I've switched my family from regular bacon to turkey bacon. My kids love it for breakfast and I like to add it to salads. I know turkey bacon is lower in fat, but is it healthier than pork bacon?
It's true that turkey bacon is a lower-fat alternative to pork bacon. But you may not be saving as much fat – or as many calories – as you think. And you may be getting ingredients you didn't bargain for.
Regular bacon comes from the belly of a pig. The fresh meat is cured and usually smoked, and then sliced, before it's packaged. Food processors make turkey bacon by layering ground-up turkey and then flavouring it to taste like real bacon.
If you compare the nutrition label on a package of turkey bacon with one on pork bacon, turkey bacon looks like a dieter's dream (one who loves bacon, that is). Two slices of Maple Leaf bacon (50 grams), for instance, have 200 calories and 19 grams of fat, including 7 grams of saturated fat. Ditto for Schneiders Country Naturals bacon.
Two slices (30 grams) of Butterball Bacon Style Turkey, on the other hand, provide two-thirds fewer calories (70) and only 6 grams of fat, including 2 grams of saturated fat.
Labels, however, disclose nutrition numbers for raw bacon, not cooked. Cooking pork bacon renders off a fair bit of fat, resulting in 100 calories and 8 grams of fat for two slices. This is less than half the calories and fat of uncooked pork bacon.
That's not the case for turkey bacon since it's relatively lean to begin with. Two slices of cooked turkey bacon serve up roughly 60 calories (versus 70) and 4 grams of fat (versus 4 grams to 6 grams).
While regular (cooked) bacon might not be as fatty as you thought, turkey bacon is still leaner. Ounce per ounce, you get 25 fewer calories and fat than pork bacon. But believing turkey bacon is a healthier option may prompt you to eat more. Say goodbye to those calories you intended to avoid.
Depending on the brand of turkey bacon you choose, you may also get less protein than from real bacon. What you certainly don't save with turkey bacon, however, is sodium (unless, of course, you buy a sodium-reduced product). Four slices of turkey bacon will give you 1,200 milligrams to 1,300 milligrams of sodium, nearly an entire day's worth (1,500 mg). That's no different from most brands of pork bacon.
Both turkey and pork bacon are processed meats that we should be eating less often, if at all. A high intake of processed meat – including ham, sausage, hot dogs, deli meats and bacon – has been linked to a greater risk of colorectal cancer. (Processed meats are meats preserved by smoking, curing or salting.)
It's unclear how processed meat raises cancer risk. High temperatures used to process meat can result in the creation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PHAs), compounds linked to cancer in animals and colorectal adenomas in people (adenomas are benign polyps that can develop into cancer). While debated by scientists, this link may also have to do with nitrites and nitrates added to preserve processed meats.
Just because bacon is made from turkey or chicken doesn't mean it's more natural than regular bacon. The shorter ingredient lists on packages of pork bacon suggests to me that old-fashioned bacon is closer to its natural source than turkey bacon, despite it also being a processed meat.
For example, Maple Lodge Farms Chicken Bacon lists the following ingredients: chicken, mechanically separated chicken, water, chicken fat, corn syrup solids, modified potato starch, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, carrageenan, sodium phosphate, smoke flavour, sodium erythorbate and sodium nitrite. That's a pretty long list compared with what's found in real bacon.
You might be wondering what "mechanically separated poultry" means. I certainly was. It's a paste-like product produced by forcing turkey or chicken carcasses, or parts of carcasses, though a sieve under high pressure to separate the bone from edible poultry. Hardly the fresh, unprocessed turkey meat you enjoyed for Thanksgiving dinner.
I am not suggesting you turn in your turkey bacon for pork bacon. But don't be fooled into thinking turkey bacon is a health food. It isn't. It is highly processed and full of salt.
The bottom line: Whether you enjoy turkey or pork bacon, eat it sparingly. And buy sodium-reduced brands if available.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.