There are no clear signs that eating cured meats like ham, bacon or hot dogs could increase the odds of getting pancreatic cancer, according to a new study.
Some research has hinted that might be the case, because the preservatives used for curing, nitrate and nitrite, cause tumors in lab animals.
Because pancreatic cancer is highly lethal, scientists have been on a quest to identify factors that might trigger it. Every year, some 43,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease, and 95 percent die within five years.
"Prevention is really the best way to save a life," said Dr. Daniel Chang, a cancer specialist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who was not involved in the new work.
To probe the role of curing chemicals, researchers from the National Cancer Institute used a 124-item food questionnaire to test how much nitrate and nitrite people got from their diet.
Of the more than 300,000 people who filled out the questionnaire, just over 1,000 -- about a third of one percent -- developed pancreatic cancer over the next 10 years.
Men who ate the most of the preservatives did appear to have a slightly higher chance of getting the disease, but that increase was so small it might as well have been due to chance, according to the study.
There was no hint of a higher risk among women.
The new work adds to a growing body of evidence that has failed to link pancreatic cancer to certain foods or nutrients, such as dietary fiber and vitamin D.
"We don't have a consistent trend of studies showing that eating more of this or less of that is clearly contributing to the risk of pancreatic cancer," said Dr. Andrew Ko, a cancer researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.
The authors, whose report is published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, could not be reached for comment.
Regardless of whether cured meats are linked to pancreatic cancer, experts say the study doesn't mean people shouldn't strive to eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and low in fatty foods such as cured meats.
"There are a number of good reasons to practice improved dietary habits -- not just for cancer prevention," said Dr. Al Benson, a cancer specialist at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. "We routinely recommend people limit their intake of fatty foods, and many of these animal products also contain nitrite and nitrate salts."
Lighting up, eating lots of sugar, and being obese have all been tied to a higher risk of pancreatic cancer in earlier work.
"By and large, the best we can do to prevent pancreatic and other cancers," said Benson, "is to encourage people to avoid smoking, to avoid obesity, and to practice improved dietary habits."