Go out to a restaurant or just turn on the Food Network, and you might get the impression the whole world has turned into “foodies.” Next to food items on a menu, you will find next terms like Vegan, cage-free, crate-free, gluten-free, organic, artisan, Heirloom, locally grown, sustainable, humane, hormone free, GMO free, antibiotic free, peanut free, and more. There is no such thing as just food any more; it is all part of the current food fad or politically correct diet. Yet, the most popular food item today is not part of the foodie fad, is not politically correct, is certainly not part of a vegan or vegetarian diet, and is not welcome on Michelle Obama’s school lunch menu. However, it has overcome bad press, nutritional ridicule, food safety scares, and public scorn to become the most requested food item in the US today: bacon.
As Protect the Harvest pointed out in a recent on-line post, “Bacon. A tasty side, popular condiment, or standalone comfort food. Although it has been around since the Roman Empire, it was not until the last few decades that bacon has become the force it is today.” And a force it is! At many establishments, it is the only meat on the menu and the one meat product that chefs will not be taking out of their kitchens. What is even more remarkable is that not that long ago bacon was public enemy #1 and was on the culinary endangered list.
In 1984, bacon was on the cover of Time Magazine as the face of America’s cholesterol problem. There was a huge decline in pork belly sales and what seemed to be the death of bacon. The 1980s was the era of eating lean. Fat was demonized, and Americans did all they could to not consume fatty foods. At first pork belly sales suffered immensely. Bacon is almost two-thirds fat; and, in a society where everyone is pushing to eat lean and healthy, that isn’t a favorable statistic. Pork bellies got so cheap that the government urged producers to sell them to the Soviet Union and impoverished African countries. But this obsession with lean would ultimately set the stage for bacon’s return.
Trying to cash in on the lean fad, McDonalds came up with a plan. They were going to sell the McLean – a burger claiming to be 91% fat-free. Other chains soon followed and, before you knew it, most hamburgers tasked like chewing on old shoes. People began to complain that their meat had no taste. Responding to packer demands, livestock producers started producing pork and beef with less fat and marbling. Butchers complained they had to spend too much time trimming off fat from meat cuts before they could put them in the meat case.
Then the bacon backlash began. POH gives credit to Hardees for starting the revolution by offering the Frisco Burger. Consumers wanted a burger that is so thick with meat that they felt as though they were truly getting their money’s worth. And people discovered what they had been missing: taste. Bacon was the key, and soon bacon strips were showing up on burgers all over the place. By 2000, bacon was considered to be the third largest condiment behind salt and pepper.
Today, bacon has taken on a life of its own, moving into products far removed from the dinner plate. You can find bacon ice cream, bacon toothpaste, bacon mints, bacon floss, and even a bacon-scented pillow. But bacon’s real accomplishment is to prove that taste is what really matters. While heath, diet, and nutrition fads may come and go, it is taste that people want in the end. Research shows that taste outranks social, environmental, and even cost concerns when it comes to why consumers will pick one food product over another.
So, the next time you hear about some really scary food trend, just remember that the only food trends that last are ones that taste good. And that most likely means they have bacon in them.
By Gary Truitt