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

  • 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    Due to outdated laws this is one of the most confusing terms.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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120 thoughts on “Bacon and Hot Dog Labels Decoded!”

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  1. Thank you for taking the time to explain all this! Definitely makes choosing the right brands for my family easier! I love the Applegate brand and all they stand for! Thanks again!

  2. Recently, my local co-op stopped carrying Applegate meats because they were sold to Hornell and have begun sourcing the meat from Ali over the world and therefore harder to ensure the same level of quality.

  3. I’ve been searching for bacon, but everything I find (even the organic and local varieties) are cured in sugar. Even Applegate Sunday bacon lists cane sugar on the list. Is this ok?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Katy. I know it can be hard to find good options. Lisa buys the Sunday bacon occasionally. :)

  4. I was bummed to find out that after buying applegates products I found out that the ones I was buying contain gmo’s. I thought they were a gmo free company, but that is only for their organic line.

  5. I read an article that stated that the level of nitrates in foods that use celery juice can actually be quite a bit higher than using the synthetic version. I’m leary of that claim, but do wonder if there’s any truth to it. Not that the synthetic version is good (I’m sure it’s not) but that the “natural” version is not as good as we think it is. My family loves bacon, and I’d love to see some good unbiased info specifically on this point.

  6. And now Target carries Applegate! By me, it runs a little less than some of the other stores that carry the Applegate brand.

  7. I actually stopped buying Applegate pdcts when whole foods started labeling their meat products with their current scoring system based on the environment the animals are raised in– Applegate gets only the lowest “enhanced environment ” score– not the higher pastured/natural environment scores that other choices have. Plus they use paprika in a lot of their processed meat and my DD can’t tolerate it. So we have to use other brands. But we do stay away from synthetic nitrates as much as possible.

  8. Thank you for this information I just bought some applegate organic hot dogs and I agree all the labeling can be confusing but you explained it wonderfully. I can’t wait to try these hot dogs. I just love your blog and all the knowledge I obtain from your site . Again thank you so much

  9. We buy the Applegate or Hormel brand of bacon but the Applegate hotdogs have soooo much sodium that we now make out own sausages instead.

  10. Hi Lisa:
    I love your blog. My family and I share many of your philosophies on life and food. We have our own organic garden and buy local, organic vegetables and meat from two CSA’s in our hometown. I volunteer at the vegetable CSA and know the farmer who we purchase our organic pastured pork, organic pastured chicken and organic/grass fed beef from. We like to stay as close as possible to the food that we are supporting and consuming.

    I just read your blog post on bacon and hot dogs (both things we enjoy but also try to keep in moderation as well, esp the hot dogs!). Overall, I think you did a great job explaining and decoding the different labels we come across on our store bought food. They are misleading. I hope to see this change in the future.

    As a veterinarian, I would like to talk to you about a few things that I think are misleading on your site in regards to animal care and treatment. I do think that we have to be careful with the discussion of antibiotics. I agree with many of your comments. I don’t want antibiotics or antibiotic residues in my food or your food, either. I agree that these drugs are misused both in people and pets/animals and as a society we have some work to do (another reason we should stay close to our food source if possible). However, there is a time and a place when antibiotics are necessary to treat bacterial diseases in our food-producing animals and withholding treatment is cruel and inhumane to the individual animal. I’ve seen pasture-raised animals that are lacking appropriate care and welfare for a variety of reasons (health of animal, lack of upkeep of pasture, lack of appropriate medical care for the animal) so once again, pasture-raised, organic does not always mean happy/healthy animals. Overall, I think the organic movement has it’s heart and head in the right place but we still have some work to do to figure out the right balance.

    Thanks for your hard work on a tough topic. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help.

  11. Hi there, I was just wondering if anyone has been able to find a hot dog or a sausage, that does not have “spice” in it. Spices are fine, but I need them broken down by spice. I can’t do Paprika, or any kind of chili pepper spice. Any lucky, anyone? I want sausage for the 4th of July!

  12. I am wondering if this applies to their deli meats, too. I just saw the pre-packaged bacon and hot dogs pictured, but does this post pertain to all Applegate products?

  13. I am a newbie to the whole organic/clean eating world and ran across this blog because my sister-in-law reads it. I recently purchased some Applegate Naturals Chicken Nuggets because my husband is an “All-American” eater (i.e. Cheeseburgers, French fries, mac and cheese, really anything unhealthy) and I have had a terrible time finding clean foods that he enjoys eating. We both really like the Applegate nuggets, but it was torture putting them in the cart because of the $8.99 sticker price. Also after reading some of these comments I am a little concerned that what I thought was a more natural and clean substitute for my husbands favorite chicken nuggets is not so. What is your opinion of any other Applegate products besides the bacon and hotdogs and do you have any recommendations for me regarding my husbands taste buds?

  14. While I think Applegate in particular is pretty trustworthy, this post is awfully misleading as far as what food labels mean as a rule. Just because Applegate bacon says “natural” on the package and is a natural product doesn’t mean the label has any value at all. For this post to say that “Typically natural means…” is serious misinformation.

  15. I visited this site for the first time today and was expecting something great, based on the rave reviews. I am really suprised to instead find this “sponsored” post. It’s essentially an ad for a company telling consumers that a bunch of misleading descriptors are really good for you, if you buy Applegate.

    I think websites like this should support buying local and real food, and not jump on the bandwagon of selling products of big companies by telling readers (for money) that all of the confusing stuff on the label means that this company’s hot dogs are good for you. I guess I was expecting something else from this site. I must have visited too late — after you sold out!

    1. Caroline – As far as I can tell, all bloggers with a wide reach do sponsored posts. They do have to make a living, after all. I appreciate a thoughtful blogger using a sponsored post to talk about an important topic and a brand that he or she can actually stand behind, like Applegate (which is a high-quality product).

  16. Thank you for this post. I realize that it is sponsored, but we’ve been exploring Applegate products recently so it’s timely for our family. The hotdogs were a hit, especially for my little boys who see other family members eating conventional hotdogs all the time. It’s substitutions like this that are small victories in teaching them about a healthier lifestyle. Thanks for posting!

  17. Thank you for posting this! I feel like this is one of the larger challenges of eating real – figuring out what the verbiage on the labels mean. This article was really helpful. I am glad to hear you’re a supporter of Applegate – I love their meats, as well, and am very thankful to be able to find them in my grocery store.

  18. Thanks so much for sharing this! We’ve been getting hormel natural bacon-makes basically the same claims as Applegate but not organic or humane. I will for sure be buying Applegate when I see it!

  19. I’d really like to hear a response on the point that nitrates from celery are not any better and arguably worse than non-natural nitrates sources. I sadly bought into the ‘natural’ labeling for these types of products, until I disappointingly realized that it’s just marketing and not at all better for my family. It’s disheartening that even on a website like this to see this type of misinformation.

    1. Tania, Nitrates that occur naturally in food are better than synthetic due to being alongside other compounds such as vitamin C.

      Nitrates can convert to Nitrites in the body when used as a food additive; and Nitrites, when exposed to high heat during cooking, can convert to Nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. Compounds such as Vitamin C inhibit their (Nitrates) conversion into Nitrosamines. So be sure to take a good quality (ie natural) Vit C supplement every day (which we all should be doing anyway; not just when we feel a cold coming on!) :)

      It’s a mystery to me why just good old salt isn’t used as a preservative.

      1. You’re absolutely right Chris. Like you said, nitrates that occur naturally are broken down by other compounds in the same food. When nitrates get extracted and added to foods that do NOT contain these compounds, it really doesn’t matter where the nitrates came from. Which makes these “natural” and “nitrate free” products – and this post – misleading.

  20. I get that this is a sponsored post, but I would have like to see more encouragement to readers to at least try the bacon from local farms before immediately dismissing it all as unflavorful. I’ve had some incredible local bacon, made with trusted ingredients and practices.

  21. Excellent info as I am always a bit skeptical with what’s inside a hot dog. The brands need to step it up because people are reading labels more often. I do.

  22. This may already be in the comments, so if it is, I apologize. When the animals are fed all vegetarian or grass fed, does the grain refer to GMO products? If there is no differentiation, then would these products not wind up in the meat because the animal ate it?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Ken. If you go with their organic products:
      “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.” Does that answer your question? ~Amy

  23. Thank you for this post! My family has only been buying local meats at our farmer’s markets and this sometimes gets a bit pricey. I am glad to share this post with them for other meat options we can feel good about!

  24. I have been buying this for a long time. Surprised you just found it. The only products I buy. Some Targets sell everything Applegate. Some just cheese and lunchmeat. Forget Wal-Mart. Usually better quality products you will not find at Wal-Mart.

  25. I have a question.

    My family has been substance farmers, raising chickens and jersey steers (a slow growing breed), for nearly 22 years.

    In the event that one of our steers became ill, mostly in the late fall/early winter while they are still a young calf, we would give them antibiotics until they were well (generally not more than a week). They then would go on to become healthy full grow steers.

    How do you think organic/natural/humanely raised farms approach this? Do the processing companies then decide the meat is “not organic”?

    I would hope that in the event an animal were treated for a short term illness that they weren’t shipped off to some other factory (I would never dare call them a farm) to be used with other “commercial” beef.

    1. Critical Reader

      I do not know about US organic, but I can tell you the situation in Europe (assuming US organic is somewhat similar). For organic farming, the preventative use of antibiotics is not allowed. If the animal gets sick antibiotics can be used, but only once in an animal’s lifetime. If two treatments are required the meat is not considered organic anymore and needs to be sold as conventional meat.

  26. Any wisdom on Turkey bacon? I have a pork allergy so I’ve had to switch to turkey, chicken or beef which is not too difficult in the area of sausages. Bacon has been more challenging. Nothing compares to cooked bacon especially in summer foods. I don’t eat the turkey bacon regularly, but every now and then we do a big breakfast and need a good substitute. I know my husband and kids would appreciate it!

    1. If you visit the Applegate website it has a store locator function. In my area SaveMart, Vons, Target & Whole Foods carry it.

  27. Yay! Congrats on your new position!
    We love Applegate products. They have fantastic operating practices and a large variety of peanut free products for my kiddos!

  28. Casein is used as a filler in other manufacturer’s meat products and it sometimes appears in a milk based lactic acid starter, so it’s nice to know Applegate is casein free. The GF/CF labeling helps those of us who have to avoid those foods for allergic reasons.

  29. We take our venison to a local meat processor to have hot dogs made. I’m wondering what you think the chances are that they use chemical preservatives or artificial ingredients. When you contact these businesses, are they usually honest about their practices?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Kerry. Well, we certainly hope they are. If you don’t get a good feeling, ask to visit the facility. ~Amt

  30. Have to agree with a previous poster — Niman Ranch bacon is THE BEST tasting bacon ever and is cheaper than Applegate. Sometimes my store does not have it in stock, so when they do, I buy it even if I don’t need it. I guess that makes me a bacon hoarder too??

    1. I LOVE Niman ranch bacon too! It was the cheapest humanely raised bacon I could find. Sadly, my local Trader Joe’s stopped carrying it. Applegate bacon was expensive, thankfully I was able to find affordable humanely raised bacon at my local farmer’s market. I buy extra for the freezer as well, yum!

  31. I, too, love the applegate meat products! But am wondering if their Organic all beef hot dogs are grass-fed?! Do you happen to know? Thanks 😄

  32. I thought I was the only one that horded Sunday Bacon! And now my store doesn’t sell it. I could weep.

  33. I think Applegate should be either in or out! Organic only and get rid of their “Natural” line! Their “Natural” line is fed GMO feed, NOT organic feed. I emailed them and confirmed this.