Do you like bacon? I do. Do you dislike bacon for reasons other than taste? Many others do too. Is bacon good for you in moderation? Maybe. In this article I’ll briefly discuss the many issues raised about bacon in news, religion and everyday discussion.
Comedian TV Host Stephen Colbert States What Most People Believe About Bacon
In the clip above Colbert states in jest that we’re all going to die LATER than we would have because of the bacon shortage. Why will our lives be prolonged? Because we won’t be ingesting the saturated fat, nitrates and sodium from bacon. This is the popular thinking. Is it right?
I’ll start from the beginning.
Are Pigs Unclean?
In 2010 I read a New International Version of the Bible cover to cover–over 1000 pages. I remember one of my many squinting-with-furrowed-eyebrows-moments as I read that pigs were unclean.
Leviticus 11:7 says “And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you.”
My thinking was “Unclean? You mean like because they roll in mud?” But no, that wasn’t the main issue it seems.
It is hard to come up with a satisfactory, practical explanation for why pigs are deemed unclean from the religious perspective, although anthropologists have tried. The idea that pigs are “unclean,” as far as I can tell, originated from religious writings and dogma.
Some scholars, especially secular ones, have conjectured that the Jewish concept of “unclean animals” arose out of public health concerns by community leaders, since, in the conditions of the times, some of those animals are indeed more likely to cause food poisoning or transmit diseases to people who consume them. Other scholars viewed the religious prescriptions as somewhat arbitrary handicaps that were established to test the Jews’ commitment to God and their community. British anthropologist Mary Douglas proposed that the “unclean” label had philosophical grounds, namely it was cast on foods that did not seem to fall neatly into any symbolic category. The pig, for example, was seen as an “ambiguous” creature, because it had cloven hoof like cattle, but did not chew cud.
Beyond religion a main theory behind pigs being “unclean” is the fact that pigs are carriers of trichinosis, a serious parasitic illness. This theory is not too credible either. One issue is that the parasite is destroyed by thorough cooking.
Former Harvard astrophysicist Paul Jaminet Ph.D., author of “Perfect Health Diet,” says…
There is a strong association between pork consumption and liver cirrhosis mortality, liver cancer, and multiple sclerosis (MS). It seems likely that the association, if it is real, is mediated by a pathogen (anything that can produce a disease). The most likely pathogen in the case of the liver diseases is hepatitis E virus. In MS, the pathogen remains unknown, but is likely to be a virus. Hepatitis E virus is not destroyed by casual cooking, smoking, or curing. It appears that meat must reach temperatures of 70ºC (160ºF) before viruses are inactivated; and it is possible that meat must remain at that temperature for some time, perhaps as long as an hour. Rare or medium cooked pork could contain active viruses. Hepatitis E viruses are most abundant in liver, intestine, and blood. Pork products containing these parts, such as sausage, may be best avoided.
But Pigs Are Being Used For Human Organ Growth
Several months ago I ran across a news report that is equal parts utterly bizarre and fascinating. The Japanese government has given its scientists the go ahead to begin experimenting with human organs grown inside of the bellies of pigs. Why pigs? Next to apes (which are endangered in the wild), pigs are pretty good matches for humans, physiologically speaking.
Japanese researchers term it a “chimeric embryo,” named after the lion-snake-goat hybrid monster in Greek myths. The process begins with a human embryo that is grown in a lab setting, where it is coaxed into the genesis of an organ — say, a kidney. Then, the chimeric embryo is implanted into the womb of a host animal, where it is allowed to take shape. When the animal is slaughtered (a non-negotiable step, at least at this early stage), the fully formed organ is removed and implanted into the patient in need. The technique was devised by Hiromitsu Nakauchi and his team at the University of Tokyo.
This is cutting-edge science. At the time of this writing I have not seen any news indicating this process has been done successfully. There is much to be worked out before we see this (if we see this) ever being used on a mass scale. The question worth raising, however, is if pigs are so unclean why are they considered ideal to grow tissue and complete organs for humans?
My Unclean Conclusion: Pigs are likely no less or more “clean” than many other animals we may consume. Cook pork thoroughly.
Raw, cured bacon is 44% monounsaturated fat, 33% saturated fat and about 23% polyunsaturated fat. Unless I mention this most everyone will believe that bacon is 100% saturated fat.
When it comes to saturated fats you are reading an article from someone (me) who does not believe that moderate to even moderately-high intakes of saturated fat is bad for you or bad for body-weight regulation. The research is now tipped in favor of moderate consumption of saturated fat being neutral for its contribution to heart disease. So where did the idea that saturated fat is evil come from? A well-done research piece by Denise Minger starts off very well…
“Once upon a time, a scientist named Ancel Keys did an awful thing. He published a study (in the 1950s) about different countries that made it look like heart disease was associated with fat intake. But the truth was that he started out with 22 countries and just tossed out the ones that didn’t fit his hypothesis! When other researchers analyzed his data using all the original countries, the link between fat and heart disease totally vanished. Keys was a fraud, and he’s the reason my mom made me eat skim milk and Corn Chex for breakfast instead of delicious bacon and eggs. LET HIS SOUL BURN. BURN! BUUUUUURN!”
This 2:35 Video Quickly Explains How Saturated Fat Became Unjustly Vilified
Saturated fats, as found naturally, and eaten in moderation, are not damaging to your health. Saturated fats have taken a bum rap as the villain in the war against heart disease.
Blaming saturated fats as the cause of heart disease is similar to blaming insufficient calcium as the cause of osteoporosis. You cannot take one factor out of the larger picture. Heart disease is a complex disease caused by many factors.
If the saturated fat doesn’t kill us maybe the nitrates will. Oops again, not so much. Many people have heard that nitrates are bad for you and therefore should be avoided. Ask most people why and you’ll get either a blank stare or a shoulder shrug.
Nitrate is a salt of nitric acid and found naturally in fruits, vegetables and grains. It is also added to cured meats such as salami, bacon and hot dogs as a color preservative and to retard the growth of microorganisms. Foods that are naturally rich in nitrates can provide a variety of health benefits.
Approximately 80 percent of dietary nitrates are derived from vegetable consumption, and nitrites are naturally present in saliva, in the gut and indeed in all mammalian tissue. The vast majority of nitrate/nitrite exposure comes not from food, but from endogenous sources within the body. In fact, nitrites are produced by your own body in greater amounts than can be obtained from food, and salivary nitrite accounts for 70-90% of our total nitrite exposure. In other words, your spit contains far more nitrites than anything you could ever eat.
Nitrites and Cancer
Several decades ago, some researchers raised the possibility that nitrites could be linked to cancer in laboratory rats. This suggestion received a lot of media attention. What received less media attention, however, was when further research revealed that they were wrong. Indeed, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Cancer Society and the National Research Council all agree that there’s no proof of cancer risk from consuming sodium nitrite.
Nitrate is converted to nitrite in your body almost immediately by bacteria on your tongue. Nitrite eventually becomes nitric oxide in your blood, which can relax your blood vessels. Studies done on nitrate-rich vegetables such as lettuce and beets have found that when nitric oxide is highest in the bloodstream, blood pressure is at its lowest.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition had this to say …
“… the content of inorganic nitrate in certain vegetables and fruit can provide a physiologic substrate for reduction to nitrite, nitric oxide, and other metabolic products that produce vasodilation, decrease blood pressure, and support cardiovascular function. Interestingly, both potassium nitrite, in 1880, and potassium nitrate, in 8th century China, were known to mediate hypotensive and antianginal actions, respectively.”
In addition to relaxing or vasodilating blood vessels, nitric oxide also displays anti-platelet properties, which helps to prevent inappropriate blood clotting. However, because the by-products of nitrates affect blood flow and pressure, they can also trigger migraine headaches in some people. Consult with your doctor if you suffer from migraines and ask about the connection to nitrate-rich foods.
Cured and Uncured Bacon
Nitrates are used in curing, which is a broad category of techniques for preserving foods, mainly meat and fish, that involves the use of salt, sugar, or some form of dehydration. In each case, the goal is to make the food unattractive to the bacteria that cause food spoilage. This works because bacteria are tiny organisms that require, among other things, moisture, oxygen and food. Take away one of these things and they die.
One of the earliest methods for curing food involved the use of salt. Salt prevents food spoilage through a process known as osmosis, whereby it basically sucks the moisture out of the bacteria’s bodies, killing them by dehydration. Sodium nitrate is a type of salt that happens to be a particularly effective food preservative. A naturally occurring mineral, sodium nitrate is present in all kinds of vegetables (root veggies like carrots as well as leafy greens like celery and spinach) along with all sorts of fruits and grains. Basically, anything that grows from the ground draws sodium nitrate out of the soil.
One of the things that happens when sodium nitrate is used as a curing agent is that the sodium nitrate is converted to sodium nitrite. It’s sodium nitrite that actually possesses the antimicrobial properties that make it a good preservative. Interestingly, the sodium nitrate that we consume through fruits, vegetables and grains is also converted to sodium nitrite by our digestive process. In other words, when we eat fruits, vegetables or grains, our bodies produce sodium nitrite.
Nitrate-Free Products-The Big Lie
So what about all those supposedly “nitrate-free” hot dogs, bacon and other so-called “uncured” products? Since completely uncured hot dogs are not palatable to consumers, it’s very rare indeed to find a product that is totally nitrate-free. Instead, manufacturers make claims such as “no nitrates added.”
The reality is that companies that make nitrate-free hot dogs have to use something to substitute for the sodium nitrate. Celery juice is a popular choice. And guess what celery juice contains lots of? Sodium nitrate. And guess what that sodium nitrate turns into when you eat it? Sodium nitrite!
By adding celery juice to their hot dogs, manufacturers can make products loaded with sodium nitrate while legally being able to claim “no added nitrates.” Because all the nitrates are in the celery juice. As a matter of fact, these supposedly “natural” or “organic” products sometimes contain twice as much sodium nitrate, even up to a whopping ten times as much sodium nitrate, as conventional products.
Nitrites and Botulism
So nitrates and nitrites are both harmless and ubiquitous. But is it really possible that eating nitrate-free meats could actually be more dangerous than eating meats that do contain sodium nitrate? The answer is yes. One special property of sodium nitrite is that it prevents the growth of Clostridium botulinum. One of the most toxic substances known, Clostridium botulinum produces botulism, a paralytic illness that can lead to respiratory failure.
The botulism bacteria is peculiar bug because unlike most microbes, it actually requires an oxygen-free environment to live. Once it hits the air, it dies. So it tends to appear in canned foods, vacuum-packed foods, garlic stored in oil and improperly cured meats. It just so happens that sodium nitrite is especially effective at preventing the growth of Clostridium botulinum.
Conclusions About Nitrates and Nitrites
Given that sodium nitrate occurs naturally in foods like spinach, carrots and celery, as well as the fact that nitrite has never been shown to cause cancer, all the fuss about nitrates and nitrites might seem like typical media-driven hysteria. Moreover, the supposedly “natural” or “organic” versions of these products can contain many times more sodium nitrate than their conventional counterparts. But when you consider the increased likelihood of contracting botulism, it’s actually the nitrate-free products that present the real health risk.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, had this to say…
“…the evidence for adverse effects of nitrate is inconsistent and nitrate may actually be beneficial. Hord et al go one step further: they claim that nitrate and nitrite should be considered as nutrients.”
There’s no reason to fear nitrites in your food, or saliva. Even if nitrites were harmful, cured meats are not a significant source, as the USDA only allows 120 parts per million in hot dogs and bacon. Also, during the curing process, most of the nitrite forms nitric oxide, which binds to iron and gives hot dogs and bacon their characteristic pink color. Afterwards, the amount of nitrite left is only about 10 parts per million.
The average American consumes about 3700 milligrams of sodium a day. This value has remained constant for the last fifty years, despite the rise in rates of high blood pressure and heart disease.
Hint: It’s not the sodium causing all blood pressure problems. It’s the totality of chemicals and endocrine disruptors from all sources (e.g., air, water, food, plastics, personal-care products etc.)
I agree with researcher Chris Kresser who says…
“the data supports an intake between 3000 and 7000 milligrams of sodium, or 1.5 to 3.5 teaspoons of salt, per day. People who are quite active or sweat a lot should consume salt on the higher end, and those who are less active may want to consume on the lower end. Of course, there may be some conditions where moderate salt restriction is warranted, but for the majority of healthy individuals, salting to taste will provide an appropriate level of sodium in the diet. Natural sources of sodium include sea vegetables, fish, shellfish, and meat, plus certain plants such as beets, carrots, celery, spinach, and turnips.”
While we can’t say salt can be consumed with a “sky’s the limit” mindset the biggest problem for people isn’t salting foods to taste. The biggest problem is the sodium the packaged, fast, junk, food-like substances and Frankenfoods provide. Be there no mistake. That junk needs to go away. Then you’ll have an opportunity to season and salt real food to taste without concern.
Pork may be “unclean” from certain religious perspectives. There may be risks to eating pork that hasn’t been properly cooked. But the same can be said for beef and poultry. As pigs continue to be used to grow tissue and organs that may one day be transplanted into we humans I am no more concerned about a pig being unclean than any other animal I may eat.
Bacon is a processed food-like substance. Those of us who aren’t curing our own pork bellies purchased directly from quality local farmers (likely 99% of all who eat pork) need to accept that even though bacon is often thought of as “meat candy” because it tastes so good, it is NOT real food. Therefore, if it’s eaten, it should be eaten in moderation. Want a couple slices once or twice a week? Go for it. Source quality pork from local farmers’ markets or stores prominently stating their pork is raised the right way–pastured, using non-GMO grains, without antibiotics and hormones. We eat what our “food” eats. If they are shot up with drugs we eat their drugs.
Based on the totality of the evidence I’ve been able to trudge up about nitrates I see no reason to fear them eating the amount of bacon I’ve suggested above. Our body produces far more than we consume and approximately 80 percent of the nitrates we consume come from plant-based sources. Nitrates, from plants and limited to moderate intake from cured meats, may confer some health benefits. You actually want your bacon cured, not truly uncured. And any bacon in a store that says it’s “uncured” is using celery juice and it’s just a legal play on words: it’s cured and it contains nitrates.
I’m less concerned about total dietary sodium than I am with where it comes from. If your sodium is being derived from processed, packaged, fast, junk, food-like substances (Frankenfoods) that’s a problem – period. But if you’re salting your real food to taste? Consuming 3000-4000mg per day is not too much unless your physician has told you otherwise.
In the end SomeGreyBloke May Have Been Right After All About Trying To Eat Healthfully
Dietary inorganic nitrate improves mitochondrial efficiency in humans.
Inorganic nitrate supplementation lowers blood pressure in humans: role for nitrite-derived NO.
The Nitrate and Nitrite Myth: Another Reason not to Fear Bacon
Inorganic Nitrate Supplementation Lowers Blood Pressure in Humans
Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits
Nitrate in foods: harmful or healthy
Dietary inorganic nitrate improves mitochondrial efficiency in humans.