Few foods are as divisive as cured and processed meats. Although both were created for less-than-culinary reasons (the former to preserve meat, the latter to trick consumers into eat lips and assholes), the human race has developed both a religious-like love and a fatwa-like hate for these foods.
It all boils down to: Are they good for you? If you have a short attention span and need to get back to your Twitter feed, here’s the short answer. They’re probably not as bad for you as you’d think, but they aren’t great.
The crux of the issue is a couple of preservatives: sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite. Both of them appear in cured and processed meat, an admittedly confusing situation, not unlike having to spend a family weekend with a cousin who named his kids Tom and Tim. Which one is nitrate again?
Sodium nitrate (NaNO3) is used is all kinds of things, including bacon, jerky, and baloney. (Yeah, I know, it’s bologna–but baloney is funnier.) Sodium nitrite (NaNO2) is used to cure ham and bacon and is useful for preventing the growth of Clostridium botulinum–the stuff that causes botulism. Both substances are responsible for giving cured or processed meat its pink color, the only difference between them being that sodium nitrite has one less oxygen molecule.
It’s also worth noting that the human body transforms a small amount of dietary nitrate into nitrite. Nitrite, on the other hand, is readily converted in our gut to nitric oxide, which dilates your blood vessels thus enhancing blood flow. (That’s a good thing.) This means your muscles get more oxygen. In turn, that allows you to exercise harder, especially benefiting endurance athletes. Because of this, nitrate supplementation is kind of a “thing” right now in the sports nutrition world. The research isn’t conclusive yet, but it’s certainly promising.
Before we get back to bacon, if you plan to cowboy up and experiment with nitrate or nitrite salts, I have one word of advice: Don’t–especially when it comes to sodium nitrite, which can be toxic or even fatal when taken orally, causing a condition called methemoglobinemia that actually decreases the blood’s ability to transport oxygen. A much wiser option is to supplement nitrate-rich veggie sources like beetroot and beetroot juice–a source used for much of the research on athletes. And keep in mind that it’s not a more-is-better situation. Research shows that anything more than 300–500 mg of nitrate becomes redundant. Furthermore, there’s no real data out there regarding the safety of chronic nitrate use, so overdoing the stuff is just kind of stupid.
Anyhoo, back to bacon. As you may have just noted by the beetroot reference, processed and cured meats don’t don’t hold exclusive rights to nitrites and nitrates. They show up in drinking water and tons of fruits and veggies, most notably beets and celery. And your own body makes nitrite–you’ll find tons of it in your saliva. What’s more, a lot of the research showing the negative impact of nitrates consists of dated animal studies that super loaded the poor creatures with the stuff.
So at this point, it would appear that bacon and its cured and processed brethren are in the clear, right? Unfortunately, there’s one, small problem. Bacon contains other substances, most notably for our purposes, organ compounds called amines. When you combine nitrites with amines, you get carcinogenic (cancer causing) compounds called nitrosamines, which you’ll find not just in bacon but in other cured meats, tobacco products, and (to my chagrin) beer.
The pro-baconeers argue that the nitrosamines are minimal. Weirdly enough, vitamin C and vitamin E inhibit their creation, so the US government mandates that sodium ascorbate or sodium erythorbate be added to bacon. (I’m not sure about Canadian bacon though, so you’re on your own with that one. Sorry.) While this may be true, at least one study shows that frying bacon at high heat increases nitrosamines. Here’s a summary from the USDA:
A bacon cooking study, “Effect of Frying and Other Cooking Conditions on Nitrosopyrrolidine Formation in Bacon” (Journal of Science, Vol. 39, pages 314-316), showed no evidence of nitrosamines in bacon fried at 210 °F for 10 minutes (raw), 210 °F for 15 minutes (medium well), 275 °F for 10 minutes (very light), or 275 °F for 30 minutes (medium well). But when bacon was fried at 350 °F for 6 minutes (medium well), 400 °F for 4 minutes (medium well), or 400 °F for 10 minutes (burned), some nitrosamines were found. Thus, well-done or burned bacon is potentially more hazardous than less well-done bacon. Also, bacon cooked by a microwave has less nitrosamine than fried bacon.
So if you slow-fry bacon, you might be better off, but who does that? One person I’m almost 100% certain doesn’t slow-fry bacon is the cook at any mid-priced restaurant you order a BLT from.
Another point you read in a lot of pro-processed meat blogs is the claim that there’s no evidence indicating cured or processed meats cause health issues (especially cancer). This simply isn’t true. Here’s a European study linking processed meat to heart disease and cancer. Here’s an American study linking cured meats to lung and heart issues. Here’s a third study linking processed meat to decreased lung function, especially when combined with smoking and a lack of fruits and veggies. This is all epidemiological, so it doesn’t prove a causal link, but it’s there, so whether you’re Paleo or just really like Denny’s Grand Slam breakfasts, don’t be a dietary denier. Cured and processed meats may be doing you more harm than good.
Finally, nitrates and nitrites aside, sodium needs to be considered. A number of experts feel excess salt isn’t problematic unless you’re specifically sodium sensitive–in which case it raises your blood pressure. However, a study released just last week from the University of Delaware suggests that too much sodium may also impact other organs, including your heart, kidneys and brain. This research is too new to be conclusive, but it needs to be considered. I don’t see the point of ignoring it in order to justify your ham hankering.
So, basically, pinning processed and cured meats’ issues on nitrates and nitrites is basically a bait and switch. The Ham and Salami Gang may not be the cold-blooded killers we once thought they were, but there’s a good chance they’re hiding those WNDs (weapons of nutritional destruction) somewhere. Personally, I don’t touch them, but you’re probably okay to proceed with caution. Case in point, the aforementioned beer. I love beer and the nitrosamines within it are almost non-existant, but I don’t kid myself into referring to an ice cold one as health food. IPA consumption for me is all about moderation.
Paleos sometimes refer to bacon as “meat candy.” I think this is an apt description. Candy is dandy, but it ain’t the centerpiece of any sensible diet.