Everything you need to know about bacon bits

If you don't feel like firing up the griddle but need a little something extra for your next meal, bacon bits have got you covered. There have been whispers about bacon bits being vegan for years, but with the many different companies that have capitalized on bite-sized pieces of bacon, you can find bacon bits with or without actual meat

What's important, at least when it comes to this mass-produced condiment, is not so much the ingredients but the flavor. After all, what could be better than bacon (or bacon-adjacent) sprinkles, no effort required?

But if you are inclined to put a little elbow grease into your next meal, homemade bacon bits will likely blow the store-bought stuff out of the water. It all just depends on where your priorities lie. But if ease trumps flavor, you probably already have a stash of bacon bits in the cupboard for when the craving hits. Here's everything you need to know about them.

Bacon bits are highly processed

Whether vegan- or omnivore-friendly, your store-bought bacon bits are pretty much guaranteed to contain highly processed ingredients. Wide Open Eats tested three popular brands and found that even Oscar Mayer's "Real Bacon Bits" contained harmful ingredients despite its self-proclaimed authenticity. At the very least, Oscar Mayer bacon bits contain cured pork meat. Unfortunately, additional ingredients include artificial hickory smoke flavoring and sodium nitrate, a chemical commonly used in the production of fertilizers, explosives, and high-strength glass. 

Still, Oscar Mayer seems downright organic compared to McCormick, one of bacon bits' most famous distributors. McCormick bacon bits contain no real bacon, which is less surprising if you know this product by its real name: "Bac'n Pieces." As it turns out, bac'n pieces are mostly soy, treated with various artificial flavors, red dye #40, caramel coloring (which can contain high levels of lead and arsenic, yum!), and a handful of unpronounceable chemicals to keep that processed soy tasting fresh.

Some bacon bit brands are vegan

Like a few other highly processed, unsuspecting foods (Oreos, Swedish Fish, and Pillsbury Crescents, to name a few), some bacon bits are PETA-friendly. Thanks to natural and artificial flavoring added to the soy protein that makes up the base of these bacon-y sprinkles, they taste like the real thing, sans piggies.

But not all bacon bits are guaranteed cruelty-free. If you're vegan, you are likely already wary of any product labeled "bacon," and for good reason. While rumors have long claimed that this popular baked potato topping is actually meatless, not all brands of commercial bacon bits have ditched the meat in their recipes. For vegans, McCormick's Bac'n Pieces, an imitation bacon product, is a reliable choice. Many other vegan food companies have introduced their own version of this classic topping using soy instead of pork. Alternatively, if you're on the hunt for real bacon, Hormel and Oscar Mayer make their bacon bits with meat.

Many bacon bits contain similar ingredients to other kinds of vegan imitation meats

If you turn up your nose at imitation meat but sprinkle your food with Bac'n Pieces, you may not have such a refined palate after all. McCormick's infamous bacon bits taste just as salty and smoky as real meat, but the ingredients listed on the labels are more similar to those of popular vegetarian "bacon" products. 

Take LightLife's meatless "Smart Bacon," a cruelty-free alternative to everyone's favorite breakfast side. The first ingredient listed on the McCormick's container is textured soy flour, also known as textured vegetable protein, or TVP. According to How Stuff Works, this textured soy is an artificial product made from soy protein isolate. Soy protein isolate is, incidentally, the second ingredient (after water) in Smart Bacon. Both products also contain various flavor additives, a handful of preservatives, and some artificial coloring to give the "bacon" that caramel glow we all know and love.

The best bacon bits

Though you may need to conduct your own tests to account for personal biases and preferences (for example, bacon or no bacon), according to Amazon's list of most frequently purchased bacon bits, Oscar Mayer comes out on top. Oscar Mayer's Real Bacon Bits are, in fact, real — no soy to be found here! "There's no weird, processed flavor," one consumer says in an Amazon review. I've eaten it straight from the bag and it tastes like it should — real bacon." 

Coming in at number two on Amazon's Best Sellers in Bacon Bits list is McCormick's Bac'n Pieces, named so as to avoid false advertising accusations. This option is a far cry from Oscar Mayer's au natural(ish) product, but nonetheless, it's a good choice for vegans, vegetarians, and the otherwise bacon-averse. One consumer review claims that it doesn't even matter that Bac'n Pieces are baconless. "They taste almost better than real bacon," they write. Not completely, but we'll take it.

There are some fantastic bacon bit recipes

Everyone knows bacon bits belong on baked potatoes, but the real ones know the true versatility of these savory sprinkles. Southern Living suggests topping guacamole, grilled corn, and even fancy saltines with bacon bits to give new life to ordinary recipes. Dishes like an onion crostini let the bacon bits have a starring role atop cheesy toasted bread, whereas in a roasted parsnips and carrots side, they complement the main flavors. 

From salads to pizza, bacon bits can truly be eaten with anything. Southern Living even has a recipe for pancakes with bacon bits. Why separate your breakfast items when you could eat them all at once? 

Still, there's nothing wrong with sticking with the classics, and no baked potato or potato salad would be complete without a sprinkling of bacon on top — no matter if it's from a plastic container or chopped up and hot from the skillet.

Bacon bits last on your shelf for up to two years

The expiration date for bacon bits differs depending on which brand — and how much actual bacon — you prefer, but at the top of the list is McCormick's Bac'n Pieces, which can last up to two years from the manufacture date. More authentic versions of the product have a much shorter shelf-life — the fewer the preservatives, of course, the less time you have to waste eating anything not covered in bacon bits. 

McCormick's Bac'n Pieces, on the other hand, have been rumored to last years past their official expiry date. One Amazon consumer, a self-described "prepper," claims her Bac'n Pieces have remained edible for "at least ten years." Though you may not want to eat bacon bits for that long, it's nice to know that when the apocalypse comes (if it hasn't already), you can count on McCormick's to spice up your doomsday food.

Health-conscious bloggers have found ways to make even bacon bits healthy

If there's one thing bacon is not, it's diet food, but thanks to the dedicated health-food bloggers of the 21st century, even bacon — in bit form — can transform into a "healthy and gluten-free" food with just a single, magical ingredient: bacon. 

Prepare and Nourish suggests making bacon bits from scratch using thick-cut organic bacon free of nitrites and other chemicals commonly found in store-bought bacon bits. By cooking the bacon in the oven, you can create evenly crisped slices perfect for cutting into bite-sized pieces to sprinkle on soups, salads (healthy!), or baked potatoes. Eating them plain is also allowed, though it may not be considered a nutrient-dense meal. 

Whether or not you consider bacon a health food, by making your own bacon bits, you can ensure avoidance of the harsh chemicals often found in both real and artificial bacon bits products. And that sure is better than nothing.

Bacon bits are even good in dessert

A few years ago, it seemed there was bacon in everything — instead of finding a surprise raisin when biting into a cake or cookie, you'd be more likely to chomp down on a bite-sized bacon piece. Though bacon is usually assumed to be a savory food, it adds salty complexity to baked goods and desserts, making it the perfect wildcard ingredient in any homemade treat. They can spruce up regular chocolate chip cookies or add depth to a chocolate lover's favorite cupcake.

Perhaps the best and most gluttonous bacon dessert around is Julie Espy's Brown Sugar Bacon Chocolate Cake, posted on the Bread Booze Bacon website. Three layers of dense chocolate cake made with brown sugar and coffee are fused together with a chocolate buttercream frosting in which bacon bits are taken to the next level, covered in sugar and a hint of cayenne, and stirred in. You can have your cake and your bacon and eat them too.