Health experts are increasingly viewing cured meats with caution. One reason is the growing incidences of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or COPD.
According to a recent study, the nitrites found in cured meats (meant as a preservative and color fixative) could well be setting the lungs on a journey of no return-into the ills of emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
The research led by Dr. Rui Jiang, of Columbia University Medical Center in New York City examined the diet and lung function of 7,352 people with an average age of 64.5 years.
Findings published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, stated that that those subjects who consumed more than 14 servings of cured meats, such as sausages, hotdogs, bacon and luncheon meats per day, increased their risk of developing COPD considerably.
COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., with more than 12 million Americans diagnosed, and another estimated 12 million who have COPD and may not even know it, according to the National Institute of Health.
Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD, but with a projection of rising to the third leading cause of death worldwide by 2020, researchers are looking for other causes.
Says Jiang: "People who eat 14 or more servings of cured meat per month have about an 80 percent increased odds of COPD versus people who don't eat cured meat at all. And, the more cured meats a person eats a month, on average, the higher the risk of COPD."
At the same time, dissenting voices exist.
Says Dr. Neil Schachter, professor of pulmonary medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City: "They (the study authors) are not the first to say that diet may impact lung disease, and certainly there have been many hypotheses about chemicals and oxidative species that may enhance the development of chronic lung disease.
This study does not, however, prove cured meats actually cause COPD. Associations don't mean causality. That's the bottom line of an epidemiologic study. Because even though they control for many variables, they cannot control for everything."
Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, who called the findings "interesting," echoes that sentiment: "Like any correlational cross-sectional study, there's always the possibility there's some other confounding variable they haven't considered, such as food brand choice, nutritional content and genetics."
In the report's conclusion, Jiang says that because the study is a cross-sectional one, rather than a longitudinal one (it looks at a collection of individuals at a single point in time instead of following the same individuals over an extended period) his team and he cannot say that cured meat is associated with an increased risk of developing COPD, but rather that people who ate more cured meats often, were more likely to have it.