Is Turkey Bacon Healthy? Here's What a Nutritionist Thinks
As a nutritionist, some of my clients ask me if turkey bacon is a better alternative to traditional pork-based bacon. Many are concerned about health issues related to conventional bacon—including that it may increase the risk of cancer since it's processed red meat. Because turkey isn't red meat, however, people often assume turkey bacon is a healthier choice. Here's the lowdown on what turkey bacon is, if it's a healthier option, and simple ways to incorporate it into balanced meals.
What is turkey bacon?
Turkey bacon is made by combining minced or chopped smoked turkey with seasonings and preservatives. The mixture is then formed into bacon-like strips. Some turkey bacon products may also contain other meats, like pork, according to the USDA. Therefore, if you're looking for gobbler-only strips, be sure to check the ingredients list.
Turkey bacon nutrition
Turkey bacon isn't all that different from conventional bacon when it comes to nutritional content. For example, one slice of microwaved turkey bacon contains about 30 calories, 2 grams (g) of fat, 2 g of protein, no carbohydrates or fiber, and 164 milligrams (mg) of sodium—which is about 7% of the maximum recommended daily intake for healthy adults.
Comparatively, the same-size portion of pork bacon provides roughly 40 calories, 3 g of fat, 3.5 g of protein, no carbs or fiber, and 162 mg of sodium (also about 7% of the recommended daily intake). The real health difference between the two is that pork is red meat while turkey is not.
Processed meat and cancer risk
Multiple large studies have indicated that both red meat and processed meat increase the risk of cancer, primarily colorectal cancer. In fact, the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that everyone limit or avoid eating red meat and processed meats due to their association with cancer. While turkey bacon is not red meat, it is processed meat—so it's best to limit your consumption of it as well.
Researchers aren't completely sure why processed meats and red meats increase cancer risk, but there are some theories:
- The addition of nitrates/nitrites. Research has found that these can form cancer-causing compounds in humans.
- Smoking the meat. The smoking process produces a carcinogen called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
- Cooking the meat at high temperatures. This can trigger the production of substances called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which can harm DNA, thereby increasing the risk of cancerous mutations.
- The presence of heme iron, found in high amounts in red meat, may damage cells that line the colon, increasing the risk that these cells become cancerous.
There are no published studies about the association between turkey bacon and cancer risk. But most turkey bacon has added nitrates, is smoked and cooked at a high temperature, and contains some heme iron—although in much smaller amounts than pork.
Healthy tips for eating bacon
No one food can make or break the healthfulness of your diet. If you just can't forego bacon, here are my tips for eating this meat in healthier ways:
- Opt for nitrate-free turkey bacon. For those who don't want to give up meat-based bacon, I recommend looking for brands without added nitrates, such as Applegate Farms uncured turkey bacon. It's also leaner, packs more protein, and has slightly less sodium.
- Choose plant-based bacon. If you want to further reduce potential health risks associated with processed meats, I suggest plant-based bacon alternatives, like those from the brand Hooray Foods. However, plant-based bacon does contain almost 12% of your daily value of sodium, so stick to just a few strips.
- Enjoy bacon in moderation. Regardless of which type of bacon you choose, reserve it for special occasions like holidays or birthday brunches.
- Eat whole foods. Pair bacon with nutrient-rich foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Serve BLTs on whole grain bread with fresh tomatoes, lettuce, and avocado in place of mayo, for example.
- Stay hydrated. All bacon, including turkey bacon, is high in sodium, and a high sodium intake over time increases blood pressure and raises heart disease and stroke risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drink plenty of water when eating bacon to offset sodium's effects on blood pressure.
- Consume potassium. Potassium-rich foods, like avocados or bananas, will also help manage the effects of sodium, according to the American Heart Association. Aim for 4,200 mg of this mineral a day.
RELATED: How to Choose the Healthiest Meats
The takeaway on turkey bacon
If you can't give up meat-based bacon, turkey bacon is likely healthier for you than conventional bacon because it is not red meat. However, it's still processed meat. If you love turkey bacon and want to keep eating it, stick to small portions, pair it with nutrient-rich foods, and choose nitrate-free versions.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.
To get more nutrition and diet tips delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Balanced Bites newsletter