Don't give up on bacon yet

by Christiaan Mader

Let these pork-smiths ease your anxious mind with nitrate-free pork products like bacon, boudin and salumi.

Nitrate-free pork goodness at Bread & Circus
Robin May

It hasn’t been long since bacon was added to the axis of evil, and reactive skepticism is in full effect. Many media organizations grossly misunderstood the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s findings and jumped quickly into analytical panic. Cancer is as close as it gets to truly universal suffering, so any link to comfort food is going to touch a nerve. Fortunately for folks in Acadiana, we have plenty of ways to have our pork and eat it too.

While IARC’s monograph study demonstrates a definitive link between processed meats like bacon and cancer risk, it doesn’t really certify much about what it is in processed meat that makes it carcinogenic. Current best guesses, i.e. laboratory science, are that N-nitroso compounds produced in the act of human consumption are the culprit. We produce those compounds when we eat all sorts of things, but the introduction of nitrates and nitrites, via preservative salts like sodium nitrate, is thought to accelerate or multiply the production of N-nitroso compounds.

According to chef and charcutier Manny Augello, nitrates are a concession to the aesthetic and volumetric needs of mass-marketed meat.

“Nitrates, in preservation speak, retain the color of the meat. So that when something is cured or smoked, and you slice into it; it still has that beautiful pink color,” Augello says.

Full disclosure, I’ve worked with and for Augello at his restaurant Bread & Circus Provisions for nearly two years. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, take everything I say with a grain of sodium chloride.

Cajuns love pork in general, and processed pork in particular. When we say “processed” the word instantly conjures tubular meats that defy the scraggly geometry of nature with shapes only possible in computer-designed, factory rendered casings. The term is loaded, but poorly understood in how it’s actually applied. To process meat simply means to add factors of preparation or preservation to it. Once you slaughter a pig, butcher it and cure it, you’ve processed it. It doesn’t matter if the hog ate only Kentucky blue grass and regurgitated Kashi bars — curing, smoking, cooking and then preserving are all ways to process meat.

Manny Augello
Robin May

Augello’s process includes curing and preserving meats with brines, salt rubs and smoke, known collectively as charcuterie in the French tradition or salumi in the Italian. These processes have preserved meats for centuries without the use of nitrates, but the methods are both time-consuming and labor-intensive, characteristics not favorable to the bottom line of mass produced foods.

Charcuterie like prosciutto, pancetta, guanciale, coppa or soppressata toscana produced with traditional agents, that is without nitrates, don’t present the extra production of N-nitroso.

It’s important to note (for my sake and the sake of our attorneys) that I am NOT saying that Italian meats, made the old-fashioned way, won’t contribute to your cancer risk, just that if current suspicions are correct and N-nitroso is the culprit, then products without nitrates would likely present less risk. Furthermore, many popular charcuterie products sold in grocery stores are made with nitrates, so don’t assume that it’s nitrate free just because it claims to be salami.

Bread & Circus embraces traditional charcuterie methods with patient and careful abandon. The deli case is a trove of cured and smoked goodies, including pounds of cured, smoked and nitrate-free bacon. Augello is currently waiting on two more gorgeous legs of Brookshire prosciutto to cure. They're not expected to be on the slicer for another 18 months.

“All of our meat is cured for anywhere from five to seven days, at least the smoked stuff is [andouille or bacon], and then our cured stuff [i.e. pancetta or prosciutto] is cured anywhere from five weeks to two years,” says Augello. “It’s not the bacon that has cancer, it’s the process that introduces cancer agents into the meat. We’re taking it back to a level of old school that occurred before all these things were introduced into our meat supply. We don’t need it if we take the proper care and time, and have a controlled environment.”

Greg Walls at Johnson’s Boucaniere provides plenty of nitrate-free pork products as well. You will be relieved to know that his boudin, ribs, fresh sausage, brisket and pulled pork products are all nitrate free. Those products that do have nitrites in it — beef jerky, smoked sausage, tasso —contain a dilute dose of one tablespoon per five gallons of water introduced in Walls’ brining process.

There’s no such thing as dangerous chemicals, only dangerous doses, or so the chemist says to a sleeping classroom. And Walls points out that the nitrates used sparingly in his smoked products serve a valuable purpose.

Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are very similar compounds, although the nitrite variety is used primarily to combat Clostridium botulinum, the bug responsible for botulism.

“Anytime we’re slow smoking at low temperature [under 200 degrees Fahrenheit] we use nitrites. If you don’t put nitrites in, you run the risk of botulism and that’s not a good thing” he tells me. “When you slow smoke stuff you’re in the danger zone.”

Slow-smoked andouille hangs at Johnson's Boucanière
Robin May

Botulism, Walls points out, is a serious concern when smoking meat at low temperatures. It’s a brutal disease that slowly paralyzes your tissues and can kill you once it stops your respiratory muscles. It’s also the agent responsible for the cosmetic powers of Botox — see, everything in moderation. Adding a salt-based preservative like sodium nitrite to a meat brine prior to low-temp smoking can stave the growth of bacteria. Walls would rather risk the nitrites than the botulism.

“If that’s gonna kill me then that’s the way I wanna die,” says Walls.

As I’m sure you’re aware by this point, what the IARC found in their study was that processed meat increases your cancer risk by 18 percent. A salient question then becomes, “well 18 percent of what?” The answer to that question is five.

A control-study human being has a five percent chance of getting some form of colorectal cancer, the specific genre of cancer affiliated with processed meat. Should a person eat a quantity of processed meat in excess of the study’s recommended threshold —50 grams per day, or like two slices of bologna — that gross percentage ticks up to six. Don’t get me wrong, considering all the things that contribute to the probability of cancer — sunlight, stress — you can be justifiably concerned with aggregating cancer risk. But the point here is that it can be reasonably quantified and thus moderated.

It’s no surprise that the IARC’s report went viral. We’re a culture in constant search for panacea. Universal scapegoating is the other side of that coin. What exactly is the opposite of a panacea? We have a concept of possible cure-alls — goji berries, yoga, gluten-free diets, all-gluten diets, retail therapy, beer — but don’t readily have a pan-causal culprit for the world’s evils. Unless you’re the church lady. Then it’s Satan.

A friend pointed out to me that if you didn’t know that processed meat can be bad for you, you’re likely in for many more rude awakenings — so is ice cream, drinking, smoking and beating your head against a wall. Eat more vegetables, get more exercise, pet a dog — do all the things you can that have any correlative reduction in risk factors.

But, above all, eat your nitrate-free bacon in moderation.