The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Is Low-Sodium Bacon Worth Its Salt?

Why Bother?

I don't know why, but I seem to be on a bacon roll lately. I promise I'll change the subject soon, but let me tell you about this first; I had my first encounter with low-sodium bacon the other day. And it went about the way I expected it would.

I cook breakfast almost everywhere I go. It's about the only non-Italian cooking I do. Breakfast, or prima colazione, is not a big thing in Italy. Coffee and pastry, usually consumed standing up. Not me. Give me a big, full, decadent breakfast. I've been cooking such meals for about fifty years. I've cooked breakfast for two and I've cooked breakfast for two hundred. I've prepared it in state of the art home and professional kitchens and I've fixed it over open campfires. And the star of the show is always bacon.

I'm particular about my bacon. When I have a choice, I use Benton's bacon. When I don't, I get good quality bacon from my local meat market. My third choice is locally sourced bacon from places like Whole Foods or Fresh Market. If I have to buy bacon from a supermarket, I get the premium brands. Believe me, the few pennies you save buying cheap, second rate bacon are not worth the trade off in flavor and quality. And it's terribly uneconomical in the long run. The cheap stuff, being mostly fat and water, cooks away to nothing. You might save a nickel at the cash register, but you'll lose a dollar in the pan.

Anyway, I was visiting in New England and I was asked to cook Sunday morning breakfast. In my own kitchen, I use fresh eggs from a nearby farm, locally sourced potatoes that I hand select, fresh-baked bread or biscuits, whole milk and fresh butter from a local dairy. And, of course, my butcher's bacon. On the road, I sometimes have to deal with what's on hand, and in this case, that included supermarket eggs, generic bagged potatoes, 1% milk and low-sodium bacon. I knew I could work with the eggs and the spuds, but I balked at the idea of using water masquerading as milk. I sent out for the real thing. But I decided to give the low-sodium bacon a try.

The first thing I noticed was that the bacon was sliced so paper thin I could practically read the label through it. I'm accustomed to bacon that weighs in at sixteen to twenty slices per pound. With this stuff, I peeled off fourteen slices and still had nearly half of a twelve-ounce package left. Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty or more slices per pound. The slices from my butcher start out just shy of eleven inches long and cook down to a length of about eight inches. The low-sodium product I was using shrank from ten inches to about four. The flavor was pleasant enough, but there just wasn't much of it.

I know a lot of people fall victim to the words “low,” “reduced,” and “free.” They think these products are somehow healthier and better for them. They're really not, because anything labeled “low,” “reduced,” or “free” has been processed to make it that way. Processed beyond the already high level to which most regular food is processed. As a result, it's generally more expensive, and usually the overall dietary benefits just aren't that great.

For example, a thin, skinny little strip of low sodium bacon contains 100 milligrams of sodium. A similarly thin slice of regular bacon contains about 120 milligrams. The 16/20 bacon I prefer has about 180 milligrams of sodium per slice. Now, allowing that the current recommended daily sodium intake is no more than 2,300 milligrams for healthy adults and 1,500 milligrams or less for people with high blood pressure, how much difference are you really making using “low-sodium” bacon? About 60 milligrams for a three-slice serving. Or 240 milligrams if you're using a decent quality bacon. And, as with most “healthy” products, you're paying through the nose for all that extra “health.” By the time it cooked up, the low-sodium bacon yielded less than half the weight and volume of the same number of slices of regular bacon. And it cost more.

Logic, folks, logic. If you want to reduce your intake of sodium from bacon, don't waste your money on low-sodium bacon. Buy regular bacon.....and just eat less of it. It would take four slices of the low-sodium bacon I cooked the other day to provide as much meat as two slices of my good quality, medium-sliced regular bacon. That's 400 milligrams of sodium for the “low-sodium” versus 360 milligrams for the regular. Where's all the “health?”

The only way to derive any health benefit from low-sodium bacon – or “low” anything else, for that matter – is to consume unreasonably large quantities of it. If you want less sodium from bacon, eat less bacon. As much as I love, love, love my bacon, I only cook it as the major part of a meal once a week. And I might cook up a slice or two now and then to add to a sandwich or to crumble over a baked potato. My average weekly bacon consumption amounts to maybe five strips. That's 900 milligrams of sodium from bacon per week. And if my doctor ever feels that that's going to kill me, I'll knock off the sandwich and the potato and reduce my intake by almost half. And it'll be good, hearty, meaty, flavorful, satisfying, honest-to-Porky bacon, and not some weak, shrunken, shriveled, processed approximation thereof, reduced in size to a form measuring the length and breadth of my index finger.

I'm ready for the criticism I'm going to receive at the hands of nutritionists and dieticians who constantly flog “low,” “reduced,” or “free” as the answer to all dietary issues. These are the same folks who spent decades telling us that eggs were going to kill us before improved science forced them to backtrack and say, “Ooops! Never mind.” I'm not a dietician or a nutritionist. I didn't even play one on TV. But I do have a functioning brain that allows me to sort out the sensible from the stupid. And if you're concerned about sodium and salt, doesn't it make more sense to eat less food that is more salty than it does to eat more food that is less salty? If you want to blow your dough on “healthy” food that is overprocessed and overpriced, good on you. I'll stick with eating real food, thank you. I'll just eat less of it.

Low-sodium bacon? Nah! Not really worth its salt.

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