Go ahead, bring home the bacon

Bacon gets a bad rap. I’ve even recommended you try to avoid it. But not because of the saturated fat.

Government experts like to scare you about the “dangers” of saturated fat. They say it will clog your arteries and give you heart disease. They even say it will cause cancer. But these arguments are just plain wrong, as I’ve explained before in my 11/28/13 Daily Dispatch.

My beef with bacon had nothing to do with fat. It had to do with something else entirely.

You see, in the past, I put cured meats like bacon and lunchmeat in a class of their own. Like many, I worried about the nitrates and nitrites used to preserve them. Nitrites give cured meats their reddish color and smoky flavor. They also help block the growth of bacteria, including the dangerous Clostridium botulinum. Overall, nitrites stop the meat from going rancid by blocking lipid oxidation. And nitrates are simply precursors to nitrites.

Turns out, my worry about these preservatives may have been unwarranted.

You see, years ago, one study found an association between nitrates/nitrites and stomach cancer. However, newer research turns up no link whatsoever between nitrates/nitrites and stomach cancer. In fact, experts now link the dramatic drop in stomach cancers in the U.S. over the second half of the 20th century with preservatives that keep food from spoiling. Plus, some studies suggest that nitrates and nitrites might actually benefit the immune system and the heart.

You see, nitrates/nitrites are a lot like cholesterol. Government health experts demonize both. But your body makes its own stores of both.

Most people think of them as artificial preservatives. But did you know that you find them naturally and in abundance in fruits and vegetables? You see, nitrates and nitrites are part of the nitrogen cycle. So they’re everywhere in nature.

Now, here’s where things get interesting. Take a look at this chart showing the amount of nitrates and nitrites found in common foods.

Broccoli 394 nitrate, 0.59 nitrite
Cabbage 418 nitrate, 0.13 nitrite
Celery 1,495 nitrate, 0.12 nitrite
Lettuce 850 nitrate, 0.59 nitrite
Spinach 2,797 nitrate, 7.98 nitrite
Chorizo, Italian dry sausage 78.81 nitrate, 0.74 nitrite
Bologna, hot dogs 27.68 nitrate, 6.86 nitrite
Bacon 25.57 nitrate, 7.31 nitrite
Cooked ham, pastrami, corned beef 14.81 nitrate, 7.16 nitrite


As you can see, many “natural” foods actually contain far more nitrates and nitrites than do bacon or other cured meats.

Of course, some manufactures today make a bundle selling “nitrate-free” bacon and lunchmeat at a premium price to consumers concerned about “artificial” preservatives. But these alternatives DO contain nitrates and nitrites. Look closely on the ingredients list and you will usually see beets, celery salt, or sea salt.

These ingredients naturally contain high levels of nitrates and nitrites. But the manufacturers don’t have to tell you about them.

No matter what, meats need to be cured somehow to make them safe for later consumption. Unless you freeze them or cook them while they’re still fresh.

Bottom line?

There’s no scientific reason to fear bacon. Or nitrates or nitrites in cured meats and other foods. There’s also no reason to pay extra for nitrate-free, “uncured” bacon. In fact, nitrate-free bacon is much more likely to spoil and cause real problems with food quality and safety.


1. “Ingested nitrate and nitrite and stomach cancer risk: An updated review,” Food Chem Toxicol, October 2012; 50(10): 3646-65

2. “A national survey of the nitrite/nitrate concentrations in cured meat products and nonmeat foods available at retail,” American Meat Institute Foundation Report (www.meatami.com). 2009

3. “Human safety controversies surrounding nitrate and nitrite in the diet,” Nitric Oxide, 5/15/2012;26(4): 2594ERL