Bacon is thought to have first appeared on dinner tables in China thousands of years ago. The curing process has remained relatively consistent for centuries. Three simple yet natural ingredients were used to cure many meats as a way to preserve them (before the time of refrigeration): smoke, air and salt harvested from springs or the sea.
Salt was, for a very long time, considered a precious and valuable commodity and it wasn’t easily accessible. In 1920, a scientist changed all of that by finding a way to produce artificial salt (known as sodium nitrite and potassium nitrate). This new type of salt was easier to access, cheaper and also seemed to cure the meat faster. The long-term effects of eating nitrites and nitrates wasn’t realised until 2015, when the World Health Organisation declared it as carcinogenic, meaning that it has the potential to cause cancer.
Angus McIntosh (AKA Farmer Angus) is a regenerative farmer based in Stellenbosch, who uses only the most natural ingredients to make his bacon. He shares his insights into bacon’s popularity, its production and why organic is better for your health.
What makes bacon so irresistible?
Easy – bacon fat. It’s been called the sixth basic taste. When the fatty acids in bacon break down as it begins to cook, it erupts with a mountain of flavours and aromas. These are: furans, which are sweet and nutty; aldehydes that deliver a green, grassy note; and ketones that taste buttery. The combined taste of these result in what everyone calls bacon. Even before the pork belly or loin is cured, this flavour chemistry exists.
The breed and diet of a pig, as well as the curing process, determines its end flavour. When smoked, the smouldering wood releases acrid-smelling phenols, as well as sweeter-smelling compounds known as maple lactone.
Why is bacon pink?
Bacon is not ordinarily pink. In conventional curing processes, sodium nitrite (a pink salt) is added to the meat. Because it’s highly toxic, it’s dyed pink to prevent accidental ingestion. According to a study done at Oxford University, the exact toxicity is 71 milligrams per kilogram. If you weigh nearly 100 kilograms and ate 7.1 grams, you will die. What pink salt does is bind the oxygen carried by your blood, making it unavailable to your cells. The reason pink salt is used in the curing of bacon is to kill bacteria said to cause botulism (which was recently found to be false, thanks to a leaked study done by the British Meat Processors Association). Pink salt also intensifies the pink colour of bacon, which most people are now accustomed to and associate with the meat being fresh. Pink salt also intensifies the flavour.
The organic approach to bacon
Organic curing uses the three natural ingredients: natural unbleached salt (rock, sea or spice), smoke and air. It’s the same method used for centuries. One pork belly takes up to 24 hours to soak in a brine consisting of salt and optional unrefined sugar or spices, before it’s double smoked. All the processes are natural and are not harmful to the farmer, the workers or those eating the bacon. The bacon is brownish in colour because no chemical nitrites or nitrates are added. There are no additional flavourings, preservatives or chemicals added.
The cancer connection
Nitrites and nitrates are in fact found naturally in soil, water, plants, and even in our own bodies. They are naturally consumed by humans daily. Some of the highest concentrations are found in green vegetables. However, as always, the dosage is what’s important. Only a certain amount of naturally occurring nitrates is actually good for you, which is why adding additional nitrites and nitrates to our food, especially chemical versions, can be an unnecessary risk.
Can’t even imagine giving up bacon? Angus says a good start is to avoid bacon that is overly pink. Remember that naturally cured bacon will be a bit brown in colour. Also try to buy bacon that is sourced from an organic pig farm where the animals are raised in the most natural, loving and kind environment as possible and haven’t been fed with GMO feed.
Caroline McCann, owner of Braeside Meat Market says consumers should ask questions. We live in a world of ‘pre-packed’, ‘frozen’, ‘easy to cook’ and ‘ready-made’ without taking the time to consider the full life-cycle of our food. Knowing where your food comes from is a basic principle to a healthy lifestyle.