Cured vs. Uncured Meat; Does it Really Matter?

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cured meat photoCuring meat has been around since the 3rd century B.C., the processes from then compared to today are what makes the question “Does it Really Matter?” valid.
The origin of meat curing can be traced back to the third century BC, when Cato recorded careful instructions for the dry curing of hams. As early as 3000 BC in Mesopotamia, cooked meats and fish were preserved in sesame oil and dried, salted meat and fish were part of the Sumerian diet.

The early processed meat products were prepared with one purpose in mind: their preservation for use in times of scarcity. During 900 BC, salt was being produced in ‘salt gardens’ in Greece and dry salt curing and smoking of meat were well established.

The Romans in 200 BC learned the use of salt from the Greeks and besides curing fish, the Romans preserved various types of meat, such as pork with pickles containing salt and other ingredients. It was during this time that the reddening effect of salting was noted.
By medieval times, treating meat with salt, saltpeter and smoke was common place and saltpeter’s effect to ‘fix’ the red color was well recognized.

Not Like The Old Days

Today the curing process is largely man-made and chemically based.  Using synthetic chemicals such as sodium nitrates and nitrites are what is causing the health issues such as gastrointestinal cancer.  Natural nitrates occur in salt, celery powder, lactic acid and citric acid and  have been used in the “uncured” meats, the name “uncured” is a misrepresentation of the process.

Curing, at it’s very root, is the preservation of meat by the use of acid, salt, and sugar to remove water and prevent spoilage. The flavor and texture that develops during the process is an added bonus and, in the era of modern refrigeration, the real point to curing anything to begin with.

Unless meat is sold raw, it needs to be preserved somehow in order for it to stay fresh and not spoil. Bacon is sometimes smoked, but curing is the most common way to prepare it for sale. The oldest and most traditional way to cure meat is with salt; the nitrogen in salt, sea salt in particular, removes moisture and seals the surface from bacteria and other contaminants. Somewhat paradoxically, bacon preserved this way is usually referred to as “uncured.” The “cured” designation is usually saved for meat that has been preserved with chemicals that mimic salt but are more efficient and predictable from a manufacturing perspective.

Basically, like most of the morals to my blogs, buying local, buying organic and knowing where your food comes from seems to be the key.  The labeling of uncured vs. cured is a matter of whether the manufacturer is using synthetic compounds to cure or natural compounds to cure.  But in today’s labeling of products, cured and uncured are the same thing.

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  1. We know so much about our world now thanks to scientific discoveries and the centralization of knowledge in physical and digital libraries. When you really take time to think, you realize there’s no excuse for bad eating habits (other than limited resources). The differences between cured and uncured meats is one example, but there are many more of foods that people can choose to avoid, benefiting in the process.

  2. Read the ingredients lists, people! A ton of products are labeled as ‘healthy, ‘organic’, ‘safe’, but the ingredients list is a mile long. We always cook using only fresh ingredients so for us there’s no point in buying cured meats, I don’t want them to last that long in my fridge.

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