Saturday, June 14, 2014

Bacon-Superfood-or Death on a Plate?

There is a revolution going on in the world of Nutrition. Foods like eggs that were considered dangerous a few years ago are now considered healthy. Saturated fat was declared “the fast lane to a heart attack”. That theory also seems to have been disproven. So what’s the deal with bacon? We know we love the taste, yet of all the demonized foods this one seems to always be at the top of the “naughty” list. So what’s the truth? Is bacon really as bad as they say? Well let’s look at the health issues one at a time and see where it stacks up.
Health issue #1: Bacon is full of Fat
If you remember your “Fat 101” there were good fats and bad fats. I say “were” because the conventional wisdom has changed. Monounsaturated fat (MUFA) was always considered a “good” fat.  MUFAs lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) while increasing HDL cholesterol (the good stuff). Bacon is 50% MUFA, mostly oleic acid, the healthy ingredient in olive oil. Another “good” fat called polyunsaturated fat is found in Salmon and Safflower oil. Omega 3 fatty acids are also included in this group. Bacon is 10% Polyunsaturated fat. That leaves 40% Saturated fat the so-called “bad” fat, historically felt to be associated with heart disease. Several recent randomized control studies have concluded that there is no association between heart disease and saturated fat. That’s important because many of the studies linking bacon to heart disease or cancer came from observational studies which are the least reliable since they may show an association but usually can’t establish cause and effect. In addition observational studies are often confounded by the co-existence of other health problems like smoking or obesity. In summary the fat content in bacon is probably more of a benefit than a liability.
Health issue #2: Bacon is full of Salt
Salt is used as part of the curing process. Salt helps prevent harmful bacteria from contaminating the meat. Excessive salt intake has been associated with high blood pressure. The evidence suggests that for people with normal blood pressure, salt is not a problem. On the other hand in people who have high blood pressure, excessive salt intake could worsen their disease. Interestingly total salt intake has decreased over the last 50 years due to the use of refrigeration instead of salt curing. The bottom line on bacon salt is that it not a health problem for people with normal blood pressure and when eaten in moderation will not likely worsen the condition in those that already have the disease.
Health issue #3: Bacon lacks nutrition
Similar to other meat products, bacon is actually quite nutritious. Bacon is a good source of Protein, Choline, Phosphorus, Zinc, Selenium and Thiamin. Selenium is important in preventing cancer and fighting infection. Choline is beneficial for the heart as well as the brain. The omega 3 fatty acids in bacon act as potent anti-inflammatories protecting against cancer and aging in general. Phosphorous is involved in bone and tooth metabolism as well as, kidney function, cell growth and heart muscle contraction. Oleic acid has been shown to help regulate blood sugar levels, insulin sensitivity, and overall circulation. The type and amount of nutrients depends on how the pigs were raised. Farm raised pork for instance has a higher level of nutrients especially Vitamin D. In summary, from a nutritional standpoint bacon stacks up pretty well especially farm-raised bacon.
Health Issue #4: Bacon causes Cancer because of Nitrates
Sodium nitrate and nitrite are two ingredients found in most processed meats including bacon. Sodium nitrate is added as a preservative to help preserve the color and prevent spoilage. Nitrate is converted to Nitrite which inhibits bacterial growth especially Botulism. Actually sodium nitrate is a naturally occurring mineral that is found in most vegetables especially leafy greens like spinach. The problem isn’t the nitrite it’s the interaction of nitrites with proteins in the stomach resulting in nitrosamines. Nitrosamines have been found at least in animals to be carcinogenic when consumed in large amounts. Luckily the formation of nitrosamines can be largely inhibited by addition of antioxidants like Vitamin C and E. The USDA now requires that these vitamins be added to bacon for this purpose. Cooking temperature also affects the production of nitrosamines. Cooking the bacon at higher temperatures results in more production of nitrosamines. On the health side, some of the nitrites are converted to nitric oxide which is a potent arterial dilator. It also helps in nerve transmission and boosts the immune system. In reality the cancer risk in bacon is probably minimal especially if the bacon is microwaved rather than fried.
So there you have it. Bacon probably doesn’t qualify as a “super food” but it is definitely not “death on a plate”. The scientific evidence suggests that bacon can be part of a healthy diet. It just shouldn’t be the whole diet. A couple of strips microwaved for breakfast or crumbled on a salad will supply your bacon fix without the guilt. Bon appetite!