It looks like it’s bacon week here at Tuit Nutrition. (And there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!) As a follow-up to Monday’s post about bacon from “100% vegetarian fed” pigs, with no added nitrates, let’s dive a little deeper into this salty, smoky, sweet, and darn near intoxicating food.
Generally speaking, I like to think I'm a pretty intelligent gal. I recognize, however, that there are some subjects that render me a complete eejit. All mathematics beyond your basic algebra comes immediately to mind, as does anything you might find in a high school physics textbook. I am not at all above admitting that I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer. However, on subjects about which I am truly passionate, I’d like to think what I know exceeds that which I do not know. Until recently, I had thought this was true regarding my knowledge of bacon. But I was wrong! I had a revelation about bacon a few days ago, and at the risk of exposing what a total moron I am, I thought I’d share it here on the blog, in case anyone out there is even slower than I am, and hasn’t yet had this epiphany. (Good thing there are only four people reading. Chances are, all four of you learned this long ago, and the only useful thing you’ll gain from this post is a hearty guffaw, at my expense.)
Okay. Maybe I’m late to this party, and if so, I’ll just don my dunce cap and head off to go sit in the corner. But really, if it’s taken me this long to realize something pretty neat about bacon, then I have to figure there are others wandering around out there, ignorant of this very cool thing.
Like I mentioned in the previous post, I hadn’t been eating much bacon. But now that it’s reclaimed its proper place of prominence in my diet, I’ve had the opportunity to really look at bacon. Now, we all know bacon is fatty. That’s part of what makes it delicious. And you’ll recall from some of my very first blog posts (back even before I had my cherished four readers), that bacon—and pork fat, in general—is high in lovely, chemically stable, saturated fat, but it is even higher in monounsaturated fat. To be specific, the particular monounsaturated fatty acid it is high in is oleic acid. That’s right, the same one the conventional wisdom “diet dictocrats” are always encouraging us to consume in the form of olive oil. (So yeah: move over, heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Make room for heart-healthy bacon!)
But you know what else bacon has a lot of? Connective tissue! Seriously! I can’t believe I never realized this before, but bacon is a great source of some of the amino acids that tend to be lower in muscle meats, such as glycine. In fact, until now, I had always mistaken this beautiful, nourishing, important connective “stuff” to be fat. It is not.
Here’s what I’m talking about.
It's the "stuff" that isn't meat, but
clearly isn't fat, either, 'cuz
it didn't render off.
Here’s how this finally dawned on me. See, I was cooking bacon, and when it was done, I removed the fat to a glass container, which I keep in the fridge to use for cooking. (After spending two weeks helping out at her farm, I can tell you that Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, stores hers the traditional, time-honored way: in an old metal coffee can!) But left on the bacon strips I was about to eat, along with what was clearly pork belly meat, there was this soft, rubbery, chewy, clear-ish stuff. Like I said, I had always thought this was fat. But after a lifetime of eating bacon, it occurred to me, for the very first time, that if that stuff were fat, it would have melted/rendered off with the rest of the fat. But it didn’t. It wasn’t sitting in the pan, liquefied, as was the rest of the fat. It remained in solid form, if a little rubbery and gelatinous in texture. And this reminded me of what I pointed out waaay down at the bottom of this post about beef shanks: the clear, rubbery stuff we think is fat, is actually super-nourishing connective tissue. (Picture here, with arrows indicating to the stuff I’m talking about.) Again, if it were fat, it would have rendered out with the rest of the tallow.
And this got me thinking even more.
We all know bacon is absolutely and utterly delicious. Except possibly for pregnant women with temporary food aversions, the smell of bacon cooking entices just about every single human being on the planet. (‘Cuz science, folks!) And while I reject a great deal of the theories surrounding “palatability” and “food reward” in the etiology of obesity, there’s no denying that bacon is one of the most rewarding and highly palatable foods there is. It’s salty, sweet, fatty, smoky, and sometimes crispy. It’s delicious hot or cold. It hits all the gustatory bells & whistles, lighting up the mouth and brain like a 1980’s pinball machine.
So it’s no surprise that bacon is frequently the “gateway food” (drug?) that brings vegans back to eating animal foods. But what if there’s more to this oft-observed phenomenon than just how insanely tasty cured pork belly is? See, if my revelation is correct, and bacon does contain a fair bit of connective tissue, then maybe vegetarians and vegans start with bacon because it’s a good source of some of the specific amino acids plant-heavy (and plant only) diets are low in?
I'm reading Nourishing Broth, and learning more about the importance (and darn near magical healing properties) of the myriad components of old school broth, or, more specifically, the parts & pieces that go into broth: bones, skin, joints, hooves, and other pieces of animals that are rich in collagen and cartilage. These parts & pieces contain amino acids, glycoproteins, and sulfurous compounds that are building blocks for maintaining, repairing, and strengthening our own bones, skin, joints, and connective tissue. They’re good for what ails ya’. It’s not for nothing that my beloved ancestors called gelatin-rich chicken soup “Jewish penicillin.” (And remember, whether we’re talking chicken stock or stock made from beef, pork, seafood, or any other animal, we’re talking about a long-simmered concoction made from all those gnarly bits & pieces, and not the crap you get in bouillon cubes, which are basically nothing but salt, fat, and mystery “seasonings.” These do not contain the healing elements. Chinese people who love eating chicken feet know what they’re doing.)
But it’s not just vegans & vegetarians who might benefit from these compounds. The amino acids and other substances connective tissues provide tend to be low in the modern diet overall, even among omnivores. This might not be as true of people engaging in nose-to-tail cooking, where eating organ meat, skin, and making authentic bone stock is encouraged. But for the average person, who buys only boneless & skinless chicken, and who eschews gelatinous cuts, such as beef shanks, beef tongue, oxtails, and ham hocks, and who avoids pork rinds like the plague (mostly because we think of them as a “low class” snack, rather than appreciating them for what they actually are—pure pigskin protein gems loaded with glycine), they could probably use a little extra connective tissue love, too.
And maybe this is some of the reason for bacon’s popularity, even among those not following low-carb, Paleo, or Primal diets. I mean, I don’t know anyone, regardless of dietary preferences (save for vegans, vegetarians, and folks who keep kosher or halal), who doesn’t love bacon. So, if bacon is one of the few (if not only) foods people regularly consume that supplies these critical elements, then maybe, somehow, our bodies instinctively sense that we need them. (Not that I buy into the “cravings are a sign of what your body needs” thing. If this were true, then about 20 years ago, I would have had a raging sour cream & onion potato chip deficiency.)
So you can buy powdered gelatin and collagen supplements, and add them to your food or protein shake, or you can EAT MOAR BACON. I’m not kidding. If bacon really is high in these valuable components, then it is not an exaggeration to call bacon both a health food and a beauty food. That connective “stuff” is good for our insides and our outsides. I’ve already mentioned bones, joints, tendons, and ligaments. But let’s not forget blood vessels, which are also made from collagen, plus hair, skin, and nails. Ladies, want a cheap beauty remedy? Gelatin.
For the full details on the nutrition & beauty benefits of foods rich in connective-tissue, and how these foods have disappeared from the modern food supply, revisit this post and scroll down to the paragraph that starts with, “But here’s the REAL bang for your buck with beef shanks.”
In closing, do me a favor, everyone. Next time you cook bacon, take a look at a few strips and tell me if I’m crazy and completely wrong, or if I’m correct, and just very late to this party for an otherwise smart person.
When you look at a pork belly, it becomes more obvious that
there’s more than just the muscle meat and fat.
Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.
I never thought about it, but I think you could be right. How could we find out for sure?ReplyDelete
I'm not sure, but I'll ask around. People working at an old-fashioned butcher shop would probably know. (I'm betting Michelle Tam, from NomNom Paleo probably does, too. She's taken a couple of classes on cutting up meat.)Delete
Denise, butcher a pig or any decently large mammal. Bacon is pig belly, so cut through the abdominal wall. Lots of CT there. Layers of it, which is what you see in the package of bacon, some muscle but mostly just fascia. I used to dislike whole chicken until I realized that the sinew and gristle was stuff I really needed to have in my diet.ReplyDelete
BTWs, if you ever get to know those large, orange humans who only eat boneless, skinless chicken breast, drink whey protein shakes and live in the weight room, you'll probably find out they keep having weird joint pains and injuries, along with muscle tears. They get tons of proteins that work great for muscle fibers, but not for the CT that holds muscles and bones together. 5-10 years of living that way, CT starts to degrade and they start losing functionality. We can only buffer lifestyle mistakes for so long.
Thanks, Jake. Good to know I'm not crazy, then. I don't know why this never occurred to me before, but now, it's totally obvious.Delete
Interesting stuff, I guess I should stop looking for the lean/center cut bacon and and eat the fatty stuff...talking about a serious diet change I'm starting to go through.ReplyDelete
Well, you can eat the lean stuff if you *prefer* it, but the main point is, you don't have to be *afraid* of the fatty cuts. :)Delete
My understanding of pig anatomy is in the same basket as your understanding of quantum chromodynamics but I think the soft white area is mostly adipocytes which carry a lot of the scrummy fat that you cook out. Tendons and connective tissue are interlaced with the red muscle mass but the absolute treasure of bacon is the rind and if you cook it just right the rind becomes soft and gelatinous and very little of the fat comes out - balanced nutrition! That would generally be cooking at a slightly lower temperature for a bit longer, and with the lid on the pan to get a bit of steam going at the beginning.ReplyDelete
You can make lamb bacon too, goose bacon, whatever you like. Probably even possum or squirrel bacon.
Either way, whatever is in bacon, it's freakin' delicious. That much, we're sure of. ;-) Michael Ruhlman has corroborated at least one point, but it's the one I already knew, about the skin. He didn't answer about whether the *rest* of bacon has any of that stuff. Oh well. He's a busy guy. It's cool that he even took the time to reply at all: https://twitter.com/ruhlman/status/642137125778010112Delete
Talking about the skin.....my favourite is a slow braised fresh pork hock. The skin and subcutaneous fat are just delicious - meat is pretty good too, but I'll eat the skin and fat first; every time. It is so sticky and gelatinous, and it is a must to eat it with your fingers...which then stick together and require a good licking once the meals is finished. Yum!ReplyDelete
Yes! You are speaking my language! It's nice when things that are delicious are also good for us, isn't it? Eating with your hands and licking your fingers -- yes. Eating is such a *sensory* (and sensual!) experience. Manners be damned; something you just have to get in there and let your primal instincts take over. :)Delete
Thanks for the great post.ReplyDelete
I always thought the same way too. That white stuff left over was fat that didn't melt or something like that.
Another mystery of life solved. Right up there with 42. I thought about the same question, but never got around to working on finding an answer. That usually happens after the last piece of bacon disappears, and comes up when the next batch is cooked.ReplyDelete
Thanks for adding to the reasons to eat bacon.
Amy, you are brilliant. I am so glad I am one of the lucky four - or maybe five now - who read and thoroughly enjoy your blog posts.ReplyDelete
Back in the bad old days I used to think pizza was nature's perfect food. Now I am very glad to know that bacon is really nature's perfect food because I rarely ever have pizza but I have bacon 3 to 5 days a week.
I live to serve! ;-)Delete
I eat a lot of ground beef. I always feel some bits that jump out from between my teeth. That is connective tissue too. Ground beef contains quite a bit of connective tissue, as it is cheaper than muscle meat.ReplyDelete
Hey Amy - I know this is an older article but I wanted to post this link here due to relevance - recent guardian writeup on bacon and the manufacturing process of processed meats in general. Very interested in hearing your thoughts - any insight you have would be greatly appreciated! Bacon is a staple in my LC household - know of any other producers following the truly 'naked' approach in the US or Canada? Article only references some UK producers... thanks ! And cheers, my favorite nutrition blog
I guess it's also worth mentioning they specifically call out the Chris Kresser you linked to in the last article as well-meaning misinformationDelete
I have zero qualms about continuing to eat bacon. If you're worried about, don't eat it, or try to track down a brand that uses no nitrates/nitrites -- including those from celery juice/powder, as that is typically what's used in bacon marketed as containing "no added nitrates," or being "nitrate-free," except for those occurring in the natural celery juice/powder.Delete
Yeah, worried probably not the right word - dont think much could stop me from enjoying bacon, but just was curious on your take on the updated perspective, especially given the light in which they cast Kresser's article. I guess that's just the modern landscape of nutritional advice; sometimes seem to chase our tails in circles as we work to progress past the current paradigm of what is understood 'to be healthy.' Thanks for the response, cheersReplyDelete
The bottom line in any of these fear-mongering nitrate/"processed meat" studies is that they never seem to control for carbohydrate intake. Or intake of anything else, for that matter. Maybe when you eat bacon, sausage, salami, bologna and hot dogs along with pancakes, hot dog buns, bread, orange juice, and soda, there are carcinogenic effects that don't happen when you eat bacon with eggs and a cup of coffee, or enjoy some salami or prosciutto on an antipasto platter with olives, cheese, and roasted red peppers...Delete
I just see a lot of confounding and I don't see how they can separate the nitrates and say definitively that those compounds absolutely cause cancer in everyone who eats them.
Very good points - basically impossible to pull one noodle out of the nutritional soup and say 'this is it!' Everything is working with everything else in the system, and I agree it will take far more time and study to attempt to isolate all these variables - very little in the human system is binary; everything is in concert with everything else, and it seems inevitable that healthy balance can be achieved in multiple ways. Always appreciate the insight. CheersReplyDelete
Amy, are you saying that when we cook bacon in the oven, we can pour off the fat in the pan and use it for cooking and count it in our daily fat allotment?ReplyDelete
Yes -- that's what I do! :-) (You don't *have to* save the fat, but you can if you want to.)ReplyDelete