The Science of Bacon: How to Hack Your Pork
By: Dave Asprey
November 25, 2013
When people start following the Bulletproof, Paleo, or Primal diet, they are often thrilled to hear that they can eat bacon – the standard low-fat/high-carb dieter’s kryptonite. But this doesn’t mean you can just grab the nearest package of Oscar Mayer and start frying. Bacon is a food that can be really unhealthy, with lots of variables that determine if it’s actually going to be good for you.
While eating Bulletproof, you want to get the ideal bacon to support your optimal performance, and prepare it right. Here’s how:
Where to Get Your Bacon
Results have varied in studies testing whether nitrites are carcinogens, which has led scientists to instead study nitrosamines to determine if perhaps they are the cancer-causing culprits. Nitrosamines are made when nitrites bond with amines in protein, and are more common in fried bacon than in other cured meats.
So how can you minimize nitrosamines? Well, scientists have found that pigs who were fed corn oil had significantly higher levels of nitrosamines in their bacon, which suggests that we should only consume bacon from pastured pigs.
Another thing to watch out for in your pork is the little-known mold toxin, ochratoxin A, which has been found frequently in animal meat, with especially high levels reported in pork. When contaminated meats are consumed by humans, this toxin can cause cancer and kidney toxicity.
So how do you avoid this mold toxin? Ochratoxin A is considered a “storage fungi,” which means that instead of the pig’s feed being contaminated while it is growing, it is contaminated when it is stored at high moisture levels, which promotes the growth of mold.1 Studies of pigs have shown that being fed ochratoxin A-contaminated feed for as little as 30 days can have a huge impact on the quality of your pork.2 3 Unfortunately, industrial farms are glad to feed the moldiest (and cheapest) feed to pigs right before slaughter.
Commercial pigs are fed a corn and soy-based diet, which generally involves stored food (and therefore, mold). Pastured pigs, on the other hand, go outside and forage for bugs, plants, and roots as often as weather permits. These animals’ diets are frequently supplemented with commercial feed when necessary. To protect yourself from a range of mold toxins, including ochratoxin A, it is best to buy any pork in the summer and fall, as those animals have generally eaten vegetables, or potentially fresh grain that hasn’t been sitting in a silo for the winter, growing mold.
If this sounds silly or too concerned, it’s not. It took me years to understand why some pork had a fundamentally different impact on my head than others. I buy my pork from a local farmer in September and freeze it for the winter. The difference in how you feel from winter pork vs. summer pork is fascinating, and quite noticeable once you know the variable you’re testing.
How to Prepare Your Bacon
A butcher cures pork using salt, sodium nitrite, sugar, and perhaps sodium or potassium nitrate. Nitrates are widely believed to cause cancer and other mutations in your DNA, so they’re not considered safe anymore, even though bacteria convert them to nitrite anyway. Nitrites (whether they are naturally occurring in celery salt, or from the breakdown of nitrate to nitrite) can lead to the formation of nitrosamines (another carcinogen) as the bacon is curing, or in your stomach depending on the type of gut flora you have.
Even the trendiest organic bacon today isn’t cured in the traditional manner; it’s injected with a mixture of water and curing agents, which makes it cure faster and weigh more, but it also makes it watery and splatter when it cooks. The best bacon is so dry that it’s just protein and fat – and it doesn’t spit or splatter.
So how do you hack your bacon?
The most Bulletproof bacon is the bacon you cure yourself. I’m working on a separate recipe post with a video for you, but in the meantime, here are some ideas:
- Don’t fall for the celery powder hype. Use sodium nitrate, in very small amounts, the way your grandfather would have. It’s known as “pink curing salt” or “Prague #1” – not Himalayan, but “curing salt” and you can find it here on Amazon. I use that brand because it doesn’t have fake coloring in it.
- Sadly, smoking bacon after you cure it creates a lot more toxins (HCA and nitrosamines) so use smoked salt in the cure instead, and bake your bacon.
- If you still won’t use real curing salt, you can prepare your bacon with sea salt and natural sweeteners (ie, maple syrup). Since this doesn’t “cure” the meat, your bacon won’t have the typical pink color, it won’t be as dry, and it has a higher risk of botulism, and it won’t last as long, but it will probably taste delicious.
- Finally, we have the most Bulletproof bacon hacking tip of all. You can rub your pork belly with any mixture of herbs and salt, as well as sodium nitrite (to cure it), also add Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) to the rub, to absolutely stop the formation of nitrosamines, and to help the nitrites convert to nitric oxide instead of carcinogens. Adding some Vitamin E may also help prevent the formation of nitrosamine. You can then leave your bacon to cure for 1-10 days (usually 7-10) before you smoke it. I’ll have the full recipe developed for you shortly!
What About Other, Non-Bacon Pork?
A study of three adults examined the effect of eating pork with different methods of preparation.4 After consuming an unmarinated, pastured pork chop, all of the subjects’ blood showed that there were large amounts of red blood cells sticking together – a condition that hinders circulation. There was also evidence of fibrin, a white thread-like protein that encourages blood to clot. Additionally, two of the subjects noted feeling tired after eating the pork chop.
After eating a pastured pork chop marinated in apple cider vinegar, the subjects’ blood was primarily the same. Only one subject showed slight stickiness in her red blood cells, but it was nowhere near the level of stickiness that occurred after eating the unmarinated pork. Even though there were some groups of cells stuck together, the red blood cells were generally able to circulate freely. We don’t know why this happens, but I’d guess that the ACV breaks down lipopolysaccharides on the surface of the meat, or it somehow inhibits oxidation of the fats. I do not find ACV to have a positive impact on my pork; instead I use antioxidant spices like turmeric when I cook it.
After consuming uncured, pastured bacon (prepared using salt and maple syrup), the subjects’ blood cells remained healthy, with few-to-no cells sticking together. This supports my lipopolysaccharide hypothesis, as the bacon cure would prevent bacteria from forming them.
The study concluded that even consuming pastured pork, when not marinated, produces unwanted blood clotting and coagulation, which may cause lethargy. However, marinating and preparing your pork with the methods discussed above do not cause these results.
Why Commercial Nitrite-Free Bacon…Isn’t
Although certain brands advertise their bacon to be “uncured” and “nitrite free,” the truth is that they use celery salt and a bacteria culture to preserve their bacon. As mentioned above, the bacteria transform the nitrates from celery salt into nitrites. In fact, these “nitrite-free” bacons may have as much as twice the nitrites as bacon that is directly cured with nitrites.5 But hey, no nitrate was added, right? This is a case of legal, but deceptive, food labeling.
But Are Nitrites Really Bad for You?
The answer is … it depends. When nitrites convert to nitrosamines, you’ve got a problem. But with careful preparation of your meat, nitrites can also be turned into nitric oxide (see above). Nitric oxide actually may help to prevent heart disease, since its role is to send signals to the cardiovascular system, telling it to relax. By doing this, nitric oxide (read: Bulletproof Bacon) can help lower your blood pressure, lower your triglyceride level, expand blood vessels, eliminate clots, and reduce arterial plaque. And think about it – lower blood pressure and better circulation means more oxygen where you need it, faster. It means more energy. It doesn’t get more Bulletproof than that.
But Wait! Don’t Ruin Your Bacon! Cooking Matters
Once your bacon is prepared, you still want to ensure that you don’t enable nitrosamines to form while you’re cooking it, and you don’t want to damage the fats with high heat. To do this, cook it at a low temperature and keep it medium well or below. Crispy bacon is oxidized, denatured bacon and will cause inflammation. One study “showed no evidence of nitrosamines in bacon fried at 210 °F for 10 minutes (rare), 210 °F for 15 minutes (medium well), 275 °F for 10 minutes (very light), or 275 °F for 30 minutes (medium well). But when bacon was fried at 350 °F for 6 minutes (medium well), 400 °F for 4 minutes (medium well), or 400 °F for 10 minutes (burned), some nitrosamines were found.”6
As for the mold toxin ochratoxin A, there is some evidence that you can remove about 20% of the toxin by frying your meat between 300 and 320 degrees, but the same study showed that this only removes the toxin from muscular tissue.7 Ochratoxin A does not cook out of fat tissue, which is much of what bacon is composed of, so your best option is to use pastured meat that has been slaughtered in the summer or fall to minimize any ochratoxins in the first place, then to cook your bacon medium-well under a low temperature to prevent the addition of nitrosamines.
Seriously, I do all this stuff. Don’t mess around with cheap or burned bacon. It’s not worth it.
When to Eat Bacon
If you’re recovering from the Standard American Diet (SAD) and are still worried about eating bacon, or eating too much of it, don’t be. Fifty percent of the fat in bacon is monounsaturated, and it is mostly oleic acid (the stuff that makes olive oil so healthy). Three percent of the fat is palmitoleic acid, which is an antimicrobial. Forty percent of the fat is saturated, which is why it takes bacon so long to go bad. And that forty percent also helps stabilize the remaining seven percent of the fat, which is composed of unstable polyunsaturates.
Bacon also has a phospholipid called phosophatidyl choline, which is a stronger antioxidant than vitamin E (and which is currently being researched to see if it helps with liver repair, colitis, or brain function and memory).
Last but not least, pastured bacon (not factory farmed), has high levels of vitamin D – one of the most important Bulletproof supplements.
With all of these health benefits of bacon, you can eat it just about any time, with any meal. Or by itself. That’s cool, too.
This Was A Lot of Information…
If you want a simple list of the general criterion for Bulletproof bacon, here you go:
- Only use pastured pork to avoid antibiotics and bad fats from soy.
- Buy your pork in the summer or fall to reduce animal feed toxins.
- Cure or marinate the pork on your own.
- If you cure your pork, add vitamins C and E in the rub (not after you cook it) to prevent cancer-causing nitrosamines.
- Cook your pork at a low temperature (under 300) and keep it medium, not crispy.
- Don’t eat rare or raw uncured pork because of the risk of type E hepatitis, as discovered by Paul Jaminet.8 Properly cured pork doesn’t have this problem.
Don’t forget to enjoy your bacon!
- Food Safety Watch: Ochratoxins
- Porcine Nephropathy Induced by Long-Term Ingestion of Ochratoxin A. P. Krogh, F. Elling, Chr. Friis, B. Hald, A. E. Larsen, E. B. Lillehj, A. Madsen, H. P. Mortensen, F. Vet Pathol 1979 16: 466.
- Ochratoxin A in traditional dry-cured meat products produced from sub-chronic-exposed pigs. Pleadin, Jelka; Perši, Nina; Kovaevi, Dragan; Vahi, Nada; Scortichini, Giampiero; Milone, Salvatore. Food Additives & Contaminants. Part A: Chemistry, Analysis, Control, Exposure & Risk Assessment. Oct2013, Vol. 30 Issue 10, p1827-1836.
- The Weston A. Price Foundation: How Does Pork Prepared in Various Ways Affect the Blood
- The Weston A. Price Foundation: Save Your Bacon! Sizzling Bits about Nitrites, Dirty Little Secrets about Celery Salt and Other Aporkalyptic News
- USDA.Gov: Bacon and Food Safety
- Josefsson, B. G. E. and Möller, T. E. (1980), Heat stability of ochratoxin A in pig products. J. Sci. Food Agric., 31: 1313–1315.
- The Trouble With Pork, Part 3: Pathogens