Don’t give up your bacon sandwich just yet! The truth about nitrites and processed foods

Smoky, salty and streaky, thick and oily; piled into a bun, bap, barm or bun with lots of brown or red sauce – bacon speaks to us all.

In many ways, this humble cut of meat is the great social leveler, found on the breakfast plates of aristocrats and truckers. Bacon even transcends politics and popular culture: a bacon sandwich was once blamed for derailing Ed Miliand’s career, let’s not forget, and model Cara Delavigne has a tattoo honoring Ed Miliand. this thing.

That’s why, for many of us, it can feel like a personal attack every time a new study warns of the detrimental effects of our favorite slices on our health.

In recent years, newspaper headlines have linked bacon to an increased risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and more. More recently, scientists have issued warnings about nitrites – chemical additives found in bacon and other cured meats such as ham and sausages – which evidence suggests may contribute to our risk of developing type 1 diabetes. 2 and bowel cancer.

That’s enough to get us meatless for good – and a growing number of people are already opting for meatless alternatives. But how bad is bacon really? And are the alternatives always better?

Back bacon is hugely popular in the UK (Picture: Unsplash)

Understanding Nitrites

Nitrates and nitrites are natural chemical compounds that can be used to suppress the growth of harmful bacteria in food. They’re added to some products like bacon and sausages for this reason, but what you might not know is that the majority of our nitrite intake comes from vegetables – up to 80% in fat. average European diet, compared to around 5%. from processed meats, according to a study published in the European Food Safety Authority log.

Removing bacon would therefore not result in a nitrite-free diet. But what is important is how the chemical compounds are cooked and packaged. What concerns some experts about nitrites in meat, rather than vegetables, is their proximity to amino acid proteins, which when cooked at high temperatures react in a way that can become potentially carcinogenic.

In recent weeks a number of MPs have called for a ban on the use of chemicals in meat products for this reason. But others are less convinced of the dangers.

More than food drink

“The toxicity is so low that it’s unlikely to have an effect,” says Thomas Sanders, emeritus professor of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London. “I believe our sugar intake and portion size are of much greater concern when it comes to the risk of heart disease and cancer.”

A study of half a million UK adults over a seven-year period found that people who ate an average of 79 grams of processed and red meat a day had a 32% higher risk of developing bowel cancer than those who ate very little or none at all. all (less than 11 grams per day). Eating 79 grams of red and processed meat a day led to 14 additional cases of bowel cancer per 10,000 people. Cancer Research UK points out that the disease itself is relatively rare, regardless of diet, and that many other factors contribute to its development.

Does Nitrite-Free Bacon Get the Green Light?

In 2018, Irish brand Naked Bacon began selling a nitrite-free product using a secret blend of fruit extracts and spices, paving the way for the production of other types of meats processed in the same way. But the brand is expensive – about double the price of regular supermarket brands – and contains a lot of salt.

There has been heavy investment in the UK in research to develop similar approaches to removing nitrites, including the use of alternative chemical bonds, and even ingredients such as nutmeg, which has antibacterial properties. natural.

Traditional salting methods for preserving meat – salting it or smoking it, for example – carry their own relative health risks: too much salt, for example, is a known factor in high blood pressure, heart disease and heart disease. stroke.

“The difficulty with pork in particular is that it’s a complicated thing to keep cool,” says Dr Duane Mellor, a registered dietitian who teaches nutrition at Aston University Medical School. Alternatives to nitrites in bacon have been slow to develop, he says, “because when you bring in something like that, you have to make sure that you don’t introduce other consequences such as longer shelf life. short”.

“We have to break with this narrative that: this food causes this disease,” he believes, “it’s a lot more nuanced than that. A simpler message would be to use less meat and use it wisely.

Close up of a person holding a bacon sandwich with tomato sauce.
It’s hard to keep pork fresh, so chemicals are added to increase preservation (Picture: Mint Images/Getty)

Should I avoid any treatment?

When we think of processed meats, we tend to think of sausages, burgers and other fast foods. But the term “processed” refers to any food that has been modified in some way to preserve it – this can include traditional methods such as salting, drying and fermentation, as well as adding chemical preservatives to keep food – from bread to fruit and juice – fresh.

It’s a bogeyman from Professor Sanders, who argues that the term ‘transformed’ has an unfairly bad reputation and distracts from the most important dietary message of a balanced diet. “We’ve been pushed back on that word, but the reality is that a lot of things are processed and they’re not bad for you – ‘processed’ brown bread is just as nutritionally beneficial as fresh bread.”

Likewise, he believes that families should not be deterred from occasionally consuming processed meat, provided it is part of a varied and balanced diet: “Nitrate-free sausages are a cheap and tasty meal, as long as you don’t have too many of them,” he says. “Really, we should aim for half our plate to be vegetables, a quarter protein and a quarter starch – bread, potatoes, etc.”

Currently, government guidelines suggest that meat eaters reduce their intake to no more than 70 grams per day.

Related stories

Scientists have checked my meals – it turns out they are full of hidden junk food.  Here's how to spot itScientists have checked my meals – it turns out they are full of hidden junk food. Here’s how to spot it

Are meatless alternatives better?

These days, those of us who want to cut down on our purchases of meat products have dozens of imitations to choose from on supermarket shelves.

If you opt for a meatless burger or sausage, nutrition experts advise us to remember that a sausage is a sausage, no matter what it contains. “Just because you’re replacing animal content doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy,” Mellor warns. “Many of these brands are high in salt for flavor and don’t contain as many nutrients as the traditional version itself.”

“Things like flower blossom, which is used as a substitute for fish, for example, are interesting and innovative products, but nutritionally they’re not always as good.”

Do more with less

The good news is that nutritionists don’t think we need to cut bacon out of our lives altogether if we don’t want it. According to Dr. Mellor, one of the biggest problems with our society’s obsession with meat is that we tend to eat too much of it, often at the expense of other things like healthy grains and legumes, fruits and vegetables.

“Research tells us that people who like to eat a lot of meat also tend to have fewer vegetables in their diet, which is a big part of the problem,” he says.

Mellor thinks too much of the dialogue around healthy eating focuses on “what we shouldn’t eat rather than what we should,” he explains. “Ask yourself, if you’re eating something like bacon or sausage, does that mean you’re sacrificing something else that’s healthy?”

Dr. Mellor is therefore not anti-bacon, but he does suggest that our attitudes towards it need to be curbed – he wants us to stop viewing it as the main event on a plate. “Instead, we can learn from traditional European cuisine and use some of these things more as flavors in dishes rather than as the main part of the meal,” he explains.

“If you look at some of the stews and things that were popular generations ago, the flavor is often added from things like bacon and most of the meal is in vegetables and healthy things like beans and pulses,” adds Mellor, “I think we’ve lost some of that culture.

“Think about how to get the most out of less with these things. Processed meat poses health risks, but we could use it in smarter ways to get the cuts we want out of it and minimize health risks. health by building a balanced meal around it,” he concludes.