You Can Have Your Bacon and Eat It Tooby Carissa - November 23rd, 2015
Have you heard the latest about bacon? People the world over are losing their minds over the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) latest determination about processed meats. Right before Halloween, the IARC issued a statement labeling processed meats as carcinogenic. Of course, there was an instant uproar over the determination, but take a breather and listen up.
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While it’s true, eating processed meats in high quantities over a long period of time can be extremely bad for your health, eating them isn’t an instant (nor guaranteed) death sentence the way, say, smoking could be. The IARC estimates that 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat, while approximately 1 million cancer deaths per year are due to tobacco smoking. So while we can say with certainty that diets high in processed meats can lead to bad health effects, we’re also in a completely different category from other cancer causing carcinogens. While there isn’t a magic number for how much you can eat, common sense is usually a good place to start.
As with most things, the key to a healthy life is to live in balance – and being in moderation with the foods you eat is key. When we get too out of balance in one direction or another, that’s when the nastier side of our indulgences become evident. Eating processed meats like bacon, sausages, and lunchmeat is no exception. If you can keep to eating bacon once in a while, instead of every day, you’ll likely be fine.
However, for some of you more health conscious people who are concerned about the IARC’s determination, let me explain what’s happened a bit. The biggest concern with processed meats, such as your bacon fetish, happens to be the way the meats are processed and the additives they use.
What’s the deal with Nitrates/Nitrites?
Nitrates and nitrites are the key players when we’re talking about the carcinogenic properties of processed meats. However, the key with these two compounds is that they are not immediately threatening. In fact, both are naturally occurring and in certain cases, can be good for you.
Both nitrates and nitrites contain nitrogen and oxygen atoms, but ultimately nitrates can be turned into nitrites depending on the enzymes they come into contact with (typically in your mouth or digestive tract). So really, let’s just focus on nitrites. These compounds have the ability to go one of two ways: turn into Nitric Oxide (good) or Nitrosamines (bad).
So how exactly does a good nitrite go bad? Turns out, when nitrites are exposed to high heat (like, say, in a frying pan) and they’re in the presence of amino acids (like in meats), they can turn into nitrosamines. There are a number of different types of nitrosamines, but each is considered carcinogenic. In fact, nitrosamines are among the main carcinogens in tobacco smoke, which may be where the link between bacon and smoking originally came from.
Ways to minimize exposure to nitrosamines (read: have your bacon AND eat it, too!)
Just because some processed meats have the potential to develop carcinogenic compounds doesn’t mean all of them will. There are a number of ways to continue to eat the bacon you’ve come to love without having to resort to tasteless alternatives or developing a hankering for tempeh. Here’s how:
• Change the way you cook your bacon. Frying it at a lower heat for longer will produce less nitrosamines than cooking it at high temps.
• If your bacon is burnt, chuck it. They are the pieces with the highest concentration of nitrosamines.
• According to one study, cooking your bacon in the microwave may be the best way to minimize the nitrosamine formation.
• Choose only quality bacon that’s nitrate and nitrite free. Make sure it’s also not been season with celery salt or something similar that also contains nitrates. Watch your labels closely!
• Buy your bacon locally, if you can. Check your food co-ops and farmers markets to find your local resources. Ask them how they cure their bacon and see if they make a nitrate/nitrite free version.
• Like with most foods, go organic when you can and stick with uncured. Some organic products you can try include:
The news of the carcinogenic properties in processed meats may be surprising to some, however it isn’t for those of us who have been paying attention to health trends for a while. Nitrosamines have been of interest to WHO and other health organizations around the world for some time. Manufacturers have been required for a while now to limit the amount of nitrates/nitrites they can use and they’re also required to add vitamin C (which inhibits the formation of nitrosamines). So as a parting tip, be sure to grab some fresh squeezed orange juice with your slice of organic bacon. Then sit back and enjoy without overindulging.
Carissa Andrews is an passionate author and freelancer from Minnesotan with a focus in creative writing.
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