Bacon is pretty fashionable these days. I see it on t-shirts and bumper stickers. This bacon-in-your-face is a rather hip rebellion in recent years that I see as part of a greater movement to refurbish hearty eating to be something more conscious and even healthy.
But sometimes the best intentions can end up producing something very harmful.
I like bacon. I don't eat much of it (and reading further will explain why), but I am a conscious omnivore trying to eat a balanced, healthy diet. Like many who have become more conscious of their eating habits and food choices, I pay more money, buying higher quality foods, and just eat less of them than I did in the past in order to make it work for my budget. Meat is only present in two or three of our meals per week, but it's good organic, pasture-raised meat.
When it comes to sausages and bacon, everywhere you look in the "natural" section of your market you will see NO NITRATES and NITRATE FREE. They cost more than the conventionally-produced sausages and bacon, but it's worth it to get a higher quality product. And to avoid high doses of nitrates. Or so I thought...for years.
What is the deal with nitrates?
Nitrates are naturally-occurring and are found in water, plants and animals. Approximately 80 percent of dietary nitrates actually come from eating vegetables, and nitrites are naturally present in our saliva, in the gut and throughout our whole body. (1)
The concern with nitrates is that they convert into nitrites during the curing process. Nitrites have been demonized due to research indicating their correlation with cancer. Just to confuse matters, there has also been more recent research debunking the correlation between nitrites and cancer.
The cancer connection is related not to nitrites, but to nitrosamine, which is produced when the nitrite in your bacon or sausage is cooked, although the measured amounts are inconsistent and the research is murky. But there is enough research to support the connection that nitrosamine levels are frequently monitored in processed meat products for the protection of the public.
So, to summarize: adding nitrates to processed meat products for preservation leads to the formation of nitrites, which leads to nitrosamine and nitrosamine is quite bad and is likely to cause cancer. The US Environmental Protection Agency classifies nitrosamines as possible human carcinogens and the National Toxicology Program of the Department of Health and Human Services classifies them as "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens".
Knowing how strongly the food industry would resist having useful additives demonized as cancer-causing, I'd say national agencies considering a chemical "reasonably anticipated" to be cancer-causing as good as cancer-causing.
So, if we want to avoid nitrosamines by avoiding nitrates in processed meats, then nitrate-free meats would be the way to go. Right?
"Nitrate-free" cured meats (bacon and sausages) are not nitrate-free. Instead of using sodium nitrite to cure the meat, these companies use celery salt or celery powder, which is about 50% nitrate. Then they add a bacteria which naturally changes the nitrate into nitrite. (2)
The unfortunate outcome of this "natural nitrate-free" curing process is that it ends up creating more nitrite than the conventional method of adding sodium nitrite! (2)
So if you have been buying nitrate/nitrite free
bacon and sausages, thinking you were
doing your body a favor, think again.
So what's the conclusion then? Is anything safe?
As with many things we've corrupted for the sake of convenience and profit, we need to look back to the old-fashioned ways.
The old method of curing meats was to use a small amount of sodium nitrite and meticulously rub it into the meat. Then the meat is left to cure for a long time.
By this method of not over-using nitrite and patiently waiting for the meat to cure over time, the process actually allows the nitrite to turn not into nitrosamine, but into nitric oxide!
Nitric oxide is essential for a healthy cardiovascular system. It dilates blood vessels, increases blood flow, and prevents clot formation. Most adults are deficient in nitric oxide, and assumed nitric oxide levels (which aren't measure directly but are determined by the elasticity of your blood vessels) are considered the primary risk factor in coronary heart disease.
So the right kind of bacon and other cured meats
actually contain the very best medicine for your heart!
Bacon-as-a-vitamin only comes from the old-fashioned and time-consuming method of curing. Conventional supermarket bacon and other cured meats do not contain nitric oxide. And although they may have less nitrites than the "nitrite-free" versions, there is still plenty of concern with these meats.
Conventional bacon, sausages, hot dogs, etc:
Nitrate- and nitrite-free cured meats:
Old-fashioned, hand-cured meats:
I still eat bacon and sausage that says "nitrate-free" on the label. I just don't eat it very often. And I choose this over conventional meat because what I purchase is pasture-raised and/or organically-fed. But it is still a compromise.
Ideally, bacon and sausage are a health food. They once were. But the better way of doing things has lost out to cheaper prices, convenience and greed.
If you want your cured meats to be a source of health, look to your local butchers. Ask around and see if you can find small farms or butcher shops doing things the old-fashioned way. They are out there. Look for meats that have been described as "hand-rubbed", "hand-cured", or cured meats that have been aged for long periods of time.
I will admit that they will cost much more than what you can find in a grocery store. But they can't be though of as the same thing. Something tasty that you must limit your consumption of because it is bad for you is no comparison to something delicious that is exactly the best medicine for your heart and cardiovascular system!
Food is meant to be our medicine, not the burden it is to our bodies today. By realizing our folly in turning from the old, time-consuming ways of farming and producing food, we can now begin to repair the damage. First, be aware. Second, make better choices for your health and employ your loudest vote with your dollars!
1. Hord NG Tang Y, Bryan NS. Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits. Am J Clin Nutr, 2009. 90 (1): 1-10.
2. Dr. Mercola. "Is it safe to eat bacon?" Mercola.com Natural Health Blog. Janurary 3, 2013. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/01/03/eating-bacon.aspx