Nutrition experts have for years attempted to clarify the difference between cured and uncured bacon. As Americans become more concerned about how their meat is raised and processed, uncured bacon sounds like the healthy alternative for consumers who wants to avoid nitrates in their meat. But, as The Washington Post’s Tamar Haspel writes today, uncured bacon is a myth. Bacon labeled uncured is in fact cured, but using celery derivatives rather than sodium nitrite. Haspel notes that the nitrite molecule is still the same, no matter its source, and that so-called uncured bacon can sometimes contain higher levels of nitrites and nitrates than conventionally cured bacon.
Haspel digs into the science behind how nitrates break down to nitrites that break down to the nitric oxide that preserves meat and keeps spoilage bacteria from developing. Give it a read; the chemistry is not as complicated as you might assume.
After reading Haspel’s piece, though, I still had one bacon-y question on my mind: Is it possible to buy truly uncured bacon? As in, bacon with no nitrates, nitrites, or celery-derived preservatives? So I called up Rob Levitt, Takeout bacon expert and head butcher at Chicago’s Publican Quality Meats.
“You can make bacon with neither [nitrates nor celery-derived nitrites],” he tells me. “The bacon I used to make at my butcher shop had just salt, brown sugar, spices. No nitrites, no celery powder. You leave it on the salt for a week or 10 days, rinse it, smoke it.”
The difference, Levitt says, is that the bacon made without nitrites or nitrates won’t last quite as long or look quite as pink as the nitrate-cured bacon from the grocery store. “But who buys so much bacon that they have to concern themselves with long-term storage?” he says. “Bacon made without that stuff will cook and taste like bacon. It’ll serve all your bacon needs.”
Unfortunately, bacon preserved with just salt isn’t easy to find in grocery stores; you’d probably have to go to an actual butcher to find it. If you want to know whether your grocery-store “uncured” bacon does have celery-derived nitrites in it, Levitt says you can just look at the list of ingredients, which would list celery-derived ingredients, sometimes listed as celery juice or celery powder.
Bottom line: While debate continues over whether processed meats cause cancer, know that cured and uncured bacon from the grocery store are virtually the same thing. Before your next bacon-shopping trip, you’ll want to give The Washington Post story a read.