As you were probably not aware, last Saturday was International Bacon Day. Celebrated in the United States the Saturday before Labor Day, it is a day in which we can all shamelessly indulge in one of the most beloved foods known to man.
Americans love bacon. Not only do we spend billions of dollars annually on the stuff, but we drop even more money on cookbooks dedicated to just bacon, we travel to bacon festivals, we enroll our loved ones (or ourselves!) into “Bacon of the Month” clubs, we buy bacon-bandaids and other bacon-themed items, and we drool over the latest chocolate-bacon concoctions. I even know otherwise strict vegetarians who make an exception for bacon.
I, for one, planned to feast on “Pig Candy” in honor of International Bacon Day. You cut a slab of bacon into thirds, wrap each third of a slice of bacon around a cocktail wiener, sprinkle the whole thing with brown sugar and bake it at 325’F until it is caramelized, and just about as golden brown and delicious as you can get. Except I used sucanat, because, you know, sugar is bad for you!
Then, of course, there are the party-poopers who claim “bacon is pure evil” and avow never to touch the stuff, causing their wives to grieve over missing out on such an important holiday. (Fortunately, I’m not talking about myself here; my husband got the Bacon of the Month club for his last birthday.)
However, that got me wondering – IS bacon pure evil? It’s definitely a polarizing topic, from the people who wax poetic over it to those who want it to come with a Surgeon General’s warning. There are the extreme low-carbers who have see nothing wrong with eating a pound a day, and those who plan never to taste the salty crispy goodness again for all their days. Let’s have a brief look, shall we?
Why We Love It So Much
I read the Little House on the Prairie books a lot as a kid, and one of the most memorable images I have from my repeated readings was the story of how they butchered the hog, and got all the meat packed down into salt to preserve it. Later, we see Pa making a smoker out of a hollowed-out old tree to further preserve and flavor the meat. While that may not lead to a product exactly like what we typically call bacon today, it’s definitely close. Given its importance in sustaining our early American pioneers – and really, I’m sure the same goes for the hardscrabble peasants and farmers throughout history worldwide – through the long cold seasons where food would have been otherwise unavailable, we owe a debt of gratitude to the stuff.
Although we don’t need a whole lot of convincing to pay homage to it. That is thanks in large part to our ancestors even further back. As David A. Kessler, M.D. points out in his book, The End of Overeating, we are hardwired to crave sugar, fat and salt, and to eat them in vast quantities. This worked well for our Neolithic ancestors, who rarely had access to those things and were well served to gorge on them when they could. Now, of course, we have no shortage of those things and there are about 40,000 variations of the sugar-fat-salt trifecta in every supermarket in America.
Bacon has two of the three in spades, which is why we really really like it. When you broil it with sugar or bake it into chocolate cupcakes – thereby adding in the sugar component – we really REALLY like it!
All That “Bad” Stuff
A few years ago, a study came out that said lard isn’t as bad as we’d made it out to be. That was in the wake of discovering that all those lab-created Frankenfats, which were meant to be healthier, turned out to be far, far deadlier. If lard isn’t bad, maybe bacon isn’t so bad either.
It’s Processed: First off, bacon passes my own personal Number One Rule of Food Goodforyouness: it is something my great, great grandmother would’ve recognized. It is still created much the same way it was hundreds of years ago, and (arguably) hasn’t been adulterated by lab-created mutations, hybrids and chemicals. That’s not to say it’s necessarily a health food, but it certainly doesn’t speak to me of evil. It is cured and preserved according to centuries-old methods, not manipulated through advanced scientific techniques.
Fat: Bacon is high in fat. Most people assume that means it will add to your body fat. Research, however, has proven just the opposite. Hormones are responsible for fat storage, and in his book Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes shows pretty clearly the insulin released thanks to carb consumption is what makes us fat. (For more on this, check out my two-part summary of the book here.) But wait, you say – they must be talking about heart-healthy unsaturated fats in those studies. Nope, I say – even saturated fat is not linked to body fat accumulation, nor does it raise your risk of heart disease. In fact, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute “spent $115 million on a huge, decade long clinical trial to test the idea that eating less saturated fat would curb heart disease, but not a single heart attack had been prevented.” (Taubes, p. 182)
The fat isn’t bad for you, and it can really help you eat less overall, because it is so satisfying and helps to slow down digestion!
Cholesterol: Bacon is also high in cholesterol, the leading cause of heart disease. But there is a whole lot more to the story. Yes, high cholesterol IN YOUR BODY leads to heart disease. Do you get high cholesterol from eating foods high in cholesterol? Nope. More than 70% of the fats in lard actually improve your own cholesterol profile (Taubes).
Nitrates and nitrites: Sodium nitrate is a naturally-occurring salt in many things you would never consider dangerous, including root vegetables like carrots and leafy greens like celery and spinach. It has been added to pretty much all processed meats since the dawn of processing meats, because it is very effective at killing off bacteria and botulism and other nasty things. The sodium nitrate in cured meats gradually converts to sodium nitrite; the sodium nitrate in produce converts to sodium nitrite in our digestive system. So, in essence, both nitrates and nitrites are perfectly natural and have been consumed for millennia.
We are so scared of them because a flawed study showed they cause cancer; it has since been debunked. A very small number of asthmatics do have adverse reactions to nitrates, but if you aren’t one of them, nitrates/nitrites pose no danger.
A final word on nitrates/nitrites. Scan the prepackaged deli products at health food stores and you’ll see many “nitrate-free” products. Stay away. These actually have more nitrates, but since they come from celery juice and not from sodium nitrate salts it can be labeled that way. And furthermore, anything that really is low in nitrates leaves you at a much greater risk for botulism poisoning. I’ll take the nitrates, thank you.
Sodium: Bacon is high in sodium, for sure. It’s the key part of the curing and preserving! If you already have high blood pressure or another disease complicated by sodium intake, you should definitely go easy. That’s not to say you can’t ever have it, though – just balance it out by having lower sodium throughout the rest of the day.
Because those with high blood pressure need to avoid sodium, there’s the incorrect assumption that salt causes high blood pressure. There are no studies that bear that out, though. Individuals with high blood pressure tend to be more sensitive to salt, but their high blood pressure is a result of other factors. So, if you are a normal blood pressured person, fear not.
However, if you are still wary of that salt, there’s another easy fix. In the body, sodium and potassium are partners. If one of those minerals is significantly higher than the other, it can lead to some complications with cellular respiration. That means if you’re going to eat something salty, just eat something high in potassium to keep the equilibrium. High potassium foods include bananas, melons, dried apricots and orange juice – to name a few – all of which pair beautifully with a lovely plate o’ bacon.
CAFOs: All right, game’s up. This is about the only drawback to bacon. For as much as meat works well for my body, I know that increased meat consumption is horrible for the planet. Pigs aren’t as bad as cows, but Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) lead to all kinds of ecological problems. On a lovely family farm you’d see a perfect circle of life: the pigs eat the farm scraps, and their manure fortifies the farmland. In a CAFO, however, all the feed has to come from chemically fertilized fields, and the manure runs off to contaminate ground water. The perfect circle is broken down into two very ugly half-circles of ecological doom.
For environmental reasons, I do give pause to gluttonous bacon consumption. The best solution for that is to buy organic bacon from smaller farms. Then, that problem is solved. Though I must admit that I’d much rather have a thin crispy slice of cheap ole Oscar Meyer than any of that high-falutin’ thick-cut bacon. But I’m also not eating a pound a day. We barely go through a pound a month.
Bacon primarily shows up at breakfast, but is perfectly at ease in a BLT on your lunch plate or wrapped around some roasted turkey breasts on your dinner table. For that matter, bacon has even been hanging out at the dessert table more and more, like those chocolate bacon cupcakes (here’s another amazing looking recipe for them…and another!), or in gourmet chocolates like the Vosges Mo’s Bacon Bar.
While there is plenty of controversy over bacon, it all seems to come down to this: it’s delicious and it won’t hurt you. And if you missed this year’s International Bacon Day, go ahead and hold your own belated celebration!
Give me all the bacon and eggs you have.
- Ron Swanson (Parks and Recreation)