Smoked, salty and streaky, thick and greasy; piled high in a bun, bap, barm, or bread roll with lashings of brown or red sauce – bacon speaks to us all.
In many ways this humble cut of meat is the great social leveller, found on the breakfast plates of aristocrats and haulage truckers alike. Bacon even transcends politics and popular culture: a bacon sandwich was once blamed for derailing Ed Miliand’s career, lest we forget, and the supermodel Cara Delavigne has a tattoo in honour of the stuff.
Which is why, for many of us, it can feel like something of a personal attack whenever a new piece of research warns of just how bad our favoured rashers might be for our health.
In recent years, newspaper headlines have linked bacon to increased risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and more. Most recently, scientists have issued warnings over nitrites – chemical additives found in bacon and other cured meats such as ham and sausages – which evidence suggests could contribute towards our risk of developing type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.
It’s enough to turn us off meat for good – and a growing number of people are making the switch to meat-free alternatives already. But how bad is bacon, really? And are the alternatives always better?
Nitrates and nitrites are naturally-occurring chemical compounds which can be used to suppress the growth of harmful bacteria in food. They are added to some products like bacon and sausages for this reason, but what you might not know is that the majority of our nitrite intake comes from vegetables – as much as 80 per cent in the average European diet, compared to around five per cent from processed meats, according to research published in the European Food Safety Authority journal.
Cutting out bacon, therefore, would not result in a nitrite-free diet. But what’s important is the way in which the chemical compounds are cooked and packaged. What concerns some experts about nitrites in meat, rather than vegetables, is their close proximity to amino acid proteins, which, when cooked at high temperatures, react in a way that allows them to become potentially carcinogenic.
In recent weeks, a number of MPs have called for a ban on using the chemicals within meat products for this reason. But others are less convinced of the dangers.
“The toxicity is so small it’s unlikely to have an effect,” says Thomas Sanders, professor emeritus of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London. “Of much greater concern when it comes to risk of things like heart disease and cancer, I believe, is our sugar intake and portion sizes.”
One study of half a million UK adults over a seven-year period found people who ate 79 grams of processed and red meat a day on average had a 32 per cent higher chance of developing bowel cancer compared to those who ate very little or none at all (less than 11 grams a day). Eating 79 grams of red and processed meat a day resulted in 14 extra cases of bowel cancer per 10,000 people. Cancer Research UK points out that the disease itself is relatively rare, regardless of diet, and there are many other factors that contribute to developing it.
Does nitrite-free bacon get the green light?
In 2018, Irish brand Naked Bacon began selling a nitrite-free product using a secret blend of fruit and spice extracts, paving the way for other types of processed meats to be produced in a similar way. But the brand is expensive – around twice the price of regular supermarket brands – and contains a lot of salt.
There has been heavy investment in the UK for research to develop similar approaches to removing nitrites, including use of alternative chemical bonds, and even ingredients such as nutmeg, which has natural antibacterial properties.
Traditional curing methods to preserve meat – salting or smoking it, for instance – come with their own relative health risks: too much salt, for instance, is a known contributor towards high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
“The difficulty with pork in particular is that it’s a complicated thing to keep fresh,” explains Dr Duane Mellor, a registered dietitian who teaches nutrition at Aston University Medical School. Alternatives to nitrites in bacon have been slow to develop, he says, “because when you bring in something like that you’ve got to make sure you don’t introduce other consequences such as a shorter shelf life.”
“We need to break away from this narrative of: this food causes this disease,” he believes, “it’s much more nuanced than that. A simpler message would be to use less meat, and use it with purpose.”
Should I avoid anything processed?
When we think of processed meats, we tend to think of sausages, burgers and other fast foods. But the term “processed” refers to any food that has been modified in some way to preserve it – this can include traditional methods such as salting, curing and fermentation, as well as adding chemical preservatives to keep items – anything from bread to fruit to juice,- fresh.
It’s a bugbear of Professor Sanders’, who argues that the term “processed” has an unfairly bad reputation and distracts from the more important dietary message of balanced eating. “We’ve been put off this word, but the reality is lots of things are processed and they’re not bad for you –’processed’ brown bread is just as nutritionally beneficial as fresh loaf.”
Similarly, he believes families shouldn’t be put off eating processed meat on occasion, as long as it’s part of a varied and balanced diet: “Sausages without nitrates are a good value, tasty meal, as long as you don’t have too many of them,” he says. “Realistically we should be aiming for half our plate to be made up of vegetables, a quarter from protein and a quarter from starch – bread, potatoes and the like.”
Currently, government guidelines suggest meat consumers cut down their intake to no more than 70 grams per day.
Are the meat-free alternatives any better?
These days those of us who do want to cut down on buying meat products have dozens of imitations to choose from on the supermarket shelves.
If opting for a meat-free burger or sausage, nutrition experts advise us to remember that a sausage is still a sausage – no matter its content. “Just because you’re swapping out the animal content, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthy,” Mellor warns. “Many of these brands contain a lot of salt for flavour, and don’t contain as many nutrients as the traditional version itself.”
“Things like blossom flower, which is used as a fish replacement, for example, are interesting and innovative products, but nutritionally they are not always as good.”
Making more of less
The good news is, nutritionists don’t think we need to cut bacon out of our lives completely if we don’t want to. According to Dr Mellor, one of the biggest problems with our society’s meat obsession is that we tend to eat too much of it, often at the expense of other things like healthy grains and pulses, fruit and veg.
“Research tells us that people who like to consume a lot of meat also tend to have fewer vegetables in their diet, which is a big part of the problem,” he says.
Mellor believes that too much of the dialogue around healthy eating focuses on “what we shouldn’t be eating rather than what we should”, he explains. “Ask yourself, if you are eating something like bacon or sausages, does that mean that you are sacrificing something else that’s healthy?”
Dr Mellor is not anti-bacon, therefore, but he suggests our attitudes towards it do need reigning in – he wants us to move away from thinking of it as the main event on a plate. “Instead, we can learn from traditional European cuisine and use some of these things more as flavours in dishes rather than being the bulk of the meal,” he explains.
“If you look at some of the stews and things that were popular generations ago, flavour is often added from things like bacon and the bulk of the meal is in the veg and healthy stuff like beans and pulses,” Mellor adds, “I think we’ve lost some of that culture.
“Think about how to get more out of less with these things. Processed meat does have health risks but we could use it in a smarter way to get the bits we want out of it, and minimise the health risk by building a balanced meal around it,” he concludes.