What Are the Health Benefits of Uncured Bacon?

For many people, breakfast just isn't breakfast without bacon and eggs. While eggs are a healthy breakfast choice, eating bacon every day isn't good for your health. Most of the bacon on your supermarket shelves has been cured with salt and nitrites, both of which are on the nutrition no-no list. Uncured bacon is still cured with salt but not with nitrites, so it's somewhat healthier — but it's still full of sodium and saturated fat.

Uncured bacon doesn't contain nitrites, but is still high in fat and sodium. Credit: haoliang/E+/GettyImages

Tips

Any type of bacon, cured or uncured, has no health benefits.

Cured vs. Uncured Bacon

Manufacturers have a lot of ways of trying to make consumers think unhealthy foods are healthier. Labeling bacon as "uncured" is one of them. The truth is, uncured bacon is still cured, it's just not cured with nitrites.

That's a good thing. Nitrites are a chemical substance used by manufacturers to cure processed foods. They prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and extend the shelf life of processed foods. However, when you consume nitrites, they lead to the formation of nitrosamines in your body, which can can raise your risk of cancer.

That's where the "uncured" bacon health benefits end. Uncured bacon is cured with salt — and lots of it. Although humans have been preserving meats by salt-curing them for ages, that doesn't mean it's good for you. The sodium content, in addition to the large amount of fat, still makes the uncured bacon health risks almost as bad as those of the cured kind.

Bacon Is Fatty Meat

The pork industry calls pork the other white meat and likens it to white meat chicken. It's true that a 3-ounce pork loin has less fat and calories than 3 ounces of chicken breast. But bacon is not pork loin.

Bacon is cut from the sides and belly of the pig — the fattiest section of the animal. Just take a look at a piece of bacon and you'll see the strips of fat running through it.

You can buy lean bacon, which will have less fat in it. Back bacon, also called Irish bacon, rashers or Canadian bacon, comes from the rear loin of the pig. It is lean and meaty and a lot lower in fat, but it is still cured either with nitrates, salt or smoke.

Uncured Bacon Health Benefits

Although bacon contains a lot of protein, with about 34 grams in 3 ounces, it isn't a healthy source of that nutrient. Three ounces of uncured bacon also contains 25 grams of fat. Bacon has good fat — polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats that can be healthy when eaten in place of saturated fat — but 3 ounces still contains 8.5 grams of saturated fat.

Bacon is also a high-calorie food. Fat has 9 calories per gram, compared to protein and carbohydrates, which have 4 calories per gram. Foods high in fat are also high in calories. Three ounces of uncured bacon has 400 calories. Compare that to a lean meat like skinless chicken breast, which has only 90 calories in 3 ounces.

Because you're probably not having bacon alone, those 400 calories are in addition to the other foods in your meal. If you pair your bacon with two eggs cooked in a tablespoon of butter, your meal will total 640 calories. Depending on how many calories you need to eat in a day to maintain your weight or to lose weight, that could tip the scales and lead to a calorie surplus and weight gain.

Then there's the sodium content. While a 3-ounce fresh pork loin only has 425 milligrams of naturally occurring salt, 3 ounces of uncured bacon has 1,360 mg of sodium. That comes close to the ideal maximum amount of salt an adult should have in an entire day, according to the American Heart Association.

Read more: How Much Saturated Fat Should You Have Per Day?

Health Effects of Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are mainly found in animal products, including fatty meats, lard, cream, butter, cheese and whole-milk dairy products.

According to the American Heart Association, saturated fat can increase your blood levels of bad cholesterol, called low-density lipoproteins, or LDL. High levels of LDL lead to the buildup of fats in the arteries, called atherosclerosis, which can narrow the arteries and increase the risk of heart attack, stroke and peripheral artery disease.

The American Heart Association recommends adults limit their intake of saturated fat to 6 percent of their daily calories. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that's a maximum of 120 calories from saturated fat, or 13 grams. The 8.5 grams of saturated fats in a serving of uncured bacon amounts to 65 percent of that daily limit. Paired with eggs cooked in butter, the meal contains 18 grams of saturated fat, or 138 percent of the recommended limit.

The Problem With Sodium

Whether eating too much salt is detrimental to your health is a controversial subject for those who don't have a heart issue. However, the mainstream medical community holds that a high sodium intake is bad for your heart.

In the presence of too much sodium, the kidneys have to work harder to clear the excess sodium from your bloodstream. This causes a buildup of sodium, and your body holds onto water in an attempt to dilute the sodium, thereby increasing blood volume. Increased blood volume increases the heart's workload and puts pressure on the blood vessels.

Over time, this may stiffen the blood vessels and lead to high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and even heart failure. Even in the absence of high blood pressure, excess sodium could be damaging to the heart, aorta and kidneys. It may also affect the health of your bones.

The American Heart Association recommends that all adults limit their daily sodium intake to 2,300 mg. However, it says an ideal goal is 1,500 mg per day. With 1,360 milligrams in 3 ounces, a serving of uncured ham provides 60 percent of the maximum recommendation and 91 percent of the ideal recommendation.

Any Cured Meat Is a Health Risk

In 2015, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified all processed meat as carcinogenic, or cancer-causing. This includes cured and "uncured" bacon, hot dogs, sausage, ham and some deli meats. Processed meats include any meats that have been treated by some method to preserve or add flavor, including salting, curing, fermenting and smoking.

IARC researchers examined more than 800 studies and discovered that consuming 50 grams of processed meat daily increased the risk of colon cancer by 18 percent. Eating bacon every day — even a small serving — would put you over that limit.

Everything in Moderation

That's not to say you can't enjoy the occasional strip or two of bacon. Eating it once a month at Sunday brunch or having a few crumbles on a salad occasionally isn't going to substantially raise your risk of cancer — especially if you eat a primarily healthy diet, with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.

It helps to follow a healthy lifestyle too. Not smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and lowering your stress level all help reduce your risk of disease. That's a benefit in itself, but it also allows you the occasional indulgence of a few strips of crispy, greasy bacon.

Healthier Bacon Options

When you do choose to indulge, you can reduce the amount of saturated fat and sodium you consume by choosing different products and cooking methods. Turkey bacon, for example, is a much better choice, with less sodium and fat per serving. Three ounces of turkey bacon has just 122 calories, 4.5 grams of fat and 600 mg of sodium.

Duck bacon is a little harder to find, but it is available at specialty markets. It's not quite as good an option as turkey bacon, but it still has less of the "bad stuff" than pork bacon, with 200 calories, 16.5 grams of fat and 967 mg of sodium.

If you just crave some sort of meat with your breakfast, a small portion of thinly sliced, grilled or roasted chicken breast is a healthy, low-calorie, low-fat and low-sodium option. You can still have an egg and even some oatmeal and a fruit salad for fewer calories and fat than bacon.

Tasty Non-Bacon Options

Homemade chicken jerky is another healthy option, when you want something meaty and similar to a bacon strip. All you do is slice chicken breast into strips, marinate it with low-sodium soy sauce, herbs and spices, and place the strips in a dehydrator for several hours. You can even add a few drops of liquid smoke to your marinade to get a nice smoky flavor.

If you're thinking about experimenting with a plant-based diet, the Internet abounds with bacon-like options made with grains and vegetables. Tempeh is a vegetarian meat substitute with a dense, chewy texture that lends itself well to imitation bacon. Slice strips of tempeh, marinate it in a low-sodium sweet and spicy sauce, and pan-fry it on the stove just like bacon.

You can also cut thin strips from a block of tofu, marinate them and pan-fry them. You can even make "bacon" with eggplants and mushrooms. Slice an eggplant, marinate it in a sweet and savory sauce of your choice, and roast it at a low temperature until the water has evaporated and the texture is crispy.

To make mushroom bacon, choose a large variety such as portobello or a mushroom with a meaty texture such as king oyster. Slice it into strips, marinate and pan-fry on the stovetop, or bake in the oven until crispy.

Read more: Are Bacon & Eggs a Healthy Breakfast?

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