Bacon and Hot Dog Labels Decoded!

Bacon and hot dog packages are adorned with enough claims to make your head spin – some of which don’t exactly make sense! So I am excited to be on the advisory board for Applegate and therefore partnering with them on this sponsored post today in order to get to the bottom of this confusion. Applegate organic bacon is my all-time favorite bacon – so much so that I get nervous when there are “shortages” and my store doesn’t have any in stock (if anyone saw me buying 5 packs to stock my freezer last week it’s because I’ve got to get it when I can)!

When we first started our 100-day pledge we made a rule that all of our meat had to be locally sourced. And (for the first couple years) our occasional consumption of bacon and hot dogs were no exception. But the thing is, due to all that labeling that I didn’t always understand (cured? uncured? smoked? not smoked?), the locally sourced bacon I was buying tasted absolutely NOTHING like the store bought stuff. It was basically just plain meat with no seasoning at all (oh, the horror!). So one day when I “needed” bacon and was unable to buy the local stuff, I bought Applegate Organic instead. Oh my – I forgot what I was missing and have honestly never looked back!

So in order to shed some light on all these mysterious terms…I bring to you “Bacon and Hot Dog Labels Decoded!” In case you haven’t noticed many of the same terms are used on both products.

Bacon and Hot Dog Labels Decoded from 100 Days of #RealFood

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  • Uncured –
    Due to outdated laws this is one of the most confusing terms. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “cure” as: “to preserve by salting, drying, etc.” So, according to historical meat preserving tradition, many Applegate products actually are cured. Unfortunately, the USDA’s definition of “cured” derives from the industrial food system. Before refrigeration was common, synthetic sodium nitrite was viewed as an innovation that made food safer. At the time, the USDA required producers to include the synthetic compound in products labeled “cured” to help customers identify bacteria-free foods, and label laws haven’t changed since. However, there are many ways to cure meat, not all of which require a synthetic chemical. For example, Applegate cures their Prosciutto using only salt and spices. They make other products like organic hot dogs and Virginia ham with celery juice and starter culture. The results are natural (and delicious, I might add!).
  • Smoked –
    This term right here is the difference between the amazing store bought bacon we are all used to and the local, flavorless bacon I mentioned above. At first I thought the difference was that the local bacon was uncured, but then I saw that the bacon packages in the store all said “uncured,” too. (Again – so much confusion!). Smoking the bacon is literally when the meat is put into a smoker for hours over hardwood. This happens at a very low temperature so the meat is not actually cooked when it’s done. You can even buy smokers for home use and make your own bacon using pork belly! We have a smoker that we recently dusted off and have been experimenting with – so this is something I’ve added to my list to try.
  • No Nitrites or Nitrates Added –
    This claim is another super misleading one. It does not actually mean there are no nitrites or nitrates used – it just means they are not the synthetic ones, which is of course a good thing! When you see this on an Applegate package it simply means they’ve cured the meat using nitrates found in nature (from celery powder, which is listed on the ingredient label) – not the factory made version. When mixed with a culture starter, the natural nitrates in celery juice turn to nitrites and achieve the desirable results (better flavor and appearance) without the factory side effects. Check out this nitrite/nitrate FAQ for more details.
  • Not Preserved –
    For Applegate this means that no artificial preservatives are used and instead only untreated natural salt and sea salt have been added (as shown on the ingredient label) since they act as a natural preservative.
  • No Antiobiotics Used –
    First of all, when and why are antibiotics used on animals anyway? Conventional farmers give antibiotics to animals to help prevent some diseases, but also to cause animals to grow larger and fatter at an increased rate. Because animals can then be slaughtered at a younger age and on less feed, this practice is used as a cost-saving measure. Talk about in-humane! So when a package says “Natural” or “Organic” that means antibiotics probably have not been used, but it’s also reassuring to see this claim spelled out on its own since it’s something that is super important.
  • Humanely Raised –
    This is not a term that is regulated by the government so it can mean different things coming from different companies. When Applegate uses this term it means the meat and poultry used in their products come from animals that are raised on family farms in an environment that allows them to move about freely and exhibit natural behaviors, such as rooting and pecking. Animals are also fed an all vegetarian grain or grass diet without antibiotics, hormones or animal by-products. And their humane slaughter practices follow the guidelines set forth by Dr. Temple Grandin, a world renowned authority on humane animal husbandry. If you see “humanely raised” coming from a different company and want to know exactly what that means – the best thing to do is call them up and ask.
  • Gluten and Casein Free –
    “Gluten” is a protein found in wheat and other related grains. “Casein” has a molecular structure similar to gluten, and can be found in many cheeses. Most meat products obviously don’t contain grains (unless they’re breaded), but seeing this promise on the package can be helpful for those who want to be sure they are avoiding gluten and casein. I personally don’t think there’s any reason to avoid gluten (or casein for that matter) unless you feel better when you’re not eating it.
  • Natural –
    Just like the “humanely raised” term mentioned above, this one is not regulated by the government and therefore can be used in a misleading manner. Typically “natural” means nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to the product, but I’ve even see this unspoken rule broken by the food industry before (surprise, surprise). When it comes to bacon and other meat products, animals raised in confinement, fed a diet of bakery waste or animal by-products, or administered daily doses of antibiotics and hormones, could unfortunately all be sold as natural meat. But, when Applegate uses the “natural” claim they say it means the following: No antibiotics or hormones, a vegetarian grain or 100% grass diet, humane animal standards, no chemical nitrites, nitrates, or phosphates, and no artificial ingredients or preservatives. So the bottom line is I think we can trust the “natural” label if it’s coming from a company that we trust.
  • Organic – 
    If you choose an organic Applegate product over the natural version you can be assured you’re getting everything the natural version promises plus non-GMO and organic feed (i.e. grown without the use of pesticides) for the animals. In addition, any company with the certified organic label means the production process was certified from start to finish through a yearly audit. This ensures that all of the criteria of the USDA Organic Standards are met.

In the end, bacon and (especially) hot dogs are not everyday fare for our family. And funny enough, I found this little quote on Applegate’s website that is completely in line with my own personal philosophy: “Eat Less Meat, But Better Meat.” So the bottom line is naturally cured meats enjoyed in moderation can be part of a real food diet (whew!). 

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  1. So my question relates to animals being “vegetarian-fed” or “grain fed.” Chickens aren’t naturally vegetarians; insects, and the like, are a natural part of their diet in a pasture environment. Additionally, at least sources I’ve read (and I’m not an expert) indicate that cows’ digestive systems aren’t meant to process a grain-based diet.. So, to me, those terms aren’t necessarily something that draw me to a product. Grass fed beef…yes. Pasture raised beef and chicken…yes! Have you learned anything about this from your work with Applegate that could help explain this part of the equation better? And I know very little about pork, except that pasture-raised is always a good thing!

    On another note, information in your cookbooks and on your blog helped me tremendously through a period of GI issues with my daughter. Thanks so much!! We have several 100DRF recipes in a regular rotation at our house. :)

  2. Thank you for including the living conditions of animals as part of your review. In Maine as well as many states with family farmers, local meats are raised humanely, taste delicious, and are nutritious.

  3. So their products that are “Natural” labeled actually contain GMO’s and synthetic pesticides in the food that the animals are given? So the vegetarian feed may include something like corn and it would be GMO? That doesn’t seem very honest to put a “natural” label on something that contains genetically modified organisms. And for the record, I have ONLY purchased AppleGate Farms for the past 5 years when it comes to our bacon, hot dogs and lunch meat and even cheese slices at times. Sometimes I will reach for their “Natural” over their “Organic” label because I felt certain that after all the care they took into making such a clean eating product and raising animals so humanely, there’s no way at the end of the day they would ruin the product with GMO’s. Am I wrong??

      1. So she trusts that their high standards include the use of non GMO ingredients? Or she is ok with the use of GMO’s because every other aspect of the product line is of a higher standard? And just to be clear, this was more of a comment directed at the integrity of Applegate themsleves, not Lisa! I have been following Lisa for many years now and I love her! :)

      2. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

        Well, I’m certain she would prefer to know that GMO’s are not used in their feeds but specifically she said “But, when Applegate uses the “natural” claim they say it means the following: No antibiotics or hormones, a vegetarian grain or 100% grass diet, humane animal standards, no chemical nitrites, nitrates, or phosphates, and no artificial ingredients or preservatives. So the bottom line is I think we can trust the “natural” label if it’s coming from a company that we trust.” I do not know that they provide those kind of details but you could always give them a call. I, personally, tend to stick with organic labels because then I feel I “know” that they are GMO free.