Organic bacon made without nitrates. Here’s what you need to know.

The ‘bacon causes cancer’ headlines that threatened our love of the Great British Bacon Butty in 2015 appear to have largely subsided in most people’s minds.  But you should still care about it – and here’s why.

Why are nitrates used to make bacon?

Nitrates are used in the curing process for bacon because, in combination with salt, nitrates and nitrites prevent the growth of bacteria.

Nitrate salts act as an antioxidant and keep the fat in the meat from turning rancid. They give the meat the pink blush that has come to look so appetising, but is actually unnatural. Without nitrates, processed meat actually looks pretty grey and unappealing.

Whats the issue with nitrates in bacon?

The issue isn’t with nitrates themselves. Nitrates are naturally found in plants, such as leafy greens, beets and celery and have been shown to have a number of health benefits, such as regulating blood pressure and improving circulation. 

However, it’s manufactured nitro-chemicals – in the form of sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite – that are typically added to processed meats as a preservative and to enhance flavour, colour and texture.

These nitrate salts in processed meats are problematic because when we cook and eat processed meat, nitrates can combine with the proteins’ amino acids and form nitrosamines. These are associated with an increased risk of certain cancers.

Around 90% of bacon sold in Britain is thought to contain nitrites, which research studies have linked to the development of bowel, breast and prostate cancers.

The evidence is strong enough that the World Health Organization classifies processed meat products as a Group 1 Carcinogen – the same designation as tobacco – as a cause of cancer.

So, why do brands continue to use manufactured nitrates?

The uncomfortable truth is commercial food processors prefer to use large levels of nitro-chemicals because it is easier and cheaper to procure than salt, and quickens the curing process – and therefore increases the profit margins. 

There are traditional alternatives processors could use. Celery salt and parsley, for example, are used in home style ‘naturally-cured’ bacon. Being naturally high in nitrates means these plant additives don’t negate the health complications for humans. They do, however, take longer to cure bacon and are typically more expensive to use, and so health concerns are not prioritised by many brands.

Where can I buy bacon made without nitro-chemicals? 

Instead of adding nitrates, Helen Browning’s Organic now cure their bacon with just salt and added organic fruit and vegetable extracts – lemons and the fruit of the Mediterranean Carob tree. This balance creates a safe curing process, with bacon that’s attractive in colouring and allows the flavour of the pork to shine. 

Helen Browning’s Organic streaky bacon was just awarded a gold star at The Great Taste Awards 2023, and it’s available to buy at select supermarkets, or you can order it to be delivered directly from their farm website.

“In the past, we did use nitrates in our bacon because there was no satisfactory organic alternative. Although used at significantly less than that of commercial levels – Soil Association organic certification limits their use to almost 80% less than that used in non-organic bacon – our goal at Eastbrook Farm Organic Meats has always been to get our use of nitrates even lower,” says Sally Ellis-Rudd from Helen Browning’s Organic.

It’s a process they have been working towards for almost 30 years; director Tim Finney was blogging about the use of nitrates and nitrites in bacon as far back as 2010.

Finally, after teaming up with close partners and pork experts, Houghton Hams, they have finally been able to launch organic bacon made without nitrates, and to make it available in supermarkets.

Helen Browning’s Organic’s aim now is to remove nitrates from all their products, including their ham.

Helen Brownings Pigs

What else you need to know about bacon: 

Genuinely good-quality bacon is about more than nitrates.  

A pig’s diet is an important component of bacon quality and flavour. 

Helen Browning’s organic pigs thrive in a slow-growing, pasture-raised system that gives them freedom to roam and play within family groups. 

They forage on herb-rich grass, supplemented with simple cereals and with surplus organic fruit and vegetables for extra variety. 

“We believe the new curing process improves the natural rich, robust pork flavour of our streaky and back rashers. We so strongly believe in it, in fact, that we no longer produce any bacon products made with nitrates or nitrites. The only compromise we have made is that our new bacon has a slightly shorter shelf life – so we have to get it out quicker,” says Sally.

Read more about Helen Browning’s Organic.
Shop nitrate-free bacon direct from Helen Browning’s Organic.

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Live Frankly Team

Live Frankly Team

When the author is listed as "Live Frankly Team" it means various members of Live Frankly have joined forces and combined areas of expertise to create the article. Typically this involves spending many hours together - often laughing, occasionally crying, constantly discussing and debating.


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