Sunday, June 19, 2011

Is Bacon Paleo?

My post on hormones, nitrites, and antibiotics left me pondering bacon. Okay, so it doesn’t take all that much to get me thinking about bacon. I don’t think I’m all that unique in that respect, at least among members of the primal / paleo / low carb community. As a matter of fact, I remember reading (I can’t remember where) that bacon is a common cause of vegan/vegetarian “slips.” That ought to make us cherish bacon even more! So imagine my joy when I discovered Voges Haut Chocolat’s confection last month in Seattle. It’s too late for Father’s Day, but any day would be a good excuse for this treat, right?
Bacon is a cured cut of pork, but the cuts differ between regions. In the United States bacon (called “streaky,” “fatty,” or “American style” outside North America) is produced from the pork belly. Canadian bacon is produced from the pork loin. In much of Europe, and Great Britain in particular, bacon generally refers to Wilshire bacon. This bacon is produced from a Wilshire side, which is basically the loin and belly. Unlike Canadian and US bacon which are almost always smoked, Wiltshire bacon may or may not be. (Pearson and Gillett, 1996)

A Wilshire Side, with the ribs and backbone still in place.

Anyway, I started wondering about the need for, and history of, meat preservation. Particularly about smoking and curing. How long have humans been practicing these arts? Is bacon truly primal / paleo?  

All of this reminded me of the fact that a ready supply of fresh meat has not been the daily reality for most of mankind’s existence. And it still isn’t for a substantial portion of mankind. Modern refrigeration and freezing has eliminated the need for the heavy salting and smoking that were once needed for preservation. Prior to modern refrigeration and freezing, animals would be slaughtered in the cooler fall, at the end of the growing season. One reason for today’s conventional animal production practices is to provide a year-round supply of slaughter animals and fresh meat and milk.

The origin of meat preservation, and therefore processing, is lost in antiquity. Perhaps it started when our distant ancestors learned that cooking prolongs the keeping quality of fresh meat. Perhaps that was followed by the discovery of the preservative action and desirable flavor imparted to meat that was hung near their fires. The discovery that salt acted as a preservative came later, but there are records of salt being used to preserve fish dating back as far as 3500 BCE (Pearson and Gillett, 1996). The ancient Egyptians recorded the preservation of meat products by salting and sun drying. It is interesting to note that the salt used frequently contained sufficient nitrate to produce the color-preserving, flavoring, and preservative effects that saltpeter and vegetable extracts are used to produce in today’s meat curing processes (Pearson and Gillett, 1996).  So the smoking and curing of meat have been practiced since at least the beginning of recorded history. They are probably not ‘paleo’ in the strictest sense, but they are ancient.

Natural refrigeration and drying are two equally ancient preservation methods for meat. The early Romans are credited with being the first to use ice and snow as a means of preserving food, although that is surely due to the fact that their accounts have survived while those of the various peoples of northern Europe, Asia and North America, if they were written, did not (Romans and Ziegler, 1974). While the native people of North America dried meat to preserve it for later use and for making pemmican,  drying meat seems a widespread practice (Pearson and Gillett, 1996).  


Pearson, A.M., and T.A. Gillett. 1996. Processed Meats. Chapman & Hall. New York, NY

Romans, J.R., and P.T. Ziegler. 1974. The Meat We Eat. Interstate Printers & Publishers, Inc. Danville, IL


  1. I think there is little anyone could say or do to make me give up my bacon. Of course, whether it is Paleo or Primal is of little concern to me, because I really consider myself neither, but I understand this is a debate amongst those folks. Interesting post, thank you!

  2. I'll give up my bacon when they pry my cold, dead, greasy fingers ... Uh, sorry.

    Yeah, not about to give up bacon!

    Some of the debate in the paleo / primal communities strikes me as missing the point. You're welcome, Lisa. I'm glad you found this post interesting.

  3. Bacon is fat-meat. Fat-meat is a real food. Real food is paleo. Or is my logic all screwed up?

  4. Hello, Fred -

    Bacon, being a cured and smoked meat product probably wasn't something our paleolithic ancestors produced. It is most likely a neolithic invention, although an ancient one. If someone wants to be VERY literal, it should not, therefore, be considered "paleo." Me? I'll keep eating bacon!

  5. A paleo theory (of sorts) is that the increase in meat eating and evolutionary advantage was a consequence of forest fires which made burned and smoked meat more easily digestible. This may or may not be a scientific theory but I thought I would add my twenty cents (correcting for inflation). I smell breakfast being cooked so that's all.

  6. I'm a producer and marketer of all-natural, pastured-heirloom Berkshire bacon. some of the very best, but I still believe people need to think beyond bacon! Come on, people, it's a condiment! A 200# carcass yields only 20# of bacon anyway, what about the rest? Most city people are terrified of the truly healthful and more creative cuts. Another food tragedy is "cremated meat" aka "crispy" bacon. Everyone regresses to a tantrum-throwing 3 year old when you ask them not to ruin the bacon this way, but a gradual learning curve will get you back to minimally-cooked bacon, prepared as it should be. Actually, crispy bacon IS "kiddie food", a dumbed-down, entry level novelty, a very un-meatlike snack. Just eat salty, BBQ potato chips if this is what you like. Well-done steaks are likewise ruined and turned to junk food, but I digress. Lastly we modern twerps are NOT Paleo-like in our cushy, air-conditioned, cubical-dwelling, SUV existence so we don't need the high-octane, high horsepower diet of a true hunter-gatherer living in the elements.

  7. rdfeinman - I wrote about this in my post "Nature Votes Last" (quoting myself, references provided in the post) -
    Several authors have argued that one of the two critical drivers for the development of our species, Homo sapiens, is the consumption of a diet consisting primarily of organ meats, animal fats, and muscle meats (Kaplan et al., 2000, Stanford and Bunn, 2001, Bramble and Lieberman, 2004). The other developmental driver was the practice of cooking (Wrangham, et al., 1999, Wrangham, 2006). Wrangham’s book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human is a fascinating and very readable examination of this topic.

    I hope you enjoyed your breakfast. Thanks for the $0.20. The first money I've made from this blog!!

  8. Will - I believe Dr. Michael Eades agrees with you that properly cooked bacon should be "wobbly." Nice point about BBQ potato chips! Completely agree that the paleo / primal community can sometimes fail to see ALL of the ways modernity impacts modern life. Then again, I'm not about to claim perfect perception of my own life ...

  9. Thanks Pete, and a bit of apology, I just reread what I wrote this morning and I DO get a tad worked up about this particular topic. Same with burnt steaks! Nothing rains on a meat producers parade than seeing your creation RUINED in the kitchen! Anyway, I like the word "wobbly", that's the adjective I was looking for! Incidentally, I sell a series of SALT FUSIONS which marry the best seasalts with natural flavors such as garlic, jalapeño, or sun-dried tomato. The ALDER-SMOKED SALT FUSION turns any cut of meat, burger, porkchop or chicken wing into a drool-inducing creation, even right from the skillet, it just takes a sprinkle. As far as I know, it's all natural too! A sweet little pork steak (served medium-rare) becomes better-than-bacon! Win-Win

  10. The idea that there is a well defined line separating the Paleolithic era and the Neolithic era is pretty faulty. If we want to get down to it, grass-fed beef is not Paleo but mastodon and giant sloth is. Good luck finding them at the local farmers market. For me, I'll be eating my bacon.

  11. No worries, Will. I think I can understand where you're coming from. Your salt fusions sound interesting.

    Monkey Courage - I agree, but that hasn't stopped folks from drawing it - at times in pretty weird places. Eat the egg white and feed the yoke to the dogs ... ??? What the ... ??? Perhaps wild aurochs would be closer to grass-fed beef. From what I've read, some folks think it would be a good idea to bring them back via genetic engineering. We'll see ...

  12. I think the worst thing about processed bacon is the huge amounts of sugar that even the natural food companies add to their product. I shop at Whole Foods and other health food stores, and have been unable to find bacon without ANY added sweeteners. Any suggestions?

  13. A couple of suggestions, Girl -

    Keep an eye on the US Wellness Meats site. The bacon they're currently offering is labeled "white sugar free," but it's made with "honey powder." They are hoping to supply a truly sugar-free bacon in the near future.

    If the bacon you're looking at comes with a nutritional info label, look at the carbohydrates per serving. The USDA ARS lists bacon at a little more than 1 g carbohydrates per 100 g (about 9 slices, by my calculations). Oscar Mayer bacon, per it's label, is 1 g carbohydrates per 53 g.

    Sugar is a common part of most, but not all cure recipes. Happy hunting, and good luck!

  14. On the otherhand, the counterpoint of the potato chip statement is that if you are craving crunchy chips, why not have lots of well-cooked bacon instead! With that sour cream dip!