Unexpected praise of the virtues of bacon by Joe Mercola

It is an indisputable axiom that everything tastes better with bacon. Well, almost everything. As much as I love bacon, whenever I watch one of those cooking competition shows on the Food Network, like Iron Chef America, in which the secret ingredient is bacon, I can’t figure out how putting bacon in ice cream works. OK, so maybe it’s almost an axiom. There are a few exceptions. But the fact remains that the vast majority of foods do taste better with some bacon.

Of course, the problem with bacon is that it’s widely accepted that it’s not particularly good for you. Because it is a processed meat, between its fat content and the nitrites, bacon in excess isn’t particularly good for you. That doesn’t mean that eaten in moderation or less bacon can’t be part of a reasonably healthy diet, but, again, it is a processed meat, defined as a meat preserved via smoking, curing, or salting, and eating processed meats has been linked with an increased risk for various cancers through a combination of nitrates and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Of course, the main study that found this correlation wasn’t randomized or controlled, and correlation doesn’t always equal causation (not to mention that people who eat a lot of bacon probably also don’t eat the healthiest diet in general).

Now, it’s a very common claim among various aficionados of alternative medicine and opponents of science-based medicine that diet is destiny. In other words, diet can do miraculous things, such as reduce your risk of cancer and heart disease to near zero and even treat cancer. A more sober, science-based assessment would tell us that diet can be very important in the prevention of such diseases, but it also says that the effect is nowhere near what is frequently claimed. Similarly, various quacks like to claim that taking this supplement or this vitamin will do the same thing: Reduce your risk of various chronic diseases to near zero. Usually, these diet claims don’t involve a reasonable, varied diet dominated by vegetables and relatively low on red meats but rather variants of severe vegan diets, often raw “living” diets in which, or so it is claimed, cooking the food not only utterly destroys its nutrients but basically poisons it. Although I could understand the appeal that eating a certain sort of diet or taking certain supplements can act as a magic bullet against disease, I could never understand the appeal of such severe diets for which such claims are usually made.

Oddly enough, uber quack Joseph Mercola, of all people, has actually proposed a food that I can get down with, a food whose attraction I can understand: Bacon. See what I mean. After describing how Neal Barnard, MD tried to organize a protest of vegans against a Bacon Festival in Iowa (hmmm, I might have to visit Iowa) but could only find six vegans because of fear of the vegans of the lure of bacon itself:

Why so few? Probably fear of bacon!

Not fear of death by bacon, which is what Dr. Barnard hoped to fuel with anti-meat rhetoric and billboards of skulls and crossbones, but vegan fears of succumbing to the lure of bacon itself! Bacon’s smell and taste are so seductive that many vegetarians fear it as “the gateway meat.”

But what of those health risks? What about all that fat, cholesterol and sodium? And what about nitrites?

It’s not just vegans after all who warn us against bacon. Recently, the Harvard School of Public Health announced with great fanfare that just a small daily serving of red meat would increase our likelihood of death by 13 percent, while a little bacon, hot dogs, sausage or other processed red meats every day would kill us off 20 percent faster. 2-3

In fact, the study was pseudo science at its best — an observational study using notoriously fallible food-frequency questionnaires, with researchers drawing unwarranted conclusions based on mere associations. Much ado about nothing, in other words. A careful look at the data suggests a 0.2-fold increased risk at most. And that’s for people eating supermarket meat from factory farms who also happen to smoke, don’t exercise, and eat their red meat wrapped up in white bread and buns.

Yes! Finally, Mercola is saying something whose lure I can understand!

Of course, it is hilarious to read this. I couldn’t stop chuckling as I read and dreamt of a nice, juicy BLT sandwich. Here’s why. Mercola is complaining that the main study used as evidence that a diet high in bacon is potentially harmful is an observational study in essence confusing correlation with causation. Yet, what does Joe Mercola, who is antivaccine to the core, base his antivaccine beliefs in, particularly the belief that vaccines cause autism, on? Correlation, of course! And not even correlations observed through rigorous observational studies that were designed to try to control for confounding variables, either. Oh, no. Like all antivaccinationists, in particular his recently acquired best bud Barbara Loe Fisher, grande dame of the antivaccine movement and founder of the Orwellian-named National Vaccine Information Center, Mercola accepts anecdotes of autistic regression after vaccination. Indeed, he accepts correlations and claims that the link between vaccines and autism is being “suppressed.”

Now, I went and looked up the study referred to by Mercola’s article, and if there’s one thing that I have to concede it’s that the study is not the strongest evidence that high bacon consumption is associated with a higher mortality due to cardiovascular disease or cancer. True, it is a prospective study and included a lot of patients, which was a strength, but the hazard ratios found are not particularly impressive for a one extra serving per day of various types of meat (total mortality: 1.13 for unprocessed red meat and 1.20 for processed red meat; cardiovascular mortality: 1.18 and 1.21; and for cancer: 1.10 and 1.16). Also, the study used food diaries, which are prone to recall bias. No, I’m not doubting that red meat and processed meat don’t pose a risk; it’s just that this is an observational study, prone to all the problems of observational studies, and when I see even a prospective observational study that comes up with at most a hazard ratio of 1.2, the problems with drawing conclusions of causation from correlation are magnified. That’s why I like to see some confirmation from other studies, as there is for the risk of various diseases due to secondhand smoke.

Mercola could have easily done a reasonable, science-based article that pointed out that it’s quite possible to include bacon in the diet, as long as it’s in small quantities and included as part of a balanced diet rich in plant-based foods, but we’re talking about Joe Mercola here. It’s not enough for him or his lackey to say something reasonable like that. Oh, no. Because the health establishment reports a risk due to read meat and processed meat, it’s not enough for Mercola simply to voice a word of caution. He has to be contrarian and go completely in the other direction. Instead of pointing out the flaws with the Harvard study or the limitations to the conclusions that can be drawn from it, he has to go whole hog (word choice intentional) and label the study as “pseudoscience” (it’s not). Then he has to go beyond that and claim that not only is bacon not harmful but that it’s actually really, really healthy for you:

Even so, “everyone knows” bacon’s bad for us, and Dr. Barnard would have us think it’s a veritable risk factor for heart disease. In fact, bacon might be good for the heart. And not just because it makes us happy, though that’s surely a plus! Monounsaturated fat — the primary fat in bacon — is widely lauded for reducing inflammation and lowering blood pressure, while the antimicrobial palmitoleic content in bacon fat can keep plaque at bay. Triglycerides too may improve because bacon fat is especially good at helping us achieve satiety and stable blood sugar. Bacon can thus be useful for diabetics and prediabetics as well as everyone else coping with sugar cravings and carbohydrate addictions.

Promoting bacon as a red hot ticket to weight loss might seem over the top, but eggs and bacon do add up to a high-fat, high-protein and low-carb breakfast. They not only help people start their day feeling happy, but can reduce hunger pains and rev the metabolism. For many people, bacon’s signature salty and savory sweetness is a treat that reduces feelings of deprivation and lack. It can help people transition away from high carb diets and overcome carb addictions. And by stabilizing blood sugar, bacon helps prevent mood swings, reduce anxiety, improve focus and enhance coping skills.

Sure, and red meat can make people feel sated quickly as well—and very happy. Yet I don’t see the same article using that as a rationale for bulking up on red meat and arguing that it’s actually very healthy for you. As for the rest of the reasons, well, it’s rather interesting how it’s touted that bacon has monounsaturated fat in it but it is not noted that approximately 68% of the calories in bacon come from fat, and that half of that fat is saturated. Meanwhile, notice how the article zeros in on palmitoleic acid, neglecting all the other problems with bacon. For example, each ounce of bacon has 30 mg of cholesterol and a whole lot of sodium (400-600 mg). Again, in a contrarian fashion, concern about too much salt is dismissed as being nothing more than a product of the “food police,” as an appeal is made to how animals seek out salt in the form of salt licks.

Particularly amusing is the way that the problem with all the nitrites in bacon is so airily dismissed, even though it’s been correlated with cancer and COPD. I find it particularly interesting that the vast majority of the research cited about nitrites in bacon and health risks is old. There’s new research linking nitrites and N-nitroso with, for example, esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, colorectal cancer, renal cell carcinoma, although in fairness more recent evidence has called into question the previously accepted connection between nitrites and stomach cancer. Not that pointing out that the research linking nitrates with cancer is complicated, filled with noise, and difficult to interpret is enough. Again, like the case for the fat, salt, and other ingredients in bacon linked to health problems, what’s unhealthy has to be turned into being totally healthy. How is this done? I fear to mention this, but guess what? It’s all due to the NO (nitric oxide), baby!

Check it out:

Accordingly, NO is a key ingredient in many well-known erectile dysfunction products. Nitric oxide also benefits the immune system, where it helps us fight off infections, and the nervous system where it helps our brain cells communicate properly. NO’s myriad health benefits are summed up in the popular book The Nitric Oxide (NO) Solution by Nathan S.Bryan, PhD and Janet Zand, OMD.65 Although the book does not contain citations, a quick PubMed search reveals Dr. Bryan’s contribution to at least 88 journal articles, many establishing the NO benefits described above.

NO for Life

The message is NO is vital for a long, healthy and vital life. Unfortunately, few people today produce enough NO for optimal health, and NO deficiencies have been identified in many chronic diseases. Although NO supplements have been developed and marketed, and might well be helpful for people on plant-based, low-fat, low-cholesterol diets, such products might not be needed with a return to traditional foods. Traditionally cured bacon, sausage and other meats cured with sodium nitrite might be just the ticket to increasing NO production in the body.

Leading to the highly dubious conclusion:

The reason is bad studies and worse publicity, with the latest shoddy work out of Harvard a prime example. According to Dr. Bryan, the body of studies show only a “weak association” with evidence that is “inconclusive.” As he and his colleagues wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “This paradigm needs revisiting in the face of undisputed health benefits of nitrite- and nitrate-enriched diets.”73 So what’s the last word on America’s favorite meat? Indulge bacon lust freely, know that the science is catching up, the media lags behind, and, our ancestors most likely got it right.

It’s tempting—oh, so tempting—for me to believe this. For once, I can sort of understand the siren song of alt-med, as long as it’s wrapped in bacon. Too bad the article is chock full of logical fallacies, disparagement of science, and dubious reasoning. Everything might be better with bacon, taste-wise, but when it comes to the health benefits of the food to which it is added, not so much. Sometimes I wonder whether Mercola publishes articles like this just to be contrarian. If conventional medicine suggests that bacon and cured meats aren’t so good for you, well, then, they must be not just not harmful but fantastic for you! It’s like a two year old saying no to everything.