What Spam With Bacon Is Really Made Of
Pork With Ham
That’s what the label says: “pork with ham.” Is there a difference? According to the USDA, ham is the hind leg of a pig that’s been preserved, colored, and flavored through a process known as curing, while pork is just “meat from hogs.” According to Hormel, the pork in Spam is usually shoulder meat. What’s certain is that the pig flesh is vacuum-sealed in the can while still raw and then cooked for three hours. Hormel says this gives Spam an indefinite shelf life, making it the go-to food for Depression-era Okies and would-be subterranean nuclear holocaust survivors. (The company concedes that the flavor may change after three or more years on the shelf.)
Modified Potato Starch
Three hours of cooking in the can would tend to squeeze some of the moisture out of Spam. Modified potato starch to the rescue! The starch traps water molecules, binding that juicy goodness in the loaf. Hormel credits it with maintaining “the delightful texture characteristic to SPAM©.”
Meat processors love NaNO2 because it inhibits the bug that causes botulism, adds flavor, and turns cured meat a “healthy” pink hue. The color magic happens when nitrites convert to nitric oxide (NO), which binds to the iron in muscle myoglobin to form a stable pigment when heated.
Before the days of refrigeration, meats were preserved with salt. Today, sodium nitrite serves that purpose, and plain old sodium chloride is mainly there for flavor. Spam With Bacon has far less sodium (1 percent by weight) than old-fashioned preserved meats (5 to 7 percent). Still, a 12-ounce can has about 3 grams, equivalent to 234 Ruffles potato chips.
Not absolutely necessary for curing meats, but oh so good. The main use is for “flavor”—i.e., to counteract the bitterness of the salt. Plus, it’s the third point of the unholy trinity: the combination of fat, salt, and sugar that works on our brain’s dopamine and opioid circuitry—the same sites that narcotics stimulate.
“The cured belly of a swine carcass,” says the USDA. “Mmmm, bacon,” says most of America. Large-scale curing is usually done by injecting a brine solution into the belly of a butchered swine. The brine contains sodium erythorbate, an antioxidant that’s chemically similar to vitamin C. But it’s not here to prevent scurvy; instead it boosts the conversion of the sodium nitrite in bacon into nitric oxide, which minimizes the production of carcinogens when the pork belly is fried up. The brining increases the meat’s weight by 12 percent, but a trip through a 128-degree smokehouse dries the bellies back to their original weight, ready to be combined with the pork and ham in this canned pigfest.