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The Bacon Case: Deciphering Cures and Flavorings

Diet & nutrition 101
Diet & nutrition 101
October 24, 2017
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Bacon remains the darling of most-desired foods and the variety of cures and smokes in your grocer’s meat case reflects the love. The intoxicating bouquet that wafts through the house when you cook the best part of the pig is just as tempting, regardless of the processing technique, but the taste is definitely affected. Learning how to read the labels ensures you choose the best bacon to suit your tastes.Whether you grab thin-sliced, thick-sliced, slab, or short bacon ends, the taste of bacon is derived mainly from how the bacon is cured and what type of wood is used to smoke it.

Curing Components

Curing has three main purposes in bacon processing. As the pork belly is slowly transformed into bacon, curing gives bacon an appealing, meaty color that would be a dull grayish-brown without it. Microorganisms are also kept at bay by curing, so you can store your bacon longer without it spoiling. Curing also infuses the meat with the addictive taste that makes bacon so unique.If the bacon label doesn’t identify a specific curing process, it’s safe to presume the usual method was used. Conventionally, a mixture of blended salt, sugar, phosphates, and nitrates are injected into the belly. Many bacon brands include details on their labels about the curing process, especially if it’s particularly unique or healthy.Here are some terms you’ll find on bacon packaging:


All cures have some type of sweetener in them. The sweet additives range from plain white sugar to brown sugar, honey, molasses, etc. – any sweetener will do. This terminology is really not necessary but it probably makes the product more attractive to some.

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Maple Bacon

Bacon with this terminology on the label simply means a little maple syrup was added to the curing solution. Syrup should be listed in the ingredients but don’t expect a big burst of fresh-tapped sweetness in your mouth similar to maple pancake syrup; it’s very subtle.

Reduced Sodium/Sugar-Free

Since sodium and sugar are two keys ingredients to making bacon so tasty, stay away from this type unless your health dictates you must limit your intake of salt and/or sugar.


This claim is a bit of a misnomer since most bacon is cured in one way or another to set the color and deter spoilage. This description typically means no artificial nitrates were used in curing. “Uncured” bacon usually indicates celery extract, celery juice or sea salt was used in curing, all containing natural nitrates.

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Dry Cured or Dry Rubbed

If you prefer salty bacon and money is no object, this is your best choice. This labeling means the bacon was rubbed with dry curing ingredients instead of being injected with a solution. This painstaking process takes several weeks or even months to produce, so dry cured or dry rubbed bacon is considerably pricier and saltier since the salt used is not watered down as it is for injections.

The Smoke

After pork belly is cured, it’s classically smoked and heated to about 130 degrees F. This step infuses bacon with captivating flavor, makes the lean streaks meaty-red, and firms up the fat to make slicing easier. Bacon producers sometimes use liquid smoke as an alternative and skip the customary and lengthy natural smoking process.

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Hardwood Smoked or Naturally Smoked

Bacon purists often shun the idea of having processed liquid smoke in their rashers. If the label states the product has been hardwood smoked or naturally smoked, it means the bacon has been naturally and slowly smoked in the traditional manner.

Applewood Smoked or Mesquite Smoked

Most people can’t tell what kind of wood was used to smoke their bacon based on the taste, but true bacon connoisseurs with extremely sensitive palates are the exception. Applewood, mesquite and other hardwoods are sometimes listed on the packaging for allure. Hardwood smoked bacon is generally higher priced than other options but some feel the extra cost is worth it.

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Hickory Smoked

Hickory is the most available and cost-effective wood used for smoking all kinds of meat. Even if the packaging doesn’t mention hickory, you can safely assume that was the wood the company used. This information is somewhat unnecessary but is commonly found on the labels of many major bacon brands.-- Cassie DamewoodRead more Food and Drinks articles here.

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