Why is bacon so addictive?

Pizza, ice cream and chocolate chip cookies can trigger cravings and withdrawals just like a drug, says CNN's nutritionist Lisa Drayer.

Posted: Mar 2, 2019 5:50 PM
Updated: Mar 2, 2019 5:50 PM

If foods were granted awards, bacon wouldn't rank high for healthfulness, but it might win top prize in the favorite foods category.

Full disclosure: I don't eat bacon. But apparently, I'm in the minority.

"Bacon is too perfect for words," said Gail Vance Civille, founder and president of Sensory Spectrum, a consulting firm that helps companies learn how sensory cues drive consumer perceptions of products. "I actually have a friend who is a vegetarian, and she eats only vegetarian food except for bacon. And the reason is because it tastes so good."

In one recent study, bacon ranked in the middle range of foods that were self-reported as associated with indicators of "food addiction."

"Bacon is just that perfect combo of the sweet, the salty, the smoky and the savory character. Within savory, you've got the cured meat ... the roasted browned fat. ... It's just this perfect combination of ingredients that goes right to the brain, which says, 'take another bite,' " said Linda Papadopoulos, owner of LP & Associates and a sensory and consumer research expert who managed the sensory evaluation group at Oscar Mayer for seven years, helping to ensure that the company's bacon was consistently pleasing to consumers.

Another element of bacon's irresistible appeal is its distinctive scent. "It just fills the home with this wonderful savory, smoky aroma. It just makes you feel good," she said.

Then there's the nostalgia aspect. "For most of us, I'd say bacon conjures up some very nice experiences as children ... with bacon being prepared for breakfast at home. And I think that carries over into our desire to enjoy it for the rest of our lives," said Andrew Milkowski, who spent about 30 years in the research and development department at Oscar Mayer, where he worked with Papadopoulos to help ensure product consistency for the processing of bacon.

Bacon's intricate flavors

Bacon "has a lot of salt, a fair amount of sugar, and it's very fatty," Civille said.

Its flavor profile includes sweet caramelized notes, from cured and caramelized browned pork fat and browned meat and added sugar, along with things added like smoke and maple, that make it "very, very complex," according to Civille.

The savory flavor of bacon results from the cured meat interacting with salt and smoke as well as the aroma that's produced, "which is a big part of flavor," Milkowski said.

How bacon is made

Bacon originates from the belly of a pig. The flesh is injected with a solution containing water, salt, sugar and some cure (which includes sodium nitrite and sodium ascorbate), explained Milkowski, who is also a meat science professor at the University of Wisconsin. The curing solution imparts flavor and is left to marinate in the pork for a few hours to several days before it is hung in a smokehouse, where smoke is introduced while the bacon is heated. The warmer the bacon gets, the faster the flavors start to develop.

The smoking process can take two to four hours or up to 24 hours; it depends on the company and what its idea of quality bacon is, Milkowski explained. But smoking bacon meat is an art, and it's important to achieve the right balance of salt, sweet, meaty and browned fat aromatic, Papadopoulos said. The bacon is then chilled, sliced and distributed.

These processing methods describe the flavor derived from the curing injection and the smoking process. But there's even more flavor that develops during the cooking of bacon.

Cooking bacon: Fat facts

It may seem paradoxical, but although bacon is high in fat before you fry it, much of the fat is rendered out when you cook it. "When you are typically done frying [bacon], you have a third of what you started with, and most of what you lost is fat and moisture. You are left with lean [protein] and some fat, carbohydrates and the salt," Milkowski said.

Still, the presence of fat during cooking is what delivers a lot of the flavor notes in bacon, experts say, as it functions as an agent in releasing other flavor notes, specifically caramelized, sweet aromatic notes.

"When you are cooking it at a high temperature, you are breaking down the fat and melting it from a solid state to a liquid like a vegetable oil, and when it gets hotter, it reacts with the other parts of the food, and that's where even more flavor is generated," Milkowski said. "You are cooking at a pretty high temperature and generating different flavors than with other more massive pieces of meat, which never get to that temperature."

Personal preferences

Civille noted that Oscar Mayer bacon has a very flavorful cure, a sweet aromatic and a uniform smoke note. "It has sort of become the American standard expectation for bacon," Civille said.

Flavor variations of bacon include peppered bacon, applewood, chicory, maple and wood smoke options, which are derived from woods that impart their own unique flavor notes. "You can get very, very fancy with the smokes and the cures," Civille said.

Slice thickness can vary, as well. Thinner cuts tend to be more crispy and crunchy, but thicker cuts are chewier.

Bacon strips are often enjoyed as a breakfast side dish, but its flavor and texture can make it a welcome ingredient, adding excitement to scallops or imparting a smoky, cured, sweet flavor to a BLT with fresh tomato and lettuce.

Thicker-cut bacon can also add some pizzazz to an otherwise healthy meal. For example, when you have something bitter like Brussels sprouts, "the bacon just adds additional salt, sweet and browned notes," Civille said. It also adds crispiness and crunch that complement and contrast with the Brussels sprouts' flavor and texture.

"Use bacon as topping on your salad ... and to impart flavor in beans or your greens, like collard greens with bacon -- oh, YUM!" Papadopoulos exclaimed.

Finding balance with bacon

Considering that too much bacon can be an unwise health decision, consuming bacon as an ingredient -- or as infrequently as possible in its whole form -- might be a satisfactory compromise, assuming you are "addicted" to the food.

"I am the daughter of a dietitian ... and my personal opinion is, we need to focus on a balanced diet and focus on the positive attributes that food can bring to our health status, as opposed to 'what bad is it imparting to me?" " Papadopoulos said.

"We did have bacon on occasion. It was definitely a treat," she said. "It has such a great flavor profile and that crispy crunchy texture, and the way it releases the flavor. It's a comfort food -- and you need to have those comfort foods in your diet."

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