Scientists in the US say eating cured meat can damage the lungs in the same way as emphysema.
They claim that frequent consumption of cured meats – such as bacon, ham and salami – can almost double the chances of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
The US study puts this down to the preservative chemicals in cured meat.
In the UK, around 18 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women aged 40 to 68 are believed to have symptoms of COPD.
The US researchers studied 7,352 individuals with an average age of 64.5.
Those who ate cured meat products 14 times or more a month were 1.93 times more likely to develop COPD as people who consumed none, the researchers found.
They also performed more poorly in lung function tests.
Study leader Dr Rui Jiang, from Columbia University Medical Centre in New York, said: ‘Cured meats, such as bacon, sausage, luncheon meats and cured hams, are high in nitrites, which are added to meat products as a preservative, an anti-microbial agent and a colour fixative.
‘Nitrites … may cause damage to the lungs, producing structural changes resembling emphysema.’
The chemicals are thought to generate reactive molecules that produce structural damage to lung tissue.
Researchers found that high consumers of cured meats were also more likely to be male, of lower socio-economic status, to smoke and to have low intakes of fruits, vegetables and vitamins.
However, adjustment for these risk factors did not significantly change the findings, published today in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.