process, the salt and other ingredients penetrate the meat and draw out moisture. This reduces the water activity in the meat, making it less hospitable to bacteria. The curing agents also react with the proteins in the meat to create new flavors and colors. For example, nitrites react with amino acids in the meat to create nitrosamines, which give cured meats their characteristic pink color and smoky flavor.

While curing is an effective way to preserve meat, it’s important to use caution when handling and consuming cured meats. The high levels of salt and nitrates in some cured meats have been linked to health problems like high blood pressure and cancer. To minimize these risks, it’s best to consume cured meats in moderation and choose products that are free from artificial additives.

The History Of Bacon

The history of bacon can be traced back thousands of years to ancient China, where pork belly was first preserved with salt. The Chinese were domesticating pigs as early as 4900 B.C., and by 1500 B.C. they were curing pork bellies with salt to create an early form of bacon.

Bacon production and curing methods eventually spread throughout the Roman Empire, where it became a staple meat for peasants. The Romans improved pig breeding and spread pork production throughout their empire. It’s believed that the Romans and Greeks learned bacon production and curing through conquests in the Middle East.

In medieval Europe, bacon was a staple meat for peasants due to its long storage life, accessibility, and the fact that it was the first meat to become an important international trade commodity. In fact, a church in the English town of Dunmow promised a side of bacon to any married man who could swear before the congregation and God that he had not quarreled with his wife for a year and a day. A husband who succeeded was held in high esteem by the community for his forbearance, and the phrase “bring home the bacon” reflects this tradition.

Today, bacon is still a beloved meat enjoyed in many cuisines around the world. Its long and rich history has made it a cultural icon and a beloved food for many.

Cured Vs. Uncured Bacon

Cured and uncured bacon are both considered cured meats, but the main difference between the two is the type of curing agent used. Cured bacon is typically cured with artificial nitrates and nitrites, while uncured bacon uses natural sources of nitrites like celery powder. The use of natural sources allows manufacturers to label their product as “uncured,” but it’s important to note that these products still contain nitrites.

The addition of nitrates and nitrites in cured bacon helps preserve the meat and maintain its pink color. However, studies have shown that these chemical additives may be harmful to human health, potentially leading to the development of cancer and reproductive issues. This has led to a rise in popularity of uncured bacon options, which use natural sources of nitrites instead.

It’s worth noting that both cured and uncured bacon undergo a curing process involving the addition of salt, sugar, and other ingredients to enhance flavor and prevent spoilage. The concentration of nitrites is regulated by the FSIS, with pumped bacon having a lower limit than dry-cured bacon.

In terms of taste, uncured bacon is often left in a more natural state than cured bacon and can taste saltier due to the longer curing process required for preservation. However, the flavor of bacon is largely determined by the smoking process rather than the curing process.

How Is Bacon Cured?

There are several methods for curing bacon, including dry-curing, wet-curing, and natural curing.

Dry-curing is the traditional method for curing bacon. In this process, the raw bacon is rubbed with a mixture of salt, sugar, and other seasonings. The meat is then left to cure for a week or two, during which time the salt and seasonings penetrate the meat, imparting flavor and preserving it. This method is called “dry” curing because no liquid is added during the process. After curing, the bacon is typically rinsed off, dried, and then smoked at a low temperature to add further flavor and preservation. The type of wood used in the smoker can also add a specific flavor to the bacon.

Wet-curing is a faster method of curing bacon and is commonly used by large commercial brands. In this process, a brine made of salt, sugar, seasonings, and other chemicals is mixed together and the bacon is soaked in or injected with the brine. This method allows for faster curing of the meat but may result in a less flavorful product. After curing, the bacon is typically smoked or cooked in an oven to add flavor and preservation.

Natural curing involves using natural sources of nitrites like celery powder instead of sodium nitrites. The pork belly is injected with a brine containing salt, sugar, and other seasonings and left to cure for 12-24 hours. This process allows for bacterial resistance development and flavor absorption. After curing, the bacon is partially cooked during smoking and then fully cooked before consumption.

Nitrate Vs. Nitrite Curing

There is often confusion between the terms “nitrate” and “nitrite” when it comes to curing meat. Nitrate is a molecule consisting of one nitrogen atom with three oxygens, while nitrite has only two oxygens. Nitrate is easily converted to nitrite by an enzyme from bacteria. When nitrite comes into contact with protein, it is converted to nitric oxide, which is responsible for curing the meat.

In the past, potassium nitrate (saltpeter) was commonly used to cure meat. However, German scientists discovered that it was actually the intermediate form, sodium nitrite, that was responsible for the curing process. Sodium nitrite inhibits the growth of dangerous microbes like Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism. This is why most commercial bacon and ham producers switched from nitrate to sodium nitrite.

While most bacon is cured with sodium nitrite, there are now options for “uncured” bacon that use natural sources of nitrites like celery powder. However, it’s important to note that the nitrite molecule is the same whether it comes from a natural or man-made source. The use of natural sources allows manufacturers to label their product as “uncured,” but there are no limits for nitrite levels from celery powder.

It’s also worth noting that nitrates and nitrites are found naturally in many foods, including leafy vegetables and water. Nitrate from vegetables is converted to nitrite by bacteria in our mouths, and some nitrate is swallowed and stored in our bodies until it’s needed. Cured meat products serve as a small source of dietary nitrate and nitrite, with nearly 90% of added nitrates and nitrites broken down into other safe compounds.

Health Concerns With Cured Bacon

While bacon is a beloved breakfast food for many, it’s important to be aware of the health concerns associated with consuming cured bacon. One of the biggest risks of cured bacon is associated with two preservatives, nitrates and nitrites, that can form cancer-causing compounds. In fact, the World Health Organization has classified bacon as a Group 1 carcinogen, which means it’s known to cause cancer. Eating processed meats like bacon has been linked to an increased risk of developing colon, stomach, prostate, and pancreatic cancer, as well as dying from all types of cancer.

The use of nitrates and nitrites in the curing process is what gives bacon its alluring pink color and helps to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. However, cooking bacon at high temperatures releases chemicals that increase colon cancer risk. Evidence is still conflicting on whether plant-based nitrates are less harmful than synthetic sodium nitrite. Additionally, consuming large amounts of nitrates or nitrites can be poisonous and lead to potentially life-threatening conditions like methemoglobinemia.

While some people may prefer to eat uncured or naturally cured meats to avoid additional exposure to nitrates and nitrites, it’s important to note that these products still contain natural sources of nitrites like celery powder. The adverse health risks of occasional exposures to nitrates, nitrites, or nitrosamines from eating cured meats are unlikely to be significant for most people who do not eat large amounts of these products on a daily basis. However, consuming small amounts of processed meat occasionally, such as once or twice a month, is unlikely to significantly harm health. It’s important to enjoy bacon in moderation and consider serving it alongside a natural dose of vitamin C found in citrus fruits, bell peppers, broccoli and more to block the formation of carcinogenic substances during those very occasional indulgences.