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The push for pork: Has bacon lost its sizzle?

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Any food item you can imagine can be repackaged as "improved" with just a dash of bacon.

I'm sick of bacon, you're sick of bacon, we're all sick of bacon. And if the prospect of even more new bacon-flavored products makes you slightly apoplectic, you might want to take a few deep breaths: This month finds Lay’s debuting a BLT-flavored chip, Burger King test-marketing a bacon sundae, and a potential bacon reality show in the works.

As an advertising trope, throwing some bacon into your product has become the equivalent of a woman in a bikini rolling around on the hood of a car: lazy, but reliable and not entirely unwanted. As for the TV show – well, that seems excessive, but there's a reality show about people who clean aquariums now, so why not bacon? Is it possible that bacon isn’t a trend, but rather just something that we have to accept, like women wearing pants in public?

Still, enter an average household, and you're unlikely to see a cupboard stuffed with bacon salt or bacon vodka. If there is a genuine porky zeitgeist, it exists almost solely as a marketing tool for chains like Denny's (with their Baconalia promotion last year) or small manufacturers of novelty food products. Pray away the "fad" if you will, but it's probably not going to go away anytime soon. Consider a similar fancy in the 1980s for pizza as a convenience food and a flavoring – even McDonald's sold a personal pie, and cadmium red powders flavored Combos and Pringles.

If you Google "bacon" and "jumping shark" (as this lazy writer did), up will come irritable trend pieces calling for an end to the mania. Take Seattle Weekly's Jason Sheehan, who may have put it best in a piece last year: "Bacon has not merely jumped the shark. Bacon has taken all the sharks, stuffed them with cupcakes, ice cream, sausage, lipstick, alarm clocks, and mayonnaise, wrapped them in bacon, deep-fried them, then jumped that. Using a ramp made of bacon."

But rather than jumping the shark, let’s just say bacon has settled comfortably into its place in the hallowed halls of "natural and artificial flavoring" alongside "ranch" or "sour cream and onion" or "white cheddar."

The only thing keeping bacon from being a de rigeur "flavor" until now may have been the "fat-free" craze, when Snackwells and women's magazines teamed up to demonize fat. Remember when it was bad to eat an avocado, but just fine to pound a sleeve of dry, sugary cookies?

I asked food historian and writer Sandy Oliver: You know, why bacon? Why not beef jerky or foie gras or butterscotch?

While research remains to be done on this relatively recent trend, Oliver suggests that it could be one of the many cases of agricultural subsidies influencing the food industry, as happened with the wild craze for doubling the cheese content of our convenience and processed foods in the 1990s. "A few years ago, everything was drenched in cheese or stuffed with cheese, and they even found a way of putting cheese into pizza crust. There's pretty convincing evidence out there that the reason so much cheese is being foisted on us is because milk is a subsidized product. So you have all of this extra cheese, and Dairy Council people are going to fast-food producers and saying, 'What can you do with this and fast food, how can we cheese this up?' " 

Sure, but cheese lacks a lot of the charisma of bacon [Editor's note: That’s debatable]. I associate bacon fetishizing with a particular kind of Internet denizen, those "You can have my Mountain Dew when you pry it from my bloated hands" guys who comment on men's web sites and do a lot of eating in their cars.

But Oliver thinks it may just be a case of the National Pork Board making a smart move to reposition itself. Remember the Other White Meat? Not nearly as sexy as a gooey, drizzled sundae.

The hitch undermining this theory: A lot of "bacon" products don't actually contain any real meat and artificially replicate the taste (like Jack in the Box's Bacon Shake). But, as a flavor, Oliver said that bacon may be "the meat equivalent of chocolate." Lack of real cocoa has never stopped advertisers from trying to convince women that they have an intense physical need for a "chocolate" snack. Bacon, real or otherwise, could simply be the "go ahead, you deserve it" product for men. When was the last time you saw a guy in a chocolate commercial being caressed by a piece of invisibly manipulated brown silk with his hair blowing back?

From a taste-cost perspective, bacon has crossover power: a delicacy that's also a convenience food, cheap enough for everyday consumption but still rich enough to engender the requisite shame associated with eating for pleasure. For a market that worships male youth culture, bacon is the perfect product, yoked to masculinity, accessibility and indulgence that you don't need an ID to buy. 

In other words, the restaurants, advertisers and other pork pushers may only want you to think there's a bacon craze, or at least that the authentic part of it isn't over. Food trends, Oliver noted, "rarely have anything to do with personal taste or good judgment."

Julieanne Smolinski is a TODAY.com contributor. She's probably going to eat those chips.

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