Meat is processed using different techniques to improve durability, sensory attributes, and microbiological safety. Curing and smoking are among the methods used in meat processing.
Prosciutto and bacon are processed meat products prepared by curing pork meat.
In this article, we will be discussing the differences between prosciutto and bacon across a range of different factors, including their nutritional composition and health.
Introduction to Prosciutto and Bacon
Prosciutto and bacon are among the commonly consumed processed forms of pork.
The word prosciutto has an Italian origin meaning ham. It refers to the salt-cured meat prepared from the hind leg of a pig. Prosciutto generally comes in two forms, prosciutto crudo and prosciutto cotto.
Prosciutto crudo or dry-cured prosciutto preparation begins by rubbing the pig’s hind leg with a layer of sea salt. This salting step is critical for preservation as it draws out moisture and inactivates microbial growth.
The salt meat is then air-dried in a cool ventilated room for several months to allow the flavor to concentrate (1).
Due to the long salt-curing process, prosciutto is generally considered safe for raw consumption. It is sometimes slightly cooked to bring out the aroma and flavors.
Prosciutto cotto is also referred to as cooked prosciutto. Prosciutto cotto is prepared by removing bones from the pig leg, curing the meat by immersion in a brine solution, and cooking it with steam.
Bacon is processed meat traditionally made from pork belly.
Bacon preparation recipes may differ from producer to producer. It is generally prepared by first rubbing the meat with salt and seasoning to give it flavor. The curing step takes one to two weeks.
Following curing, the pork belly is rinsed and smoked for flavor and preservation (2). The smoking can be done using different fragrant woods like maple, apple, or chicory woods based on the required flavor.
Bacon can be sliced thin or thick and requires cooking before consumption.
Industrial bulk bacon production involves wet-curing for its reduced processing time. In wet-curing, the pork belly will be soaked and then smoked.
However, the preparation incorporates several chemicals like nitrates that are associated with harmful health impacts.
Nutritional Composition Comparison
|Nutrient||Proscuitto, Per 100g||Bacon, Per 100g|
|Total Fats (g)||12.5||35.1|
|Saturated Fat (g)||5||12|
|Trans Fats (g)||0||0.14|
|Vitamin A (µg)||0||11|
|Vitamin D (µg)||0.9||0.4|
|Vitamin E (mg)||0.2||0.4|
|Vitamin K (µg)||0||0|
|Vitamin B1, Thiamin (mg)||0.9||0.6|
|Vitamin B2, Riboflavin (mg)||0.2||0.2|
|Vitamin B3, Niacin (mg)||5.9||10.5|
|Vitamin B5, Pantothenic Acid (mg)||0.7||1.1|
|Vitamin B6, Pyridoxine (mg)||1.1||0.5|
|Vitamin B9, Folate (µg)||12.8||0|
|Vitamin B12, Cobalamin||0.7||1.1|
|Vitamin C (mg)||0||0|
Prosciutto vs. Bacon Health Comparison
Prosciutto and bacon are calorie-rich and good dietary sources of protein. In addition, the consumption of prosciutto and bacon contributes to the intake of vitamins and minerals.
However, these processed meats also contain saturated fat, cholesterol, and chemical additives that pose a threat to human health (6).
We will use available data from scientific research to evaluate health-related aspects of prosciutto and bacon.
Both Prosciutto and Bacon are Sources of High-Quality Protein
Pork is the most widely consumed protein source worldwide and accounts for 36% of the global meat intake. (7).
Pork meat offers a balanced protein source with all the essential amino acids humans need.
Prosciutto and bacon are excellent sources of essential amino acids, especially leucine, lysine, threonine, valine, and arginine. The curing and smoking process these pork products undergo further improves the digestibility of essential amino acids compared to raw pork meat (8).
Although both prosciutto and bacon have excellent protein quality, smoked bacon contains a higher level of digestible amino acids compared to cured ham.
Bacon is Associated with Higher Risk of Cardiovascular Diseases
Processed or not, meat consumption is not exactly beneficial for cardiovascular health. Consumption of red meat is actually among the major dietary risk factors for cardiovascular diseases.
A meta-analysis covering over half a million participants reported that a 50 grams/day processed meat intake is associated with a 42% increased risk of coronary heart disease (9).
The high salt content of foods like prosciutto and bacon accounts for more than two-thirds of the observed increased risk of coronary heart disease.
Among the different processed meats, bacon consumption leads to a higher risk of coronary heart disease (10).
This increased risk associated with bacon consumption may be related to its higher saturated fat and cholesterol content.
In addition, unlike prosciutto, bacon production may involve the use of nitrates. Nitrate and nitrite compounds prevent the growth of a harmful bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. These compounds also give the bacon its characteristic pink color (11).
These nitrate compounds are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases (12).
Bacon is Associated with a Higher Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Evidence from the last two decades suggests high processed meat consumption increases the risk of diabetes mellitus accumulated.
A systematic review covering over three hundred thousand participants indicated a daily 50 grams processed meat consumption leads to a 51% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes mellitus (13).
The components in prosciutto and bacon responsible for the increased risk of type 2 diabetes still require identification.
However, studies indicate compounds like saturated fatty acids, cholesterol, nitrates, nitrites, nitrosamine, and sodium remain the prime suspects (14).
Bacon contains nearly two folds of saturated fat than prosciutto. Saturated fats can increase the risk of diabetes by increasing insulin resistance. (15).
Bacon also contains a high level of nitrates and nitrites. Within the food, these nitrates and nitrites bind with amino compounds producing nitrosamines.
These nitrosamines can decrease insulin secretion, thereby increasing the risk of developing diabetes mellitus (16).
The risk of diabetes may be higher with bacon consumption than prosciutto in association with the higher levels of cholesterol, saturated fatty acids, and nitrate compounds.
Both Prosciutto and Bacon are Associated with Incidences of Cancer
Bacon and prosciutto are among the processed meats classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (17).
The World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research concluded the existing evidence is convincing that processed meat consumption increases the risk of colorectal cancer (18).
According to a study on colorectal cancer risks in women, a 10-grams daily bacon consumption can double the risk of developing colorectal cancer (19).
Several studies associate consumption of processed meat with increased risk of cancer including,
Both May Increase Incidences of Stroke
Several epidemiological pieces of evidence suggest processed meat consumption increases the risk of stroke.
A meta-analysis covering 11,601 participants and 699 incidents of stroke indicated that consumption of processed meat increases the risk of stroke by 24%. (25).
Another study indicated a daily increment in processed meat intake by 50g can increase the risk of stroke by 11%. (26).
Prosciutto is Usually Consumed Raw and May Have Risk
We consume bacon after cooking, which minimizes the risk of microbiological health hazards.
Prosciutto, on the other hand, is usually consumed as is. This raw consumption increases the consumer’s risk of microbiological health hazards.
The curing process of prosciutto has food preservation properties. However, reports are indicating the detection of harmful bacteria like Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat cured hams (27).
This pathogen can lead to death and is a challenge in raw ready-to-eat food. Severe listeriosis may result in a 16% mortality rate.
A study reported a reduction in the prevalence of Listeria monocytogenes in fresh pork of the hind leg from 12.5% to 2% with the curing process (28).
However, the 2% prevalence is still not negligible since we consume prosciutto without cooking.
Differences in Appearance
Prosciutto has a rose color, and the longer the meat is aged, the darker the rose color would be. The texture of prosciutto is smooth and delicate that becomes dry and firm as it ages (29).
In the market, prosciutto is mainly available in paper-thin slices.
Bacon has a bright pink color with a golden rind (30). Bacon also contains white fat alongside the pink meat. As it comes from the fat-dense belly of a pig, bacon is comparatively fatty.
After cooking, the fat renders, turning the bacon darker with a chewy or crispy texture depending on the cooking technique.
Bacon is available in the market as both thin and thick cuts.
Differences in Taste
From sandwiches to pasta, prosciutto and bacon make frequent appearances as part of the regular diet.
The taste of prosciutto and bacon depends on where the meat comes from, the breed, and the processing technique (31).
Both prosciutto and bacon are salt-cured. Smoking is one of the factors responsible for the difference in taste between them. The preparation of prosciutto doesn’t involve smoking.
Bacon, however, is smoked, and its flavor will differ based on the type of wood used for smoking.
Prosciutto is usually consumed uncooked and has a lightly sweet and yet salty flavor. As it ages, prosciutto develops a more complex flavor profile.
During cooking, the fatty acids in the bacon break down, forming a plethora of flavorful compounds like furans, aldehydes, and ketones.
Bacon gets its characteristic flavor profile from these compounds, the smoking, the curing processes, and the meat itself. Bacon tends to have a sweet, salty, smokey, and buttery flavor (32).
Which is Better?
Both prosciutto and bacon are excellent sources of high-quality protein and amino acids. These pork-based products also contribute to the dietary intake of minerals and vitamins.
However, these and other processed meats also contain a higher level of saturated fats, cholesterol, nitrates, and nitrites. As a result, the consumption of processed meats is strongly associated with a range of chronic diseases like coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke.
The choice between prosciutto and bacon is not about which is healthier, but rather which the lesser of two evils is.
Compared to prosciutto, bacon contains a higher level of saturated fats and cholesterol. In addition, bacon preparation involves the use of chemical additives like nitrates. All these compounds make the risk of developing chronic diseases higher in bacon than prosciutto.