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Will Turkey Bacon Also Gobble Up My Arteries?

It’s no swine, but it’s not a cholesterol-free ride either

Considering the modern ubiquity of turkey bacon, it has a rather uninspiring origin story. The creation of this agricultural aberration was officially announced for the first time on December 8, 1972, not in the pages of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, but in Student Life, the official student newspaper of Utah State University. 

Turkey bacon was developed by Dr. Von T. Mendenhall of the aforementioned Utah school, and it was described as “a mixture of light and dark meat in pork bacon symmetry.” Interestingly enough, the same article simultaneously announced the invention of the “turkeyburger,” and ongoing plans to fine-tune the fat-content levels of the burger in order to give it the tastiest composition.

It wouldn’t be until 1988, however, that turkey bacon would finally hit grocery store aisles in the U.S., and another two years would elapse before it was made available nationally.

An October 1990 article that appeared in all Knight Ridder newspapers cut right to the chase, explaining how turkey bacon wasn’t intended to compete directly against pork bacon, but was instead expected to bring more consumers into the bacon market. However, even within this launchpad of an article, some concerns were raised: Despite possessing fewer calories and overall fat content, the first iteration of turkey bacon actually contained more cholesterol and sodium per serving than pork bacon. Clearly, it would take some level of cognitive dissonance to assert that turkey bacon was indisputably the healthier of the two bacon options.

What about today, though? Three decades later, has all that been sorted? And is turkey bacon now officially the better choice at the breakfast table — or on a (turkey) burger, BLT, etc.?

Wait! Before you into that, a bigger-picture question first: Why do people want turkey products in general?

Well, there’s the reason that’s often cited as the most valid, which appears to hold water until you thoroughly investigate it. We also have my own personal conspiracy theory, which is a lot more fun, and which also strikes me as altogether logical even though I have zero evidence to back it up. For lack of a better explanation, it simply jibes too well with everything logical about business to not be at least partially true.

We’ll begin with the routinely proffered statements about the matchless health value of turkey meat. Almost without fail, these statements will refer to turkey’s high protein content, low fat content and comparatively small dosage of cholesterol. The use of the term “comparatively small” is key, because the value of something can easily be exaggerated and misrepresented depending upon what you compare it to. Tom Cruise is of average height in relation to everyone cast to act opposite him in his films, even if he’s two inches shorter than the average American male. I was a world-class basketball player compared with the imaginary opponents trying to guard me in my driveway, even though I would have been laughed out of any respectable high school basketball tryout. 

When measured side-by-side, the nutritional values of turkey and chicken are essentially identical. So, when it’s matched against something similar and given a chance to separate itself as the clearly healthier option, turkey disappoints.

Okay, but this is about bacon. Isn’t turkey bacon vastly superior to traditional pork bacon?

We kind of covered this already, but let’s do a fair comparison of the pork bacon and turkey bacon offered by the same company, Oscar Mayer. Also, we’re going to do this on a gram-for-gram basis without allowing ourselves to be fooled by the different per-strip servings and quantities. With everything normalized, pork bacon contains 1.1 more calories per gram, virtually identical cholesterol levels, two more grams of fat and nearly double the sodium. Pork bacon also has roughly triple the protein content of turkey bacon when expressed as a percentage of the overall strip.

Thus, if we’re evaluating this fairly, avoiding additional sodium is a legitimate reason to eschew pork bacon in favor of its Frankenturkey approximation. However, if you can eliminate the falsehood from your brain that fat is fundamentally bad, there are clear advantages to selecting pork bacon over turkey bacon.

By the way, something similar happens when you compare ground turkey to ground beef. Please remember that two grams of protein and two grams of fat have the same caloric value (four calories and nine calories, respectively) no matter what their source is. Armed with that knowledge, it should come as no surprise that identical quantities of ground turkey and ground beef of various fat percentages would have clear statistical similarities, but the ground beef is also noticeably and surprisingly superior in terms of lower sodium and cholesterol scores. Why, you ask? Because ground turkey is assembled by blending the bird’s white and dark meat together, along with its skin.

Interesting! So what is your conspiracy theory explanation for why turkey has been promoted to us so heavily?

If you were a turkey farmer, wouldn’t you like to have a backdoor route into America’s kitchens? In my view, there’s no way turkey bacon, turkey sausage and ground turkey products get off the ground without a concerted effort to help turkey farmers sell turkeys in months that aren’t November and December.

Campaigns have been underway since at least as early as the 1940s to encourage widespread, year-round consumption of turkey meat, and it’s never quite caught on the way the most prognosticators envisioned. In the1950s, the press in Utah (again, the eventual birthplace of turkey bacon and ground turkey) were aggressively pushing turkey as superior to chicken due to its size, no doubt in an effort to support the interests of some of Utah’s turkey empires. In the 1980s, when the price of red meat was rising rapidly, turkey was promoted as another low-price mealtime meat alternative. 

Nothing has ever truly worked with respect to convincing Americans that turkey was the superior fowl, and that it should be enjoyed in forms other than holiday meals, club sandwiches and occasional dinners from Boston Market. In 2017, the U.S. meat industry collectively processed nine billion chickens and about 242 million turkeys. Yes, I know turkeys are larger and heavier than chickens on average, so it’s not a tidy one-to-one comparison, but we shouldn’t be under any illusions that allowing for physical size differences makes this statistical comparison that much closer than it initially appears.

Wow! So my turkey bacon isn’t healthy?

After reading all of that, I truly hope this wasn’t your takeaway. Turkey bacon is healthy for what it is, but it’s also still bacon, and it certainly isn’t magic. The same properties that enable you to enjoy the textures of pork bacon, pork sausage and ground beef are going to be the same properties that allow you to enjoy turkey bacon, turkey sausage and ground turkey, because they need those properties in order to be formed the way they’re expected to be formed, and in order to taste the way you’re expecting them to taste.

In other words, to convince a person that the turkey bacon they’re enjoying with their BLT is equivalent to pork bacon, you basically have to remake pork bacon through and through. To satisfy someone’s desire for the food being replaced, you essentially have to remake it. In that respect, you’ll never convince someone that a cauliflower steak is a sirloin steak unless you find the missing 60 calories of protein, and I’ll never convince my wife I’m Dwayne Johnson unless I can find the missing four inches of height and 50 pounds of muscle mass.