Study ties cured meats to higher lung disease risk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - People who frequently eat cured meats such as ham, hot dogs and bacon face a higher risk of lung disease, researchers said on Monday, citing additives called nitrites as a possible cause.

Those who ate cured meat products at least 14 times a month were 78 percent more likely to develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than people who did not eat these meats, even after the researchers sought to account for many other risk factors including smoking, overall diet and age.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also called COPD, refers to emphysema and chronic bronchitis, which interfere with normal breathing.

This amount of consumption also was associated with poorer overall lung function, according to a study involving data on 7,352 Americans age 45 or older. The average age of the people studied was 64.5 years.

The American Meat Institute, an industry trade group, said the findings were based on outdated assumptions about nitrite levels in cured meats.

“This article in no way changes a basic fact -- and that is that cured meats are among the safest meat products on the market,” said institute spokeswoman Janet Riley.

“The very premise of this study -- that cured meats are high in nitrite -- is patently false,” Riley added, saying less than 5 percent of human nitrite intake comes from cured meats and their nitrite levels have declined greatly in recent decades.

The research was led by Dr. Rui Jiang of Columbia University Medical Center in New York and was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Jiang said nitrites -- added to cured meats to prevent spoilage and provide color -- may cause damage to lung tissue resembling emphysema, but added the study’s design did not allow her to state definitively that the nitrites caused lung disease.

More research is needed before that claim can be made, Jiang said.

Jiang could not rule out, for example, that people who eat a lot of cured meats -- hot dogs, cold cuts, sausage, bacon, cured hams and the like -- may be more likely to have an unhealthful diet and lifestyle that might account for the higher lung disease risk.

The people in the study who ate the most cured meats were more likely to be lower-income men and smokers and were more likely to have diets lacking in fruits, vegetables and a number of vitamins.

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. The American Lung Association says COPD is the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States, killing about 120,000 Americans a year.

Previous research linking nitrites in cured meats to certain cancers has proven controversial, with many scientists faulting the methodology and conclusions in these studies.