I apologise for the pap reference. I loathe the music of the middle of the road musicians who produced the 1979 album of that name. But it is a tolerable way, I suppose, to introduce the over-heated topic of Bacon.
In America, bacon is a sacrament. According to the Royal Bacon Society (yes, it exists, at royalbaconsociety.com), Founding Father Benjamin Franklin said, ‘Bacon is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.’ This is denied by the Franklin Institute, who insist that Ben originally referred to wine; but over time, and in the public wisdom, the wine has miraculously transformed into bacon.
Bacon is universal, of course, but what is so striking about American bacon is the way they cook it, ie to a frazzle. It is not fit for human consumption, Americans believe, until it has progressively reached the consistency and colour of teak, mahogany or, ultimately, wenge. They even invented the Bacon Press, not an alchemically inclined publishing company but an iron mini-anvil originally produced by Acme Corporation (and now in China), to ensure that bacon is evenly weighted down in the skillet and crisped uniformly and comprehensively.
I enjoy bacon but I don’t like burnt offerings, and was curious why my hosts did. They ate over-cooked bacon because that was the way they had eaten it since time immemorial; and when pressed, the oldest of the old remembered that they had been instructed to fry up their breakfast this way by the government, because under-cooked bacon was dangerous.
Well yes, it was, back in the day when trichinosis (aka trichinellosis) was common in our livestock. Trichinosis is caused by eating raw or undercooked meat of animals infected with the larvae of a species of worm called Trichinella.
It occurs quite frequently in carnivores such as bear or cougar, and omnivores such as wild boar, domestic pigs and most humans. It is an unpleasant disease as it causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and lassitude, and if left untreated it will eventually progress to more serious symptoms. In some cases it may even be fatal.
In earlier times Trichinosis was usually caused by eating undercooked pork, but the disease is now rare due to public health measures such as the banning of feeding raw meat to hogs, and the wide-spread practice of freezing pork while it is in storage and transit. These days, cases of Trichinosis are almost inevitably due to eating raw or under-cooked game.
So where does this leave bacon? Government advice (which, for once, is correct), is to cook meats to at least 145 F. As shallow frying typically ranges between 350 and 400 F, this will kill of any Trichinella larvae that might be present, and make the bacon safe. But this is not the whole story.
If you cook hotter and longer, the Maillard reaction kicks in. Starting at around 150 F and accelerating at higher temperatures, the Maillard reaction is what causes the browning of meats, or toast for that matter. The many hundreds of flavor compounds produced by the Maillard reaction are tasty, and most probably safe enough; but as temperatures continue to rise, and meats start to char, a different set of compounds are formed including heterocyclic polyamines (HAH’s) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s).
The worst cooking processes in this regard are pan-frying, grilling, and barbecuing.
HAH’s and PAH’s are very definitely mutagens and carcinogens. They have been shown to produce cancer in animal models, and are considered to be the main reason why high consumption of red meats is putatively linked to an increased risk of various cancers including breast, prostate and colo-rectal cancer (1).
However, the picture is not entirely clear. Many studies have attempted to confirm the link between meat consumption and cancer, and they have produced conflicting results (ie 2-5) – so it seems that we need to develop a more sophisticated and more comprehensive model of diet and disease risk; a model based on the totality of diet, and on dietary balance.
If you consume large amounts of animal-derived foods, you are probably eating less plant-derived foods. Animal-derived foods such as meats cooked at high temperatures do contain carcinogens, but that may not matter if you are not eating too much meat, and if your diet also contains significant amounts of (plant-derived) chemo-protective compounds. Cancer cells are forming in your body every day due to carcinogens which range from PAH’s to sunlight; but if your defenses against cancer are all up and running effectively, those cancer cells will likely die off before they can cause trouble.
If you are eating a lot of cooked meats and very little plant-sourced anti-cancer compounds, however, the odds are that you will eventually run into trouble.
And there, I think, is the crux of the problem. The mid-Victorians consumed very little HAH’s and PAH’s, and huge amounts of chemo-protective compounds in their plant-rich diet; and were almost immune to cancer. We consume much higher amounts of cooked meat carcinogens, and far less of the cancer-preventing compounds contained in fruits and vegetables; and we are ten times more likely to develop cancer than the Victorians were (6).
Let me repeat. The mid-Victorians, who lived as long as their socio-economic equivalents do today, had only 10% of the amount of cancer that we do.
Moving seamlessly from theory to praxis, my general advice is to cut the amount of meat products you eat by a third, and lower the temperature of your cooking.
You could, for example, switch from barbecuing and frying to stewing and sous vide. Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables by half, and double your intake of the fermentable fibers found in pulses, legumes and tubers such as Jerusalem artichoke. Finish with a good coffee (the Californian snowflakes who want cancer warnings on every cuppa joe have lost their collective minds on this topic), and leave the table still feeling slightly hungry.
One last sip of carcinogenic coffee. I whaled on the snowflakes, but that is not the whole story. The beautiful Californians in their behavioural sinks are irrational and – it goes without saying – profoundly unscientific, but the real reason for the success of the mandatory coffee warning is the United States’ truly lamentable legal system.
In 1992 a woman who purchased coffee at a McDonalds drive-thru and subsequently spilt it on her lap, scalding herself, was awarded $3 million on the grounds that Micky D staff had not warned her the coffee might be hot. She only received $640,000, but the success of this notorious lawsuit contributed to a cancerous legal environment where more lawyers started looking for corporate paydays, and the corporations (and professions) frantically started building more legal hedges. Housing contracts are a good example of this arms race. A mere 2 pages long in 1995, by 2015 they had expanded to 25 pages, with every additional clause and sub-subsection due to yet another lawsuit.
It is in this context that a year ago, a not-for-profit group sued all the major coffee retailers on grounds they were violating a California law requiring companies to warn consumers of chemicals in their products that could cause cancer.
The carcinogen formed when coffee beans are roasted is acrylamide. This is produced, via the Maillard reaction, in almost every cooking process that exceeds 150 F, in foods that contain amino acids and sugars. Which is just about all of them … and with many foods such as French fries scoring higher levels of acrylamide than coffee (7).
How long before we see mandatory health warnings on French fries and hamburgers? Or on high sugar foods such as sodas, cupcakes and candy bars? And how long before those mandatory signs are so omnipresent that they become invisible?
On the ground, every courtroom victory of this kind is a victory for the plaintiff and, of course, the layers. From 30,000 feet however, this thicket of legal thorns leaves mounting costs to be borne by business and, ultimately, by taxpayers and consumers. Together with the equally pernicious politics of identity it is strangling America, and making it a progressively more difficult place to do business, or anything new. The USA, once the most entrepreneurial of nations, has fallen to 11 in the global rankings (8), just another viciously circular eddy in the vortical decline of the American empire.
All across the nation and particularly on the coasts you can see communitarianism dying, and being replaced by a thuggish and petulant individualism. In JFK’s famous inaugural speech, he told Americans to ”ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” For Pelosi, Schumer, Ocasio-Cortez et al these sentiments have been reversed. This kind of center cannot hold.
Back to bacon. The more you fry it the more acrylamide is produced, along with nitrosamines, which are also carcinogens. In the year 2525 (I will finish as I started, with another terrible pop reference), will we still be allowed to bring it home?
1. Zheng W, Lee SA. Well-done meat intake, heterocyclic amine exposure, and cancer risk. Nutr Cancer. 2009;61(4):437-46.
2. Bouvard V, Loomis D, Guyton KZ, Grosse Y, Ghissassi FE, Benbrahim-Tallaa L, Guha N, Mattock H, Straif K; International Agency for Research on Cancer Monograph Working Group. Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. Lancet Oncol. 2015 Dec;16(16):1599-600.
3. Bylsma LC, Alexander DD. A review and meta-analysis of prospective studies of red and processed meat, meat cooking methods, heme iron, heterocyclic amines and prostate cancer. Nutr J. 2015 Dec 21;14:125.
5. Hur SJ, Jo C, Yoon Y, Jeong JY, Lee KT. Controversy on the correlation of red and processed meat consumption with colorectal cancer risk: an Asian perspective. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2018 Sep 10:1-12.
6. Rowbotham J, Clayton P. An unsuitable and degraded diet? Part three: Victorian consumption patterns and their health benefits. J R Soc Med. 2008 Sep;101(9):454-62.