No, Nitrate-Free Bacon Is Not a Health Food

Though they're considered "diet-friendly," nitrate-free processed meats still should be eaten in moderation.

January 13, 2021
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Photo by: apomares/Getty Images

apomares/Getty Images

How many times have you whipped up a batch of nitrate-free bacon or sausage for your family, thinking you’re serving up a healthier offering — one that’s even Whole30 diet compliant? The truth is, processed meats like bacon and sausage are foods you should eat in moderation— o r if you’re being really watchful of your health, perhaps not at all.

With recent news from the USDA on potential updates to labeling regulations for foods containing nitrates and nitrites, things are about to get clearer. We talked with nutrition experts about what these proposed regulations mean.

First, What Are Nitrates?

Simply put, nitrates are compounds that help meat stay fresh longer. They have a certain look and taste — that salty, cured flavor many people crave. “In the case of meat processing, they’re used to preserve meat, prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, and sometimes they’re used to produce a desired color or flavor,” explains Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, a dietitian in New York City and co-author of Sugar Shock.

Nitrates can be added to any processed meat, including deli meat, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, salami, chorizo and jerky. Technically, turkey and chicken made with nitrates fall into this category, too.

The most important thing you should know about nitrates: They can harm your health. “Processed meats have been linked to a higher risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and they’ve been shown to cause certain types of cancer,” says Cassetty.

So Is Going Nitrate-Free Healthier?

Currently, if you purchase a food containing natural sources of nitrates, you’ll likely see the claims “no nitrate or nitrate added,” or “uncured” — so long as the labeling has an additional disclaimer identifying the non-synthetic source. Celery powder and even sea salt are examples of non-synthetic sources.

The issue with this labeling is that the claims “paint a picture that the food may be healthier if a non-synthetic source is used,” says Michelle Routhenstein, MS, RD, CDE, a preventive cardiology dietitian, in New York City and author of the Truly Easy Heart Healthy Cookbook. “However, that is not true.”

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) plans to propose a bar of these misleading statements. In addition, FSIS aims to establish new definitions for “cured” and “uncured.” However, FSIS also plans to approve non-synthetic sources of nitrates and nitrites as curing agents.

Many people are surprised to find that celery powder is extensively processed and may have the same dangerous effect as nitrates on the body when consumed in processed meats, said Sarah Sorscher, the deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), in a press release response to a letter from the FSIS to her. The CSPI, along with Consumer Reports, originally petitioned against the current nitrate and nitrite labels in 2019.

Tentatively, FSIS will explain the basis for the proposed changes in the proposed rule in May 2021.

So, How Much Processed Meat Is Safe to Eat?

If you truly want to minimize all of risks of consuming processed red meat, you'd unfortunately have to cut it out of your diet completely.

The American Institute for Cancer Research’s World Cancer Research fund recommends limiting red meat intake — which includes beef, pork, and lamb — to no more than three portions totaling 12 to 18 ounces of cooked meat per week. The recommendations include eating little, if any, processed red meat.

“There’s no known safe level of consumption for processed meats,” says Cassetty. “But I wouldn’t worry if you’re only eating processed meats a couple of times a month. The occasional slice of bacon or processed deli turkey meat isn’t likely to be harmful.

How to Reduce Your Processed Meat Intake

Plant-based eating is huge right now, which makes cutting back on processed meat that much easier. “Whenever you reduce something in your diet, the key is to replace it with something more healthful,” says Cassetty. “So when you’re cutting back on red meat, better alternatives include seafood, eggs, poultry, and plant-based proteins like beans, tofu, and legumes.”

Another strategy is to pile your plate with veggies, so you won’t notice what’s missing. For instance, pair your protein with a green salad or a big spoonful of roasted vegetables. You can also mix meat with plant proteins to reduce intake. “An example of mixing plant-based protein and red meat is a burger made half with ground beef and half with tofu or chopped-up edamame,” says Jonathan Valdez, RD, a spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist in the New York City area and owner of the Plant-Based Eats Etsy store, where she sells healthy meal plans and printables. She’s a regular contributor to many publications, including EverydayHealth.com, ReadersDigest.com, NBCNews.com, and more. She also pens a recipe-focused blog, Amy’s Eat List, where she shares easy, healthy recipes. Connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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