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A Quick Guide to Bacon

Thin, thick, smoky, salty, hearty, meaty, maple, chewy or crispy. Different strokes, as they say. Nonetheless, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone – especially a Primal type – who doesn’t sing bacon’s praises. (Too bad so many CW [7] followers eschew this fine delicacy.) Nonetheless, I wanted to address some questions dangling out there in the MDA comments and forum. Is bacon an indulgence or an acceptable stock ingredient in Primal eating? Do we need to shell out for nitrite-free? What about organic? Is there really such a thing as grass-fed pork?

A couple of weeks ago in the How Much Is Too Much [8] post, I joked that there was no such thing as too much bacon. As much as I love my pork belly, I should clarify that the comment was tongue-in-cheek. Most folks got the jest, but it’s worth highlighting. When it comes to bacon, the fat is delectable. The protein is functional. The taste – phenomenal. The salt, however, (as a number of you pointed out) can be the problem. Although brands vary significantly, bacon generally averages around 1000 mg of sodium per 3.5 oz. serving. As I mentioned [9] last week, I think reining in the sodium intake is a worthwhile endeavor.

Depending on your size, blood pressure and physical tolerance, I recommend staying somewhere below or within the 1500-2300 upper limit range. A Primal Blueprint diet naturally nixes the obscene majority of sodium sources: soda, processed foods, etc. Unless you’re liberal with the salt shaker or indulge an addiction to sea vegetables each day, I think there’s room for bacon on a fairly regular basis. Personally, I often eat a few strips with an omelet in the morning, but just as often I use it as a garnish – a dash of bacon pieces in a salad, or in a scallop dish [10], for example.

Now for nitrites. We’ve admittedly hedged our bets on these additives in the past [11], but I’ll agree that shelling out for “naturally cured” bacon (or other cured products) isn’t worth the extra cost. Some folks like the taste or simply trust the use of ingredients like celery salt (which contains its own nitrates from the celery) more than a conventional product. Others buy nitrite free because the bacon tends to contain fewer additives in general or because they want to support local or organic farmers and nitrite-free is what they offer. Nonetheless, it appears to be of little consequence.

Just a quick and dirty review… We take in nitrates every day with our vegetables and, to a much smaller degree, with cured meats. Microorganisms in food and in our own digestive tracts convert some nitrates into nitrites, and some of these nitrites can then form nitrosamines, known carcinogens. Vegetables have sufficient antioxidant power that this small amount of conversion is inconsequential. As far as cured meats go, they generally only make up about a 10th of our nitrate intake, and a serving of vegetables or vitamins C and E can further inhibit the unwanted conversion (hence the orange juice recommendation some people follow with their bacon).

When it comes to bacon (pumped but not dry cured), the USDA responded a number of decades ago to concern about nitrosamine formation during the cooking process. Sodium and potassium nitrites were capped at safer levels. Vitamin C was then added to most bacon formulas. The departments’ research suggests [12] that these adjustments prevent nitrosamine formation in medium cooked bacon (340 degrees F, 3 minutes cook time for each side), but well done and burnt bacon still pose some risk for nitrosamine conversion. Moral of the story: if you like well done bacon and choose naturally or conventionally cured, pop some vitamin C with your meal.

Finally, how could we do a post on bacon – that savory Primal treat – (let alone include pictures) without talking sources as well. Of course, bacon is one of those fine luxuries available in any market, but why not share the love today by suggesting your favorite brands (and cooking tips if you’re so inclined). As for my own preference, I’ve never been disappointed in any of the organic and/or pastured bacon I’ve found at my local farmers’ market, but I’m not too picky when it comes to bacon. (One of my favorite quotes from Cook’s Illustrated [13]: “Bad bacon is something of an oxymoron.”)

As always, I’d recommend finding pork that’s antibiotic and hormone-free. Check the ingredients and look for the most natural list you can get. The more commercial the product, the more likely that list contains additives you don’t need. (The specially labeled “microwave” bacon isn’t worth picking up off the shelf.) Beyond that, there are organic options and “pastured,” which usually means part pasture and part grain/other vegetarian feed. If you’re choosing between fully organic or partially pastured, it can be a toss up. There are plenty of options, however, for pastured and organic/almost organic. Check out the Eat Wild [14] and Local Harvest [15] sites for pastured options in your neck of the woods, and for a little entertainment have fun perusing this bacon of the month club [16]. There’s no assurance of pastured or antibiotic-free, but how can you beat a complimentary pig nose?

Thanks for reading, and I’ll look forward to reading everyone’s comments and suggestions!