5 Best Bacon Brands at the Supermarket, and 3 to Avoid
Bacon is a staple in the American diet. It's a traditional breakfast meat, as well as a food we love to experiment with—remember the bacon craze that gave us bacon lattes and bacon donuts? But bacon is also one of those supermarket items that are somewhat controversial. To begin with, it should be consumed in moderation because it's not the healthiest food by nature. To add to that, there are many factors that play into the quality of packaged bacon, starting with the quality of the meat used in production, as well as the curing and smoking processes, that can yield anything from top quality bacon, to a product that may be a potential health hazard.
How is bacon made
American bacon is made from pork belly. You may see it called "streaky bacon" in other countries, because it has more fat stripes than, say, British bacon.
The first step to making bacon is to cure it with a mix of salt, sugar, and seasonings. Sometimes preserving agents like potassium nitrate and sodium nitrite are added during this step to prevent bacterial growth. Brands that cut corners will inject bacon with this blend in a process called "pumping", which cuts down on the production time.
Once curing is complete, it's onto smoking. The traditional smoking process can take several days, while a larger-scale production may use a smoke flavoring agent with a convection oven, which cuts down on time.
Nitrates and nitrites
Generally, the two chemical compounds are talked about negatively when it comes to products like bacon. These compounds are often added to processed meats during the curing process, but can be potentially harmful to humans. That's because nitrosamines, the compounds formed when proteins are broken down in the presence of nitrates and nitrites, have been linked to na increased risk of cancer. However, few people know that even vegetables contain these compounds, which occur in them naturally based on the soil they're grown in.
If you want to avoid these compounds, look for a label that reads "uncured bacon, no nitrates or nitrites added," according to USDA guidelines. But let's be clear—there's no need to automatically demonize any brand (or small producer) using these in their product. Naturally occurring nitrates and nitrites, like ones in beets and celery, may have health benefits. If you're looking for a distinction on what types on nitrates and nitrites were used, the label "no chemical nitrites and nitrates added" will tell you the compounds in the product are derived from vegetables.
Is bacon linked to cancer?
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classifies processed meat (including bacon) as a class 1 carcinogen. That means, there is "convincing evidence" it may cause cancer. While we don't fully understand the process, we do know that in the natural breakdown of proteins combined with nitrites, nitrosamines are formed. These compounds may be linked to carcinogenic risk and are formed in the highest amounts at high temperatures. General government guidelines for consuming processed meat is to "limit or avoid".
How to pick the best bacon
Here's what to look out for when shopping for healthiest bacon:
- Watch your sodium. The FDA says sodium intake should be 2300 mg/day or less. Some bacon brands contain up to 20 percent of your daily value of sodium in just two slices.
- Thick cut vs thin cut. Thick cut means more bacon in fewer slices. That means more sodium, more fat, more calories. One think to watch with thick bacon is how you're cooking it. Don't crank up the heat super high for long periods, which can form more nitrosamines (the compounds WHO warns us about).
- Sodium ascorbate means cheap "pumping" was used. The USDA requires sodium ascorbate to be added to bacon if it was "pumped", in order to reduce the amount of free nitrate in the product (and reduce the resulting amount of nitrosamines). So if you see this ingredient on the label, you know the production practices were less than optimal.
- Note the fat, but be realistic. It's bacon. There's going to be fat, especially in American bacon. While some brands have less fat than others, this macronutrient isn't the most important thing to watch if you're eating bacon.
The best bacon brands you can buy
1. Nature's Rancher Applewood Smoked Uncured Bacon
This Whole Foods–exclusive brand uses vegetarian feed for their pigs, and doesn't use crates or cages. The ingredient list is much shorter than that of other bacon brands—it only includes pork, water, brown sugar, salt, vinegar, citrus extract, pomegranate, and rosemary extracts. With only 35 calories and 2 grams per slice, this is the most calorie- and fat-conscious bacon of the line up.
Available at Whole Foods.
2. Vande Rose Farms Applewood Smoked Artisan Dry Cured Bacon
Available at some grocery stores and online, the Vande Rose Farms bacon is essential to mention for its top ratings across many publications and taste tests. This Iowa-based group sources heritage Duroc breed pork (known for its flavorful meat and natural marbling) from several farms. They use vegetarian feed and hand-inspect each animal to ensure ideal weight and size. After processing, the bacon is dry-cured for six days and smoked for 12 hours over applewood chips. While the ingredients do contain sodium nitrite and sodium erythorbate (for accelerated curing and color development), the company's process shows this is not a "pumping" method. Is this the best nutrition profile when it comes to calories and fat? No. But based on dozens of #1 rankings, combined with only 260 mg of sodium per serving (which, at 33 grams, is two to three times larger than some other brands'), this pick is the perfect example that calories aren't everything.
3. Applegate Naturals Hickory Smoked Uncured Sunday Bacon
Applegate is a brand that prides itself on natural and organic meats, with 100 percent vegetarian diets for their animals and humane farming methods. This bacon contains no fillers, no GMO ingredients, and no chemical nitrates or nitrites. Remember, celery powder is still naturally high in nitrates. The low calories for a two-slice serving is a major plus if you like plenty of slices for breakfast, but mind the 310 milligrams of sodium.
4. Market Pantry Hardwood Smoked Classic Cut Bacon
This Target brand bacon has reasonable sodium levels, but slightly higher levels of fat than other brands. The ingredients do contain curing accelerators and color development enhancers, nitrites and sodium phosphates to retain moisture. So, nutrition-wise this option isn't bad, but the ingredient list does reveal that this brand uses shortcuts in their production methods.
5. Smithfield All Natural Uncured Hickory Smoked Bacon
Smithfield is the largest pork producer in the world (now owned by a Chinese company) so it's no surprise they have a wide variety of bacon products available. This pick doesn't contain added nitrates or nitrites, but does use celery juice which naturally contains the same compound. You'll find turbinado sugar and sea salt on the ingredient list, which may sounds fancier but it's still just sugar and salt. At 100 milligrams of sodium and only 80 calories per serving, this is one of the better nutritional picks of the bunch. Smithfield's current practices may not align with your personal philosophies, but they do claim to be working toward certain sustainability goals outlined in a 2018 sustainability statement.
The worst bacon brands you can buy
1. Hormel Black Label Brown Sugar Thick Cut Bacon
This thick-cut bacon is almost double the weight of other brands, and contains substantially more sodium. At 110 calories for two slices, be mindful of how much you're consuming (four slices in a sandwich is 220 calories in bacon alone). The Hormel bacon contains sodium nitrite but also sodium erythorbate, which is a cure accelerator and stimulates color development in cured meat. Not ideal.
You'll find nitrites and sodium ascorbate on the ingredient list of this bacon. Sodium ascorbate is an addition mandated by USDA when bacon goes through the process of "pumping", and the presence of this ingredient is a good signal that subpar production practices were used. Add to that 350 milligrams of sodium per serving, and the final product is pretty unhelathy.
3. Great Value Naturally Hickory Smoked Thick Sliced Bacon
While the nutrition facts on this bacon don't differ too much from some of the better picks, it's the ingredient list that reveals some reason for concern. You'll find sodium phosphates (retain moisture), sodium erythrobate (color and curing accelerator), and sodium nitrite on the list. That, along with water as the first ingredient, indicates you are getting a lower quality "pumped" product. A peek at the customer reviews reveals complaints about a lack of consistency in the thickness of slices (from super thin to super thick). If you have to eat bacon, get something slightly better than this.