Hot dog! Headlines Can Be Deceiving.

By Colleen Doyle, MS, RD

Did you hear the one about the hot dog and the rotisserie chicken? Recent news reports suggest that, at least when it comes to cancer, the hot dog may be the better choice.

But don’t reach for the mustard and relish just yet.

Researchers at Kansas State University, with funding in part from the American Meat Institute and the National Pork Board Check-off, tested the heterocyclic amine (HCA) levels of a variety of popular ready-to-eat meat products: hot dogs, deli meats, bacon, pepperoni and rotisserie chicken. HCAs are chemicals that are formed in meats when they are cooked at very high temperatures. Studies show that these chemicals can damage DNA and cause cancer in animals. It’s not clear how much they may contribute to cancer risk in people. Even so, the American Cancer Society recommends cooking meats with methods that create fewer HCAs, such as baking or poaching.


The hot dog study results, published in Meat Science, the journal of the American Meat Science Association (who knew?), found that pepperoni had the lowest levels of HCAs, followed by hot dogs and deli meat. Bacon and rotisserie chicken came next. And then came the headlines: “Good News for Meat Lovers: Most Ready-to-Eat Meat Products Contain Very Few Cancerous Compounds,” and “Hot Dogs for Better Health? Actually, yes.” 

That’s not the whole story, though.

Higher consumption of processed meats like hot dogs, pepperoni, and bacon is associated with increased risk of colon cancer. The thing is, HCAs aren’t the only compound in these types of processed meats potentially linked to cancer; the preservatives are as well.

Nitrites and nitrates are added to meats to preserve color and prevent spoilage. Unfortunately, these compounds can be converted to nitrosamines, which are also known causes of cancer in animals (though again, the link in people is unclear). Hot dogs, bacon and the like may also be preserved by methods involving smoke or salt, which also increases the exposure to potentially carcinogenic chemicals.

So while processed meats may have fewer HCAs than other meats, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a healthier choice.

Just how much of a concern are these processed meats in terms of cancer risk? A number of studies have suggested that people who eat even a relatively small amount of them over many years can increase the risk of colorectal cancer. In a study our American Cancer Society researchers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association a few years ago, high consumption of processed meat over 10 years was associated with a 50 percent increased risk in cancer of the lower colon and rectum. High consumption was defined as 1 oz. per day, 5-6 times per week for men, and 1 oz. per day, 2-3 days per week for women. (To give you a frame of reference, the typical bun length hot dog is about 2 oz.; 2 slices of cooked bacon are about an ounce).

Does that mean you should never eat hot dogs? No, but given the choice, more often than not, I’m going for the chicken. How about you?


4 thoughts on “Hot dog! Headlines Can Be Deceiving.

  1. (Edited comment)

    What is not mentioned here is that the real concern is industrially produced Sodium Nitrite. As far as "natural nitrates" are concerned it depends on what that means. Ammonium nitrate produced after WW2, which fixes nitrogen in the soil synthetically, has contributed to the increased levels of nitrates in the soil,100 times the "natural" level, which are fixed into the soil by the bacteria in the plants, not artificially. So we have come to assume that the levels found in the soil and vegetables after ammonium nitrogen fertilizers were commonly used are "normal" or "natural" levels.

    So, what is of concern here is the sodium nitrite in processed meats and sodium nitrate imparted by artificial fertilizers which covers 80% of agricultural land in the US. The sodium nitrates convert to nitrites in the saliva and nitrosamines in the stomach. Nitrites/Nitrosamines are extremely oxiditive to blood and tissue especially in the endothelial lining. Vegetables grown conventionally are sources of "gullet" cancer accordibg to a 2002 Scottish study and may be a major contributor to the rising colorectal cancer rates themselves.

    I would like to know more about how "salt" (sea salt or otherwise)"increases the exposure to potentially carcinogenic chemicals."

    It’s important to know that Karposi’s Sarcoma found in gay men in the 1980’s was caused by Amyl Nitrites (a recreational/sex drug) which is extremely oxidative to the endothelial lining of the vascular system. They have also contributed to the increased rates of PCP in these men and in poor malnourished Africans and even in the Middle Ages via contaminated well water.

    As I came to understand the study on nitrites, although sodium nitrites was not mentioned, they are responsible for a much higher cancer risk than the stated 50% in the above summary. Small amounts of processed meat consumption with Sodium Nitrites added are responsible for a 67% increase in Pancreatic cancer.

  2. I am going for the hot dog. Boiled or poached. Why don't you say that unless a product containing nitrates/nitrites is cooked higher than a certain temp it won't convert to nitrosamines?

    Keep it to boiling temp and voila! NO nitrosamines!

    I also smoke a lot of food, but I hedge my risks in that I live in a rural area. My chances of dying from any of these things, especially with no family history, is much lower than death by city.

  3. Also, touch on the fact that at least originally, the FDA outlawed nitrate use in bacon due to the heat it was exposed to and it's conversion to nitrosamines. Explain that over time, nitrates turn into nitrites during curing.

    I would expect an MS on to write a less biased article..

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