Taking a breather from cured meats and popcorn could save your lungs and your life. A recent study conducted by Columbia University Medical Center suggests that eating cured meats such as hot dogs, smoked turkey, ham, bologna, bacon or salami may double your risk for lung disease.
Concurrently, recent news has shown that the pervasive lingering aroma of artificially butter-flavored popcorn can literally kill you.
Researchers found that people who ate cured meat products at least 14 times a month were 78 percent more likely to develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) 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.
COPD is a medical condition that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, which interfere with normal breathing. COPD is also the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States.
In food preparation, curing refers to various preservation and flavoring processes, especially of meat or fish, by the addition of a combination of salt, sugar and either “nitrate” or “nitrite“. Many curing processes also involve smoking. Nitrates not only help kill bacteria, but also produce a characteristic flavor, and give meat a pink or red color. Nitrate (chemical formula NO3), in the form of either “sodium nitrate” or “potassium nitrate”, is used as a source for nitrite (chemical formula NO2). Herein the problem lies: the nitrite further breaks down in the meat into another compound called nitric oxide. Nitric oxide binds to iron in the blood, preventing the iron from being utilized in the body.
Iron is a key component in substances that carry oxygen to the cells and hold it there, such as hemoglobin and myoglobin. This is especially important for the cells in lung tissue. Without adequate hemoglobin and myoglobin, the lungs are deprived of adequate oxygen, which damages lung tissue by cracking elastin and stiffening collagen.
Another toxic chemical has been linked to a rare and life-threatening form of fixed obstructive lung disease, medically termed as bronchiolitis obliterans. Also known as “popcorn workers lung”, because many workers at microwave-popcorn factories who are exposed to the chemical have developed the disease, which destroys the lungs. A transplant is the only cure.
Since 2001, academic studies have shown links between the disease and a chemical used in artificial butter flavor called Diacetyl. Repeatedly inhaling significant doses of heated diacetyl, a vapor that, if inhaled over a long period of time, can cause the small airways in the lungs to become swollen and scarred. Eventually, the scarring of airways can create a condition where it is possible to inhale deeply, but very difficult to exhale without extreme discomfort.
Flavoring manufacturers have paid out more than $100 million as a result of lawsuits by people sick with popcorn workers lung over the past five years. One death from the disease has been confirmed.
Even less is known about the health effects of eating diacetyl in butter-flavored popcorn, or breathing the fumes after the bag is microwaved. Recently, the New York Times ran a story about a 53-year old Colorado man whose fondness for microwave buttered popcorn may have caused him to develop the disease. Initially diagnosed with generalized lung inflammation, the Colorado man’s doctor eventually discovered that he ate at least two bags of microwave buttered popcorn per day for more than a decade. He often made it a point to inhale the butter-flavored steam that came out of the bags when he first opened them.
Diacetyl is used to add a buttery flavor to many brands of microwave popcorn, including Orville Redenbacher and Act II. Chronic exposure to heated diacetyl in food production and flavoring plants that utilize synthetic butter has been linked with hundreds of cases of lung damage.
As usual, the evidence continues to mount that processed foods and additives create health hazards. Real whole foods do not.
You may think twice the next time you are tempted to indulge in the typical movie fare of a hot dog and popcorn. If popcorn is your fancy, try this healthy recipe:
Dee’s Healthy Popcorn Recipe
1/2-cup organic popcorn kernels
1-2 Tbsp. Extra Virgin Coconut Oil
dash of sea salt
- Cover the bottom of a medium stockpot with coconut oil. Place the pot on the stovetop (without the lid) over medium heat.
- Add one popcorn kernel to the oil and allow it to “pop”.
- Once the kernel has popped, add the rest of the corn kernels, stir to coat them with the oil, and then place the lid on the pot.
- Within a minute or two, the corn will begin popping into popcorn. Shake the pot over the heat to prevent burning. When the popping starts to taper off, take the pot off of the heat and turn the burner off.
- Quickly transfer the popcorn to a large bowl or paper grocery bag and season with a dash of sea salt. If desired, add some omega-3’s by drizzling with flax seed oil.
Dunham, Will. Study Ties Cured Meats to Higher Lung Disease Risk. http://www.reuters.com/, April 17, 2007.
Geis, Sonya. Flavoring Suspected in Illness: California Considers Banning Chemical Used in Microwave Popcorn. http://www.washingtonpost.com/, May 7, 2007; Page A03.
Harris, Gardiner. Doctor Links a Man’s Illness to Microwave Popcorn Habit. http://www.nytimes.com/, September 5, 2007.