Bacon has gotten a bum rap. It’s been blamed for causing increased incidences of cancer, heart disease, strokes, and other degenerative diseases. For years I believed the anti-bacon, anti-pork propaganda. However, the more I’ve studied traditional foods and Paleolithic nutrition and learned about the holes in the diet-heart disease hypothesis the more I’ve questioned the need to limit or eliminate bacon and other cured meats from my diet, even the nitrite cured varieties.
Have we been fed a lot of bologna?
Looks like it to me. And we swallowed it… At least I did, for years. ! If you haven’t already seen the movie Fat Head to find out how we’ve been fed a lot of bologna about the alleged evils of saturated fat and cholesterol, check out this funny and factual movie by comedian and former health writer, Tom Naughton. Click here to watch the trailers. You’ll be amazed at how the big fat lies got started.
The smear campaign
Clever marketers set out to discredit naturally saturated fats like butter, lard, beef tallow, and tropical oils (coconut and palm oils) in the 1970s so they could sell us refined vegetable oils, margarine, and shortening. Many people still think it’s better to use fake butter made from polyunsaturated vegetable oil and mock meats made from wheat and soy than to eat the real things. Maybe bacon’s bad boy image was the result of a similar smear campaign.
Never mind that consumption of butter, lard, and beef tallow has plummeted since 1910 and few Americans have ever eaten significant amounts of coconut or palm oil. Meanwhile, rates of cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other diseases have skyrocketed. Most Americans are getting the bulk of their fat calories from refined polyunsaturated vegetable oils made from corn, canola, cottonseed, soy, safflower, sunflower, and other oils––not from coconut oil, palm oil, butter, or bacon fat. How could the fats we’re eating less of be responsible for the diseases we’re experiencing more of?
Saturated fat fears unfounded
Here are some excerpts from chapter 5: Fat Primer of The Garden of Eating A Produce Dominated Diet & Cookbook.Nutrition professor, philosopher, primal diet blogger, and licensed acupuncturist, Don Matesz has the references to back up these claims. (You’ll find them in the appendix of the book.)
As animals, we produce saturated animal fats. On a fat-free diet, or whenever the body synthesizes fats from excess carbohydrate or protein, it produces saturated and monounsaturated, but not polyunsaturated fatty acids. According to Dr. Germain J. Brisson, Ph.D., former professor of nutrition at Laval University (Quebec, Canada) and author of Lipids in Human Nutrition, when we eat large amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids, enzymatic processes in the intestines will, as much as possible, convert them into saturated fatty acids before absorption.
The body makes saturated fats because they are essential to health. They are used to make cell walls resistant to penetration by parasites, viruses, and bacteria. The fat pads that protect bony surfaces (palms, soles, sitting bones) and fat deposits that cushion the internal organs are made up largely of saturated fat.
Saturated fats are also very important in the nervous system and brain. The gray matter of the nervous system is made up largely of sphingomyelin, a compound that incorporates 1 fatty acid, most commonly saturated stearic acid or palmitic acid (the same as in palm oil). The white matter of the brain is composed largely of phospholipids incorporating palmitic or stearic acids. All told, about a third of the brain’s fat is saturated.
Praise for pork fat
How does human body fat stack up against common dietary animal and vegetable fats?”
“Surprise! Forty-three percent of the fat produced and stored by our bodies is saturated! Beef tallow, butter, lard, and human fat are all quite similar. Lard is most like human fat. Palm oil also is very similar to human fat; but most vegetable oils are a world apart. Fats much like our own are loudly denounced; fats most unlike our own are most loudly praised. What’s up?
Lard (pork fat, bacon fat) compared with our stored body fat
Saturated fat Monounsatured fats Polyunsatured fats
Lard 40% 50% 10%
Human fat 43% 47% 10%
Bacon fears unfounded
I’m not advocating a steady diet of bacon and other cured meats for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And I think bacon, sausage, and other cured meats can be an integral part of a healthy omnivorous, produce- and protein-rich diet. Think of it as a tertiary food, a condiment or side dish, not your primary sustenance.
So what about those nitrates?
It turns out the studies released in the 1970s linking nitrates in bacon, sausage, and other cured meats to lymphatic cancer, colon cancer, and leukemia in rats were flawed. According to Sandy Szwarc, BSN, RN, CCP, author of the JunkFood Science blog, “In 1981, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the scientific literature and found no link between nitrates or nitrites and human cancers, or evidence to even suggest that they’re carcinogenic. Since then, more than 50 studies and multiple international scientific bodies have investigated a possible link between nitrates and cancers and mortality in humans and found no association.” You can read more about the nitrate scare and bad science on her blog by clicking here.
What’s the largest dietary source of nitrate?
Vegetables! “Nitrates occur naturally in vegetables and plants as a result of the nitrogen cycle where nitrogen is fixed by bacteria. Dietary studies around the world have found 70% (in UK) to over 97% (New Zealand) of human consumption of nitrates and nitrites comes from vegetables alone, regardless of organic or conventionally grown. On average, about 93% of the nitrites we get each day comes from the nitrates in vegetables.” Says Szwarc. Figures on her blog suggest that we get more nitrates from a single serving of arugula, 2 servings of butterhead lettuce, 4 servings of celery or beets, or our own saliva than from 467 servings of hot dogs. For more on this check out her blog post from July 29, 2008.
What about nitrate-free bacon?
Are you buying expensive allegedly nitrate-free bacon and sausasage from natural foods stores? You may be surprised to learn that the health food store brands of bacon that say “no added nitrates” actually contain nitrates. The nitrates they contain are derived from celery and beet juice and sea salt. Same chemical, just a different source! “A chemical is still the same chemical, regardless of where it comes from. NO3 = NO3. They are no more free from nitrates and nitrites than conventional hotdogs,” says Szwarc. So it looks like you’re not avoiding nitrates and nitrites by purchasing those brands, you’re just buying meat cured with a more expensive form of sodium nitrate. If you want to pay more for bacon from animals raised without hormones or antibiotics or from pigs raised on small family farms on pasture and forego factory farmed pig products, then by all means do it. But I wouldn't make the deciding factor to buy it be the "no nitrate" label.
The sunny side of nitrates
Contrary to what was previously thought, recent research has been publishes showing that nitrates appear to have beneficial effects on health, particularly cardiovascular and immune health, and that our bodies produce nitrates and nitrite in greater amounts than we get from food. Nitrites appear so beneficial, that they’re being studied for their potential for treating health problems, including high blood pressure, heart attacks, and circulatory problems.
An experimental study showed that the animals that ate the most bacon actually had the least colon cancer. Granted I wouldn’t place all my bets on a single study, but this one certainly casts doubt on the case against crisply cooked pork fat. This was from a study on the effect of meat (beef, chicken, and bacon) on rat colon carcinogenesis.
Average nitrate levels of common vegetables vs. hot dogs
arugula 4,677 ppm
basil 2,292 ppm
butterhead lettuce 2,026 ppm
beets 1,279 ppm
celery 1,103 ppm
spinach 1,066 ppm
pumpkin 874 ppm
standard hotdogs 10 ppm
standard processed meats 10 ppm
Source: June, 2008 issue of EFSA Journal
Now doesn’t that make you want to rush out and buy some bacon and find something good to make with it? Check my most recent posts. I'll add more soon.