Shaking out bacon bits from a jar instead of frying up a pan of real-deal bacon can sometimes be all fine and good, but do you know what’s really in that container? Spoiler alert: Those little crumbles may not just be bits of bacon. While some companies at least start their bacon bits preparation with the breakfast meat—those versions tend to be labeled as “real” bacon bits—some brands' bacon bits actually have no meat at all. And whether the bits contain meat or not, you’ll also find a whole lot of preservatives. So, what’s really being sprinkled into your omelet? 

To find out what’s really in a jar of bacon bits, I checked out two popular brands: Hormel Real Bacon Bits and McCormick Bac'n Pieces.

Hormel’s bacon bits are made with "real" bacon, which, according to the label, is “cured with water, salt, sodium erythorbate, and sodium nitrite.” The last two ingredients are food additives commonly found in cured meats to enhance flavor and preserve freshness. While both are FDA-approved, sodium erythorbate and sodium nitrite are often blamed for causing headaches and fatigue in people who are sensitive to the preservatives. Hormel’s package says the bacon “may also contain smoke flavoring, sugar, dextrose, brown sugar, sodium phosphate, and potassium chloride,” all of which are natural and artificial sugars and salts—except for the smoke flavoring, which is essentially smoke suspended in water.

McCormick’s version of the product, labeled as "bacon flavored bits," do not contain any bacon. In fact, McCormick’s “bac’n” is actually totally vegan. The main ingredient is textured soy flour, a protein-rich meal made from ground soybeans. The soy flour is mixed with canola oil and salt for texture and seasoning. 

The “bac’n” is dyed with caramel color and red 40 dye. Caramel color is made from food-grade carbohydrates and acids. Also a main ingredient in colas and fake maple syrup, unfortunately caramel color is regulated by the FDA for potentially containing dangerous levels of lead, arsenic, and mercury. Red 40 (labeled as “FD&C Red 40”) is synthetically derived from petroleum, and although it is the most common food dye used in the US, can cause a host of complications.

Finally, the “bac’n” contains maltodextrin, an additive used as a thickener; lactic acid, a flavoring agent and preservative; disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate, salty flavor enhancers; and yeast extract, a processed yeast product that creates an umami flavor.

While neither brands are especially sinister, both types of bacon bits are highly processed—which definitely isn’t good to shovel into your body. So if you’re craving bacon bits, it’s probably best to crumble nitrate-free strips of the real deal, or try making coconut bacon bits if you don’t eat meat.