Curing has long been considered a safe way to preserve meat while also ensuring that it tastes good when it is time to eat it. In recent years, there have been questions raised about the safety of cured meats largely due to the supposed carcinogenic properties of the nitrates used in the curing process. Uncured bacon is marketed as a healthier type of bacon compared to bacon cured with traditional curing salt. What are the differences between cured and uncured bacon? Is the uncured meat really that much healthier? We will consider these and other questions below in another BBQ Showdown.
In what ways do cured and uncured bacon differ?
It is important to note that the cured and uncured designations from the USDA refer to the use of synthetic nitrates, not necessarily all nitrates. All true bacon utilizes a combination of nitrates, smoke, and salt for the purposes of preservation; that is what makes it bacon. This goes for both cured and uncured bacon. The difference between the two has to do with the source of the nitrates. Cured bacon is made with curing salt 1, also known as Prague powder 1. This curing powder is a combination of sodium nitrate and table salt. The nitrate in curing salt is a synthetic nitrate. Sodium nitrate is what helps to preserve the meat while also providing the pink coloration that we associate with cured meat products. With uncured bacon, the nitrates are not directly added to the meat; instead, products like celery salt are often used. Celery naturally contains a high concentration of nitrates, which means that it can have a similar preservative effect on meat. This also means that you are still consuming nitrates.
The USDA considers celery products to be flavorings, not preservatives. This is why the bacon on which they are used is deemed uncured.
Is it healthier to eat one rather than the other?
The reason for curing is to prevent the growth of bacteria that will cause the meat to spoil and that can also make you sick. Whichever source of nitrate is used in curing, it should be free from bacteria in most cases; however, there are other dangers. Sodium nitrate is said to break down into nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens. These nitrosamines show up when the bacon is cooked. The jury is still out on whether nitrosamines are present in a high enough concentration cured meat to actually be dangerous.
Uncured meat does not have as high a concentration of nitrates (which is why it is not pink), which means that the nitrosamines should also be lower in concentration.
Note that regardless of nitrates or the lack thereof, both types of bacon will be high in both sodium and fat. Sodium and fat are well known to cause serious health problems when consumed in excess.
Is one easier to smoke than the other?
One of the big factors in the flavor that we expect from bacon is the smoke. Cured bacon is typically smoked for hours over low heat. The smoking is mainly for the purpose of enhancing flavor rather than to cook the meat. If you are making uncured bacon at home, it is recommended that you use a higher heat since the absence of sodium nitrate can increase the risk of food-borne illness.
When should you use cured bacon and when should you use uncured bacon?
Cured bacon has the pink color and intense flavor that we associate with bacon. If these factors are priorities for you, you may want to go with cured bacon. Uncured bacon tastes and looks more like pork belly, but may be better for you since it is not likely to have as many carcinogenic compounds.