By: Annie Bell
Ah…the rich complex aroma…the sound of the sizzle…the salty crunch…the TASTE of bacon – what’s not to love? Well, to start, the fat content, the nitrites, and the sodium. But is bacon really BAD for you? And is turkey bacon a healthier alternative?
Traditional pork bacon is made from cuts derived from the fatty sides/belly of the pig. Typically, the skin is cut off and the remaining meat goes through a curing process that involves soaking in a salty brine solution with nitrites/nitrates (or a dry salt-rich rub), often with other spices and sometimes sugar. After it is cured, it is usually smoked for several hours.
Turkey bacon is generally made from chopped/ground turkey meat (a mix of light and dark meat, depending on the brand) and reformed to look like strips of pork bacon. It is usually cured and smoked, just like traditional pork bacon is (although uncured varieties of pork and turkey bacon are available on the market too). Generally speaking, turkey bacon has fewer calories and usually less fat, but different brands vary dramatically.
Comparing the nutrition information for bacon can be confusing, since the exact cut, the ‘fatness’ of the pig, and manufacturing practices can differ, as can the amount considered to be “1 serving” on the Nutrition Facts panel. I gathered information from food companies’ websites and recorded nutrition facts on the chart below after standardizing the amount in “one serving” to 15 grams, so comparison would be easier.
Some consider bacon (turkey or otherwise) to be their breakfast “protein”, but a quick look at the chart shows you that the majority of the calories in bacon (both types) come from fat, not protein. Per 15 grams, turkey bacon provides less protein than pork bacon.
The type of fat varies between pork and turkey bacon. While (for the most part) turkey bacon has less total fat, pork bacon actually contains more of the “heart healthy” monounsaturated fatty acids than turkey bacon.
For the calorie-conscious people – those of you looking to decrease calories to help with weight loss – you can see that turkey bacon contains fewer total calories than pork bacon. But again, there is variability from brand to brand.
Americans are urged to moderate the sodium in their diets in efforts to prevent/control high blood pressure, which is associated with cardiovascular diseases and kidney failure. Generally speaking, both forms of bacon (turkey and pork) are high in sodium (though the Jennie-O turkey bacon in the table below was quite low!). And as mentioned before, variability among brands exists. If you are concerned about the sodium in your diet, you should choose a brand that has been marked “reduced sodium” and eat it in moderation.
For a quick rundown of the other vitamins and minerals found in bacon, it’s interesting to know that pork bacon contains more zinc, selenium, niacin, and choline than turkey bacon. But turkey bacon has its strengths too – it is higher in iron and phosphorus than pork bacon. What you must realize though is that with the exception of selenium (2 slices provides 20% of the daily value), neither pork bacon nor turkey bacon are exceptionally “good” sources of any of the nutrients listed above.
Unless marked otherwise, both types of bacon contain nitrites, food additives that have been researched for their link to cancer. What most people don’t realize is that we consume 80% of our nitrates/nitrites from fruits and vegetables, and that there is evidence linking these compounds to positive health effects! The risks of nitrite consumption from processed meat remains controversial. Newer research calls to question previous recommendations to limit nitrites in the diet. However, if you are concerned about your ingestion of nitrites, it would be best to avoid both kinds of bacon or choose the brands that are marked “nitrite/nitrate free” or "no added nitrates".
So what’s the bottom line? Neither turkey bacon nor pork bacon can really be considered a “health food”. They both are essentially “processed meats” and contain a high percentage of calories from fat. They both are high in sodium, contain questionable additives, and aren’t particularly rich sources of vitamins and minerals. But in moderate amounts, neither pork nor turkey bacon are inherently bad for your either. And we can’t deny their awesome contribution to a great breakfast! The major “pro” for turkey bacon is that it is lower in calories (if it’s calories you are concerned about). But remember, depending on the individual, the calorie savings may be offset by sacrifice in taste. Let’s face it, nothing compares to the taste, texture, and aroma of real pork bacon! So, a little bit of bacon, here and there, isn’t going to kill you. As always, moderation is the key. If you have questions about how to choose the “healthiest” type of bacon (or any other meat), feel free to schedule a (free!) one-hour session with Campus Recreation’s registered dietitian by sending an email of request to firstname.lastname@example.org.