Nitrite-free bacon tastes and looks better, so why do we ignore the risks?
This is not the first time that nitrites and nitrates have figured in attempts to put the nation off its beloved bacon sarnies. Processed meats have been recognised as carcinogens for years, yet we prefer to stick our fingers in our ears and carry on.
There’s just one producer of nitrite-free bacon, Finnebrogue of Northern Ireland, supplying British supermarkets. Aldi briefly listed a competitor, but it has vanished without trace, suggesting it is not an issue that weighs on the mind of your average butty muncher. (Perhaps it has something to do with the fact we already know that bacon is “bad” for us, and have decided one more health concern won’t make much difference … even when that concern is cancer.)
Manufacturers often claim that these additives are necessary to ensure the product is safe to eat, but in fact bacon, made from a solid slab of fat and muscle rather than from minced meat such as salami or chorizo, does not need them – Parma ham has been made without nitrates for almost 30 years. They do, however, speed up the curing time (which saves money) and also help to keep the bacon that familiar Peppa pink colour when cooked, which is both unnatural in the extreme, and exactly what the consumer expects.
Grant Harper of Fruit Pig in Cambridgeshire tells me that customers were put off by the colour of their additive-free bacon, so, with regret, they have stopped producing it: “People who have lived on pink bacon their whole lives are maybe not ready for grey bacon.”
In my experience, traditionally cured nitrite-free bacon tastes, as well as looks, more porky than its rosier counterpart – but I’m not convinced most of us would notice the difference unless we were on the lookout for it. Which, given the risks involved, perhaps we ought to be.