The mere mention of bacon usually results in a visceral response. Some people think of the wonderful smell of it cooking, and others think of how great it tastes. While consumers may disagree on whether bacon should be served very crispy, fairly limp or somewhere in between, there seems to be a general love affair for bacon that knows no end. Bacon started as a mainstay of breakfast, however, its use has exploded to include all dayparts.

Bacon’s use beyond breakfast was fueled by something as simple as quick-service restaurants adding it to their burgers. Viewing the menus of the top five burger restaurants reveals tempting items such as McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese Bacon, Burger King’s Bacon King and Stacker King, Wendy’s Baconator and Son of Baconator, Sonic Drive-In’s Super Sonic Bacon Double Cheeseburger, and Jack in the Box’s Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger. These are a few examples of bacon taking the hamburger to new heights.

Our view of bacon in the 21st Century as a product that is celebrated, enjoyed and sought after by many consumers fails to recognize the dark times it faced in the 1970s and 1980s when some viewed it as a threat to long-term health.

Nitrites and nitrosomines

In the late 1970s, news headlines began focusing on what was in consumers’ foods and how ingredients could be harmful to their health. One of the first major stories centered on the use of nitrites in cured meats and raised the concern that these could be cancer-causing agents. Bacon was hit with an even greater challenge in that it could be a source of nitrosomines. Conditions for nitrosomines to form when residual nitrites bound with amines from the proteins were enhanced during frying of the bacon. This was the perfect storm for bacon, but regulatory, academic and industry leaders quickly worked together to see how to minimize possible nitrosomine formation. The first step was to reduce the ingoing level of sodium nitrite that could be used to cure regular bacon to 120 ppm. The second step was to include 550 ppm of cure accelerators, such as sodium erythorbate and sodium ascorbate, to help drive the curing reaction so that sodium nitrite would be eventually converted to nitric oxide, the compound that binds with the myoglobin in the meat and, when heated, forms nitrosyl hemochromogen, the cured pink color. By reducing the ingoing amount of sodium nitrite and using cure accelerators, there were little to no residual nitrites remaining, which eliminated nitrosomine formation. With the efforts of many and changes in the curing process, bacon survived this major health concern.

Recently, the availability of “uncured” bacon seems to be a growing category joining frankfurters, bologna, hams and other processed products that feature “no added nitrates/nitrites” as a marketing approach to appeal to those consumers who may be drawn to such products. For many of these products, there is a qualifying phrase indicating that even though there are no added nitrates or nitrites, there may be some that would be naturally occurring from ingredients like “sea salt and cultured celery extract.” Both sea salt and especially cultured celery extract contain nitrates, which serve to provide the nitric oxide necessary for the cured meat color formation. Some products also include natural cherry powder, which serves as the ascorbic acid cure accelerator.

Many of the uncured or naturally cured bacons include additional marketing claims. It is common to find statements about how the animals are fed and raised to provide even more selling points for the targeted consumers. These products expand the appeal of bacon to a market that might otherwise eliminate bacon from their diets.

The war on fat

The 1980s brought about a major movement that demonized fat in diets, especially saturated fat. The primary target of the “war on fat” was animal proteins, and bacon was often used as an example of the type of food to avoid. The number of national consumer magazine covers that displayed a face made with eggs as the eyes and bacon as the frown were too numerous to count as the lead articles decried how what Americans ate was slowly resulting in a universal decline in health.

Bacon’s image as a fatty food was an easy target simply because of its raw appearance where the streaks of lean and fat interspersed together seemed to depict a product that was less healthful when compared to lean products such as boneless, skinless chicken breasts and fish, which people were urged to consume. In addition, with the recommendation to include more whole grains in the diet, this opened the door to the ever-expanding breakfast cereal market where the ease of grabbing a quick bowl of cereal in the morning was certainly easier to prepare and consume and was touted as a healthier option compared to a breakfast that included bacon.

A quick review of the nutritional content of a national brand of bacon reveals that one slice has 80 calories with 5 grams of protein, 7 grams of fat with only 2 grams of saturated fat, and no carbohydrates. Based on a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet used for most food comparisons, enjoying a couple of slices of bacon here and there do not seem to constitute a major dietary risk.

Bacon’s battle back from these health criticisms, also has Dr. Robert Atkins to thank. Atkins may be the father of the low-carb revolution of which he championed eating animal products such as steaks, eggs and bacon and all foods with low or no carbohydrates in them compared to the low-fat, high-carb diets many were proclaiming to be the only way to maintaining a heart-healthy diet. Although the low-carb movement comes and goes, recently low-carb, keto, and carnivore-focused eating seem to have gained a greater following by many consumers. If there is a food product that is the banner food for them, bacon might be it. This may have provided people with permission to eat bacon without feeling guilty.

Breaking boundaries

Not all bacon is made from pork. Beef bacon has been around a long time with most of it being made from beef plates, a comparable region of the carcass to the pork belly. Cured and smoked in a similar fashion, beef bacon is one example of a product that can be a substitute for pork, especially for those who have an aversion to pork consumption. There are a number of Kosher and Halal offerings for beef bacon allowing those who follow certain religious guidelines an opportunity to enjoy a comparable product.

Probably the greatest alternative meat to pork bacon is turkey. In this case, since there is no comparable part of the turkey that would represent traditional bacon, this is simply a manufactured product made from turkey leg meat or other parts that are processed, shaped and formed to look like bacon. Because turkey bacon is often marketed to those looking for a healthier alternative to pork bacon, marketing claims of how it was raised, how lean it may be, and that it contains no gluten are common statements on packages. Another difference is that turkey bacon is fully cooked compared to the traditional pork bacon that is sold as heat treated but not fully cooked.

There is a wide array of bacon offerings in the marketplace with different smoke flavorings, seasonings, ready-to-eat versions, packaged bacon bits and pieces, microwavable and so on. Bacon’s future looks bright, and it is one product that has been made even stronger by facing its challenges.