How Bad Is Bacon for You Really?
In spite of the rising cost of meat in general, and, according to CNBC, predictions that pork belly in particular is going to skyrocket in price soon, Americans love bacon. Sales of the breakfast staple reached nearly $6.5 billion last year, according to industry publication The National Provisioner, and account for one-fifth of all processed meat sales. Bacon Nation, an entire restaurant devoted to bacon, opened in Las Vegas in October 2022 and is still going strong. The meat even has its own national recognition day, per Awareness Days.
The enduring popularity of bacon flies in the face of its lackluster nutritional profile. As a processed meat, bacon is not what most experts would consider a health food. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared bacon and other processed meats class one carcinogens, a category of substances known to cause cancer that also includes cigarettes and asbestos.
But is enjoying a slice or two of bacon with brunch every once in a while really as bad for your health as lighting up? What happens if you eat bacon every day? Can you eat bacon every week as long as you do it in moderation? What does moderation even mean when it comes to bacon? See what nutrition experts have to say about the answers to these, and other questions about one of America’s favorite meats.
The Nutritional Value of Bacon
Traditionally, bacon is meat from the sides and belly of a pig that’s been preserved with salt and cut into strips. These cuts are some of the fattiest on the animal, and the salt curing means it has much more sodium than other noncured cuts of pork. Two slices of pan-fried bacon contain 108 calories, 8 grams (g) of protein, 2.76 g of saturated fat, and 386 milligrams (mg) of sodium, according to data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Flavored bacon, such Hormel’s brown sugar bacon, means added sugar comes along as well. Opting for thick-cut bacon will increase those numbers. Oscar Meyer center-cut thick-cut bacon, for instance, has 90 calories and 7 g of fat per two slices, compared with just 60 calories and 4.5 g of fat in the brand’s traditional center-cut bacon.
Like most foods, bacon isn’t all bad, however. “Bacon is high in protein, and it provides a good amount of B vitamins,” says Grace Derocha, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). While health advocates have been praising plant-based diets in recent years, research published in Current Nutrition Reports in June 2022 does acknowledge that meat delivers leucine and other essential amino acids, and that research on the benefits of animal- versus plant-based proteins has been mixed.
The main concern about bacon is its high levels of saturated fat and sodium, says Kristen Smith, RD, also a spokesperson for the AND. A diet high in saturated fat and sodium is linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and obesity, per the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. A daily diet that includes bacon makes it tough to stay within the recommended limits for saturated fat and sodium. Four slices of bacon take most people about halfway to the recommended limit of saturated fat and one-third of the way to the daily limit for sodium for a day. For those reasons, Smith suggests that bacon be enjoyed in moderation, like other high-fat or high-sodium foods. “Eating a few slices of bacon a few times a month with a balanced diet shouldn’t be a problem,” she says.
But few bacon enthusiasts show that kind of restraint when faced with an abundance of their favorite cured meat. Restaurants typically serve three or four slices of bacon, often thick-cut, as a breakfast side dish. And when people fry up a pound of bacon at home, they struggle to resist serving themselves even more. Some people don’t even try to hold back — some of those who follow keto or other low-carb diets eat as much bacon as they want. Cramming as much bacon into a dish as possible has become a sport on TikTok, and many recipes call for topping dishes already high in saturated fat (burgers, meatloaf) with layers of bacon.
Nutritional Drawbacks of Bacon
Bacon is a rich source of two well-known dietary troublemakers: saturated fat and sodium. “Diets high in sodium and saturated fat can lead to adverse health issues such as high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, high cholesterol, and heart disease,” says Derocha. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends getting no more than 13 g of saturated fat and 2,300 mg of sodium per day.
Bacon is also what is known as a processed meat, a category that also includes other cured and preserved foods, like charcuterie, hotdogs, pepperoni, and sliced deli meats. The WHO found that there is sufficient evidence from epidemiological studies to state that eating processed meat causes colorectal cancer, and may be associated with pancreatic, prostate, and stomach cancers. Based on the data the organization analyzed from 10 studies, it was estimated that every 50-g portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 percent.
The increased risk for cancer isn’t the only reason to be wary of processed meats. For every additional 25 g of processed meat (about two slices of bacon) a person ate daily over a span of eight years, their risk of dementia increased by 40 percent, according to research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in July 2021.
There’s also the question of nitrates, which are used in bacon to preserve color and flavor. At the store, you’ll find cured bacon, which is treated with nitrates, as well as “fresh” or “uncured” bacon, which, in fact, is also cured with nitrates — ones that occur naturally in some ingredients like celery juice powder. Your body doesn’t know the difference between these natural nitrates and the synthetic ones traditionally used, Harvard Health reports. A review has found nitrates to be associated with increased risk for colorectal cancer, while other research has found an association with breast and prostate cancer.
Because sodium levels vary greatly among brands, the best option is to read nutrition labels carefully rather than simply assuming fresh bacon is necessarily healthier.
Though the majority of the research into processed meats suggests it can have negative health consequences, a recent meta-analysis suggests that the cancer risk of processed meat consumption has likely been overstated due to flaws in past studies’ design and other factors.
How Much Bacon Is Safe to Eat?
The good news is that, unlike cigarettes, nutrition experts don’t recommend cutting bacon out of your life entirely.
“For general good health, I would recommend keeping processed meats limited to once a week or once every other week. At that rate, a serving could be three to four slices. If you eat bacon more often than that, one to two slices should be a serving,” says Derocha. That recommendation covers all processed meats, so if you have a hot dog or pepperoni pizza, that counts against your once-a-week limit. You can’t add bacon, too.
“For someone with no health issues, eating a few slices of bacon a few times a month with a balanced diet shouldn’t be a problem,” Smith says. “But for individuals with preexisting heart disease such as cardiovascular artery disease or hypertension, I would recommend minimizing bacon as much as possible.” Remember, all bacon is a highly processed food rich in sodium.
Smith and Derocha both say there’s a way to make bacon a little healthier. Instead of frying it in fat, they suggest baking bacon in a sheet pan lined with a wire rack so that much of the fat renders while it cooks, landing on the sheet pan instead of in your bloodstream. “Once the bacon is cooked, immediately remove it from the pan or tray and place it on super-absorbable paper towels to catch any additional fat that may drip,” says Smith.
Armed with the facts, you don’t need to be afraid of bacon. If you love it, rest assured that even dietitians say you can eat it in moderation. “You just have to consider when and where a serving of bacon can fit into your daily allowance of sodium, saturated fat, fat, and calories,” says Derocha. When you enjoy it, fully savor it and always keep an eye on the bigger picture of your overall diet and lifestyle.