And our love affair shows no sign of fading.
A recent poll of Britain’s best-loved 100 foods saw bacon at number one, beating chicken into second place and knocking chocolate into third.
But while one in ten Britons claim bacon as their favourite, are those rashers that sizzle so seductively in the pan what they seem?
For every slice of high quality, dry cured bacon from a happy organic British pig, there are many more imported from countries where pigs endure overcrowded, barbaric conditions and where the meat is pumped with water and injected with cancer-causing chemicals.
The truth is that bacon is big business. The UK devours 1,500,000 tons of bacon and pork each year, worth around £8 billion.
Not even the most enthusiastic pig marketing board chiefs would claim bacon as a health food. Indeed, greasy fry-ups have been associated with heart-bursting diets for decades.
But it’s only in the past few years that doctors have realised just how unhealthy our favourite food can be.
According to the World Cancer Research Fund, processed meats such as bacon, ham and sausage increase your risk of bowel cancer, the third most common form of the disease.
The UK devours 1,500,000 tons of bacon and pork each year, worth around £8¿billion
If every Briton ate less than 2.5 ounces of processed meat a week — the equivalent of three rashers of bacon — there would be 4,000 fewer cases of bowel cancer every year.
‘Our recommendation is to avoid processed meat, or to eat very little,’ says WCRF spokesman Dr Rachel Thompson.
Earlier this year Prof Frank Hu of Harvard School of Public Health in Boston came to a similar conclusion after studying the diets of 120,000 Americans.
Over the 28-year study, there were nearly 24,000 deaths — including 9,000 from cancer and 24,000 from heart disease and strokes.
Adding two rashers a day to breakfast increased the chance of premature death by 20 per cent.
One reason for this may lie in a form of iron called haem that is found naturally in red meats such as beef, lamb and pork.
It can trigger the formation of substances called N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) in the body which can damage the lining of the bowel. Some types of NOCs have been linked to bowel cancer.
Doctors believe NOCs are also formed in the human body from preservatives added to processed food.
Another health risk comes from the salt, sodium nitrite and potassium nitrate which are added to bacon. These last two chemicals stop bacteria and keep the meat bright red so it looks fresh.
However, nitrites and nitrates have also been shown to increase the risk of cancer in animals.
Amid such health fears, the British pig industry says it has cut down the level of potentially harmful additives.
But there is a limit to how much can be reduced.
‘If you go too far, it stops becoming a cured meat,’ said spokesman for the British Pig Association Stewart Houston. ‘Instead, it’s fresh meat and it doesn’t keep so long.’
The industry claims that the World Cancer Research Fund’s evidence is flawed and that processed meat can be part of a healthy, nutritious diet.
However, preservatives aren’t the only dangerous additives in bacon.
Traditional smoky bacon gets its distinctive taste by being hung over smouldering wood chips. You’d be forgiven for assuming that smoked food — which has been eaten for thousands of years — is harmless.
Adding two rashers of the fatty bacon a day to breakfast increased the chance of premature death by 20¿per cent, from conditions such as heart disease and strokes.
But some studies have shown that smoked foods contain cancer-causing compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHS) which are formed when wood burns.
PAHs are known to be dangerous, although the evidence linking smoked meats and cancer is not very strong. However, the U.S. National Cancer Institute suggests people reduce their exposure to PAHs just in case.
Another problem is that cheap cuts are not treated to real smoke but are often sprayed with a ‘natural liquid smoke extract’ (made by condensing real smoke into a powder or liquid and mixing it with water).
When the European Food Safety Authority investigated 11 of these smoke extracts in 2010 it found that one could be harmful to people, while several were dangerously close to levels which may cause harm.
Of course, not all additives to bacon carry health risks.
Some manufacturers add the essential nutrient ascorbate which contains Vitamin C and which helps reduce the risk of harmful NOCs forming. Sugar can be added to reduce the harshness of salt.
Perhaps the most surprising additive to bacon is water which is used to make rashers look bigger. This is not believed to have any deleterious health effect.
'British pigs are among the best looked after in the world. But less than 40 per cent of the pork we eat is British. The rest comes from countries where welfare standards are often appalling.'But If you are looking for the best bacon in terms of health, plump for dry cured. The meat is rubbed with preservative and left to hang for a fortnight.
But such production techniques are expensive. It’s cheaper, and quicker, to inject preservatives directly into the meat with water. Within just a few hours, the bacon is cured and ready for slicing. The water also adds bulk — and hence extra profit.
This water is the reason why cheap rashers ooze so much white fluid in the frying pan — and then shrink.
Revealingly, a survey by Which? found that rashers sold by leading supermarkets had more than 10 per cent added water.
For their part, the manufacturers say the extra water is vital to processing and gives succulence to meat.
But Jeanette Longfield, of food campaign group Sustain, disagrees.
‘Adding water is just cheating,’ she says. ‘Manufacturers say it makes the bacon succulent but it just makes it watery. If it’s dry cured instead, it’s more expensive, but more delicious. Since we are told to eat less processed meat, they should avoid the cheaper, watery stuff.’
Which? also found that the labels which signal the bacon’s country of origin are very misleading.
Until supermarkets signed up to a new voluntary code, the practice was widespread to label as ‘British’ meat that had been raised in Holland or Germany because it had been cured in the UK.
But Which? found that bacon in samples from Aldi’s British-sounding ‘Ashfield Farm’ came from EU imported pork.
And this issue raises another problem with your morning rasher.
In mainland Europe, 250,000 male pigs are castrated each day without anaesthetic in order to prevent male sex hormones ¿tainting the meat¿. File photo
British pigs are among the best looked after in the world. But less than 40 per cent of the pork we eat is British. The rest comes from countries where welfare standards are often appalling.
In mainland Europe, 250,000 male pigs are castrated each day without anaesthetic in order to prevent male sex hormones ‘tainting the meat’.
It is custom to keep sows in tiny stalls throughout their 16-week pregnancies, in theory to prevent damage to the unborn piglets. But the animals are unable to turn around or create a nest for their litter. As a result, the pigs become distressed.
In the UK, castration is banned under the Red Tractor scheme. Even though new EU laws are to be introduced in January which are intended to improve pigs’ conditions, animal welfare campaigners are concerned that European farmers will still be able to keep sows in stalls for the first 30 days of pregnancy.
'When it comes to enjoying Britain’s favourite food, there’s a cost to your pocket if you want it guilt-free — and a cost to your health if you don’t.'Meanwhile, the British Pig Association says shoppers have should not worry about pig welfare in the UK and that 94 per cent of our farms are part of an assurance scheme that guarantees high standards of welfare — from the size of pens to the amount of food and play material for pigs. Farms are inspected each year and get a vet visit at least four times a year.
But despite such attempts to reassure consumers, Compassion in World Farming says British intensively-reared pigs still suffer because most are housed indoors and do not get enough mental stimulation.
With a lack of bedding or material to snuffle around in, pigs often turn aggressively on each other.
Although farmers are no longer meant to dock piglets’ tails routinely, many continue to do so in order to prevent bite damage. And many piglets have their teeth ground down to stop biting — a procedure that can be painful.
In the UK, new mothers are routinely confined in farrowing crates. The crates are designed to stop sows crushing their young. But unable to build a nest or move around, the sows become frustrated and stressed, according to the RSPCA.
Spokesman Dil Peeling says: ‘Pigs are highly intelligent, playful animals. If you are going to create a hell for a pig, then you couldn’t do much better than put them in a barren, confined environment.’
Amid all these welfare concerns, the best route for shoppers is to hunt down specialist bacons — the pricier dry cured rashers from organic or free range pigs.
Of course these are more expensive. For example, a free range, dry cured supermarket pack of six rashers can cost £4 a pack, or £21 per kilo, whereas cheap cuts cost £1.50 or £5.79 a kilo.
So when it comes to enjoying Britain’s favourite food, there’s a cost to your pocket if you want it guilt-free — and a cost to your health if you don’t.
Meat Trade News Daily Supporting British Pig Farmers
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.
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