It’s safe to say that Americans are obsessed with bacon.
Just look at the veritable cornucopia of products available for those who love the breakfast meat: Bacon-flavored envelopes. Bacon-scented underwear (“it’s like a hot frying pan in your pants”). Bacon alarm clocks (some with actual bacon-cooking action). You can look for Mr. or Miss Right using Sizzl, an app strictly for bacon lovers, then impress your date with a glorious bouquet of bacon roses.
And speaking of that special someone, how about bacon-flavored condoms? (Don’t worry — they’re made from latex, not actual bacon.) And if one lifetime of bacon isn’t enough for you, you can show your fandom postmortem by being laid to rest in a bacon coffin.
Even some vegans and vegetarians admit to having a hankering for the meat. “I was a vegetarian for 20 years,” Stephen Hoff, an audio engineer and bacon fan, tells Yahoo Health. “Even as a vegetarian, I would get the bacon substitute.”
(GIF: Nadeen Nakib for Yahoo Health/Getty Images)
Bacon is seen as a “gateway meat,” a food so irresistible that even those who swear off animal products struggle to resist its potent allure. So what is it about bacon that gives it a nearly universal appeal?
First and foremost, there’s the taste, which is of course divine — it’s got that unmistakable flavor of belly-growing, heart-clogging calories. “Foods that give a lot of energy are those that we tend to crave the most,” Johan Lundstrom, a scientist with the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, tells Yahoo Health. Unlike plants and other primary producers, humans need to obtain energy by eating, so we have evolved physiological systems that ensure we consume enough protein, fat, and sugar.
Bacon is one- to two-thirds fat and packed with protein, so it satisfies our body’s evolutionary need for energy. “I guess our reptilian brains still trick us into eating a ton of fat when we can so we can survive Ice Age winters,” bacon lover and media relations associate Nick Gonzalez told Yahoo Health when asked why he likes bacon so much. “I’m not complaining.”
But the love for bacon goes well beyond the meat’s ability to fulfill nutritional desires. “Bacon triggers all of the senses,” explains Lundstrom, “so it’s really perfect when it comes to activating the flavor area of the brain, which is strongly linked to the brain’s reward system.”
Almost every bacon lover can describe the odor of a sizzling slab. “It smells like Saturday morning, when my mom would make breakfast for my brother and me,” says Hoff. We often associate smells with emotions in that way — and we usually have pleasant experiences when we eat bacon, so that happiness gets tied to the scent.
Bacon’s characteristic cooking smell — that mouthwatering odor that can rouse even the soundest of sleepers from down the hall — is the fragrant byproduct of heating protein, sugars, and fats together. It begins with what scientists call the Maillard reaction: when sugars and proteins break down and combine while being heated. This process forms complex compounds that mix with melting fats to produce that characteristic bacon scent.
About 150 special compounds are released into the air while bacon fries, according to the American Chemical Society. Some of those are not produced by frying pork, as the curing process of bacon packs it with nitrates, which alter the smell of the chemical composition.
Bacon’s allure also lies in its appearance. Its image is instantly recognizable, but when it comes to the visual stimulus, it’s not so much the shape or color of bacon that makes it so appetizing but that it looks exactly how we remember it. Lundstrom explains that unlike smell or taste, when an image makes our stomachs growl, “it’s based entirely on previous experience.” We associate the image of bacon with how we felt eating it, so a picture of a sizzling stack of the crispy strips is enough to kick our brains into crave mode.
“When you’re seeing something that you’ve previously experienced which had high nutrition or was pleasant to eat, you are triggering the reward areas of your brain, which biases your behavior towards approaching and eating,” says Lundstrom.
Bacon even sounds good, from the popping and hissing of the strips as they fry to the satisfying crunch and squish as your teeth sink into the hardened fat — and those sounds influence our sense of taste. A classic example of this is when chef Heston Blumenthal teamed up with scientist Charles Spence to see whether particular noises altered the flavor of his signature bacon-and-egg ice cream. Not surprisingly, diners rated the dish accompanied by sizzling sounds as significantly more bacony, and yet the dessert was rated more eggy when served with the clucking of chickens.
And last but not least, bacon is craved by so many because of how good it feels when we eat it. Scientists refer to the experience of consuming something — the way the tactile sensors and other neurons in your mouth respond to the texture of a food — as “mouthfeel.” And boy, does bacon have some unbelievable mouthfeel. The slipperiness from the meat’s juices and melting fats accompanied with an unbelievably satisfying crunch appeals to the brain’s desire for novelty, what experts refer to as “dynamic contrast.” Despite many efforts, science has so far failed at making a bacon substitute that has the right texture to pass as the real deal — that unique combination that separates true bacon from flavored wannabes.
When you combine the sight, sound, smell, feel, and taste of bacon, it’s no wonder that even vegetarians and vegans are tempted by it. But, of course, none of that makes bacon actually all that good for us to eat.
“It’s one of the most delicious foods I have tasted, but I definitely wouldn’t eat it every day,” says Catherine Scott, biologist and surprisingly restrained bacon eater. She’s got a point when it comes to curbing consumption; as a high-salt and high-fat food, bacon earns a special place in our hearts a little too literally. Regular bacon eaters have a greater risk of developing heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Still, it’s hard to say no to the marvelous meat — so hard that Americans continue to eat more than 1 billion servings a year. And consumption keeps going up, even though prices are also increasing. Given the scientific basis of our love affair with the cured meat, it’s unlikely that America is going to give up bacon cold turkey. But perhaps we can cut back just a little — for the sake of our health.
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