Cancer Risks from Eating Hot Dogs, Bacon and Other Processed Meats

Is there a link between hot dogs and cancer? If so, can you reduce the risk by choosing a certain brand or type of hot dog? For years, we've heard that hot dogs, bacon and bologna are about the worst foods we could eat.  Highly processed meats loaded with fat, nitrites cow's tails and chicken beaks. Well, maybe the latter two are more urban legend, but certainly "mechanically deboned meat" is in there.

There is a Cancer Project billboard showing a pack of hot dogs coming out of a pack of cigarettes. The Cancer Project is trying to increase awareness of the dangers of processed meats, especially hot dogs. According to the PCRM and others, such as Duke University, the dangers are real and significant. Eating a hot dog every day can increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 21 percent. That's as bad for you as smoking. And while EHSO has been warning consumers about the scientific correlelation and likely causal relationship between processed meat consumption and colon cancer, in 2015, the World Health Organization's cancer research arm on Monday declared processed meat a carcinogen, in an announcement that the Washington Post decrsibed as alarming "bacon lovers and sent the beef industry into a furor". 

The Bottom Line:

All cured meats (hot dogs, bacon, bologna, corned beef) contain nitrites and/or nitrates, and whether they are added as synthetic chemicals or as naturally occurring in celery juice and other plants, the combination of process meats and nitrites/nitrates leads to an increase in colon cancer.

Here's the explanation:

Why are nitrates and nitrites used in meat products?

1. To give cured meat such as ham, bacon, corned beef and hot dogs their pink color.
2. To prevent the growth of bacteria that can lead to food-borne illnesses such as Botulism.
3. To preserve products so they can have a longer shelf-life.
4. To provide the distinctive cured flavor that we're accustomed to in ham, bacon, and hot dogs.

The above explanation is a commonly accepted statement, this one from Applegate Farms.

What are Nitrites and Nitrates?sodium notrite molecular structure

Sodium nitrite is a preservative used in some processed meat. Sodium nitrate ( chemical formula, NaNO2 )is a natural antioxidant found in all kinds of vegetables (root veggies like carrots as well as leafy greens like celery and spinach) along with all sorts of fruits and grains. Basically, anything that grows from the ground uses sodium nitrate in the soil as a building block for the plant's growth. When digested or acted upon by bacteria, sodium nitrate breaks down to form sodium nitrite, which has the antimicrobial properties to fight botulism. So, it is only when sodium nitrate becomes sodium nitrite that it becomes a functional preservative. But the sodium nitrate that we consume through fruits, vegetables and grains is also converted to sodium nitrite by our digestive system. In other words, our bodies normally and naturally produce sodium nitrite when we eat fruits, vegetables or grains.

During the cooking process, especially under high heat, nitrites can combine with amines, naturally present in meat, to form N-nitroso compounds or Nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens. Nitrosamines create cell damage in the body and cause cancer, typically in the colon. 

What authorities say eating processed meats with nitrites in them increases the risk of cancer?

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) reviewed thousands of studies -- and continue to review ongoing research -- that reflect a hot dog-cancer connection. Its conclusion: Processed meats, including hot dogs, bacon, and deli meats, are linked to increased colorectal cancer. According to The Cancer Project:, an NIH (National Institute of Health) / AARP Diet and Health Study found that processed red meat was associated with a 10 percent increased risk of prostate cancer with every 10 grams of increased intake. A study in Taiwan showed that consumption of cured and smoked meat can increase children's risk for leukemia. A study in Australia found that women's risk for ovarian cancer increased as a result of eating processed meats.

A New York Times article on the subject quotes Dr. William Lijinsky, former director of the Chemical Carcinogenisis Program at the Frederick Cancer Research and Development Center in Maryland, and an authority on nitrosamines, as saying that Nitrites combine with substances called amines, found naturally in some foods and in the stomach, to form carcinogens called nitrosamines.,  which are the most potent carcinogens yet discovered.

Denise Snyder, MS, RD, CSO, LDN, a Duke nutrition researcher with an emphasis in cancer survivorship, says that even when eaten in moderation, hot dogs are a risky food. She points to research showing that eating 3.5 ounces of processed meat every day (24.5 ounces per week) increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 36 percent when compared to someone who eats no processed meat.

What can you do? Read the Label

If you have to have a hot dog, Snyder recommends white hot dogs, also called bockworst, which do not have nitrates added.

Turkey dogs, chicken dogs, kosher, and other ethnic varieties all carry the same threat as beef hot dogs because they are still processed meats that may have unhealthy preservatives added.

What about the popular Vienna Meats brand?

The nutrition page on the Vienna Beef website  shows us the following:

Skinless Hot Dog Ingredients:  Beef, Water, Salt, Corn Syrup, Dextrose, Mustard, Natural Flavorings and Coloring, Garlic Juice (Garlic Juice, Salt), Sodium Erythorbate, Sodium Nitrite, Extractives of Paprika.
Nutrition Facts:
Serving Size: 1 Frank 8:1(56g)
Servings Per Container: About 80

Sodium Erythorbate is a form of Vitamin C, required by the USDA to reduce the amount of nitrites added, but the nitrites are clearly still present.

So, no matter how the Vienna Beef company attempts to "spin" it; their hot dogs do contain added chemical nitrites, and therefore should be avoided. Interestingly, their nutritional information on their website does not include fat, saturated fat or other key aspects of nutritional information that their customers would want to know.  Why?  Is it because those facts are not positive?

And Kosher Hebrew National?

Their web page lists the ingredients as "Beef, Water, Contains 2% or less of: Salt, Sodium Lactate, Spice, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Paprika, Sodium Diacetate, Garlic Powder, Sodium Erythorbate, Sodium Nitrite, Flavorings. CONTAINS: Soy"

Again, added sodium nitrite.

Oscar Meyer?

Oscar Meyer has their own line of of nitrite-free hot dogs, and you could argue that these are better than those with added nitrites, but again, they make up for it by adding celery juice, which naturally contains nitrates.

What about Organic Hot Dogs?

If you think that buying uncured organic hot dogs alleviates the problem, then you may be disappointed. It's the nitrites and nitrates in processed meats such as hot dogs that are linked with all sorts of cancers. And while uncured franks have "no added nitrates," Consumer Reports testing found that Applegate Farms, Coleman Natural, and Whole Ranch contained nitrates and nitrites at levels comparable to many of the cured models, due to naturally occurring nitrates and nitrites in seasonings, like celery juice. Are these better or worse than "added nitrites"? 

While both have nitrate, according to The New York Times: A study published earlier this year in The Journal of Food Protection found that natural hot dogs had anywhere from one-half to 10 times the amount of nitrite that conventional hot dogs contained. Natural bacon had from about a third as much nitrite as a conventional brand to more than twice as much.

Are there any "safe" hot dogs?

Not really, but you can reduce the risk somewhat by at least choosing those without added nitrites and without added natural sources of nitrite, like celery juice, or lower levels of either. When shopping for hot dogs, look for fresh meats with no preservatives added. Be sure to read labels carefully and avoid those listing nitrates or nitrites in the ingredients. But, finding hot dogs without either synthetic or natural nitrites is almost impossible.

Also, consider healthier alternatives to traditional hot dogs, such as vegetarian hot dogs, or cook fruits and vegetables on the grill instead.

Tricking you into believing there is a safe cured meat?

Euphemisms for Sodium nitrite abound on food package labels.  The food industry loves to be creative in coming up with other names for compounds that they add to foods, which the public believes are dangerous. 

 

Conclusions

Common sense says we should avoid eating processed meats, such as hot dogs, bacon, bologna, sausages, etc.; even if they manufacturers claim they are healthy, organic, or even nitrite free. The New York Times: article concludes:

But many scientists say the evidence of health risks remains persuasive. While the occasional hot dog or piece of bacon is probably O.K., they point out that high levels of salt and saturated fat in processed meats also contribute to health problems.

"What's very clear is that consuming processed meats is related to higher risk of diabetes, heart attacks and colon cancer," said Dr. Walter C. Willet, chairman of the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health. "If you tweak the cured meat a little bit like some of these new products, that's no guarantee that's going to make it any better."

So, try to only eat hot dogs, bacon and bologna a few times a year, especially if you are a child or pregnant woman.  And when you do eat them, look for those which are lower in fat and salt. You can also eat frozen meats, frozen sausages which are not cured, and have no added nitrite, synthetic or natural.

References and external links

Many of the references are embedded in the links included in the article above.  Here are some others:

  • Duke University Health
  • Nitrites and Nitrates (University of Ohio)
  • "Bacon, hot dogs and processed meats cause cancer, WHO says" BY NSIKAN AKPAN, PBS,  October 26, 2015 at 8:51 AM EDT
    Excerpt: "Bacon, sausage and other processed meats are now ranked alongside cigarettes and asbestos as known carcinogens, the World Health Organization announced today. Processed meats cause cancer, and red meat likely causes cancer, the health agency says in a new report. Chemical used to color sodas linked to cancer risk. Millions in the U.S. impacted by food allergies, but a cure may be on the horizon. The new investigation involved 22 scientists who were invited by the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer to assess the association between more than 16 types of cancer and the consumption of red meat and processed meat."
  • Sodium Nitrite: NIH U.S. National Library of Medicine.
  • "WHO says hot dogs, bacon cause cancer. Does this mean we should all become vegetarians?", Washington Post, By Ariana Eunjung Cha October 26, 2015
    Excerpt: "Processed meats encompass any meats that have been "transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation." This would include sausages, corned beef, hot dogs, beef jerky, canned meat, meat-based preparations and sauces, turkey and chicken cold cuts, as well as bacon.
    [Hot dogs are now considered carcinogens. Here are roughly 480 other things the WHO says might cause cancer"
  • "Hot dogs, bacon, processed meats linked to cancer" by John Bacon , USA TODAY Published 8:50 a.m. ET Oct. 26, 2015, Updated 4:08 p.m. ET Oct. 26, 2015
    Excerpt: "Eating hot dogs, ham and other processed meat can cause colorectal cancer, and eating red meat "probably" can cause cancer, the World Health Organization's cancer agency reported Monday."
  • "Toxic Substances Portal - Nitrate and Nitrite";  Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 
    Excerpt: There is limited evidence that nitrite may cause some cancers of the gastrointestinal tract in humans and mice.
    The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) noted that the presence of nitrite and some types of amines or amides in the acid environment of the stomach may result in the production of some cancer-causing N-nitroso compounds; under these conditions, IARC determined that ingested nitrate and nitrite is probably carcinogenic to humans. The EPA has not classified nitrate or nitrite for carcinogenicity.

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