We have a serious problem, America. Bacon is delicious.
To say that the crispy, smoky cured meat is enticing would be an understatement. However, to say that bacon is bad for you would also be an understatement.
The World Health Organization classifies processed meat — a category that includes all types of bacon — as a carcinogen, citing “convincing evidence” that it causes cancer. And earlier this year, a study published in the British Medical Journal found that increases in processed red meat consumption are associated with higher mortality rates.
It makes sense, then, that you would like to find an alternative to bacon, something less dangerous and nearly as satisfying ― maybe turkey bacon or meatless bacon. So let’s examine the foods we might think are healthier options.
The nutrition facts below are from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the percentages are based on the Food and Drug Administration’s recommended Daily Values. Keep in mind that the numbers below are for one slice — and then multiply accordingly, because we all know that eating a single piece of bacon is nearly impossible.
Saturated fat: 1.376 g (6.8%)
Fat: 4.04 g (6.2%)
Protein: 3.9 g
Sodium: 194 mg (8%)
Cholesterol: 11 mg (3.7%)
Saturated fat: 0.5 g (2.5%)
Fat: 2.5 g (3.8%)
Protein: 2.0 g
Sodium: 130 mg (5.4%)
Cholesterol: 10 mg (3.3%)
Saturated fat: 0.14 g (1%)
Fat: 0.38 g (0.06%)
Protein: 3.91 g
Sodium: 137 mg (6%)
Cholesterol: 9 mg (3%)
Saturated fat: 0.23 g (1.2%)
Fat: 1.48 g (2.3%)
Protein: 0.58 g
Sodium: 73 mg (3%)
Cholesterol: 0 mg (0%)
Many of us grew up with the familiar sizzle and alluring aroma of bacon wafting from the kitchen. Unfortunately, at least one expert says that’s almost like being nostalgic for the noxious fumes of cigarette smoke.
“The problem with traditional pork bacon is typically two-thirds of the calories come from fat,” said registered dietician Kristen Smith MS, RD, LD, of Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta. And half of that is “saturated fat, which is the fat type we’re concerned about when we talk about heart disease.” And there are differences between brands: Smith said that nutrition facts vary widely depending on how the bacon is cooked and what manufacturer has made the packaging.
She cautions that bacon isn’t something you should eat regularly, especially considering its designation as a carcinogen.
“The WHO report clearly states that there is no data showing a ‘safe’ amount to eat but that risk goes up with increased consumption,” explained Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, author and lead dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
Dr. Neal Barnard, a professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine, offers fewer qualifiers: He said we should stop eating bacon entirely.
“It’s linked to some of the most common and deadly cancers that we have,” Barnard said, including colorectal cancer and breast cancer. A WHO report found that eating bacon on a daily basis increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. And since colorectal cancer is already the second-most common cause of cancer fatalities, that’s a worrying increase.
“If you’re going to boost it by 18%, it’s a lot,” Barnard said.
Then, he put it bluntly: “The problem we have is that we are with bacon now where we were with tobacco in the ’60s.”
So it sounds like bacon is mostly out. But surely there must be other options that would satiate and satisfy.
The Other Bacons
Turkey bacon: It’s for when you don’t care about tasting bacon but want something crisp to complement your eggs.
Sadly, you’re going to need to continue your grocery-store spelunking for a healthy alternative. Kirkpatrick said that a new study found that “ultra-processed foods” — like turkey bacon — “led to weight gain and overeating.”
As its nutrition values show (see above), turkey bacon’s high sodium level “may pose a risk for individuals with high blood pressure or certain chronic conditions,” Kirkpatrick said.
Then there’s the possibility that since you’re eating “healthier” bacon, you might eat even more of something that’s actually carcinogenic and high in sodium.
With turkey bacon, you are assuredly consuming something lower fat than classic bacon — but it also contains less protein than its pork brethren. The solution, then, has to lie somewhere else... right?
Canadian bacon certainly tastes healthy (read: completely devoid of substantive taste). But it still sizzles in the pan and provides that animal protein some of us crave.
In this case, there is some good news and — as you might expect by now — some bad news.
Canadian bacon “does offer a healthier alternative” to classic bacon and turkey bacon, because it has less fat and is lower in calories, Smith said.
That might be enough for you to whistle down the aisle as you toss packs of Canadian bacon into your cart two at a time. Plus the fact that it’s high in protein means you’ll be full for longer, keeping those post-breakfast snack attacks at bay.
But Canadian bacon still has “a considerable amount of sodium,” Smith said, bringing the bacon party to a sudden halt.
“It’s still a cured meat,” Barnard warned. “It is clearly and definitively processed meat and is associated with cancer.”
“Of course, one alternative is to simply cut animal products from the diet,” Kirkpatrick said.
According to Barnard, faux bacon is “much better” for you.
It has no cholesterol, unlike bacon, Barnard said. Plus, it’s “substantially lower in saturated fat, which is the bad fat. The sodium content will vary, some lower, some higher.”
But in terms of cancer, meatless protein alternatives are a clear win: “When you heat them they do not produce carcinogenic heterocyclic amines,” Barnard said. “There’s no connection between these and cancer at all.”
If you’re bold enough to move past the meat aisle, alternatives like soy, tempeh and wheat gluten are considerably more healthy options.
Moving Past Bacon
If eating bacon really is as bad as inhaling cigarettes, as Barnard suggests, it would make sense to nix all forms of bacon for good.
But Smith and Kirkpatrick are a bit more generous in their assessments of the sizzling goodness that is bacon.
An occasional piece of bacon isn’t what’s “making us overweight and sick,” Kirkpatrick said. “Enjoy it, just follow moderation. And limit to no more than twice a month.”
Smith agrees. “I’m not saying that bacon is a ‘never’ but make it something that maybe you enjoy on the weekends,” she said. “It’s important to remember that all foods fit into a balanced diet.”