This is a guest post from Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND, registered dietitian nutritionist who promotes healthy eating as a speaker, consultant and writer. Connect with Karen through her blog, Smart Bytes®, to see how nutrition headlines fit in the “big picture” of overall research, and follow her on Twitter, @KarenCollinsRD.
Q: Is there such a thing as a healthy hot dog? What about turkey hot dogs or those that say they have “no nitrates added”?
A: As Nutrition Advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), I am frequently asked about “safe” forms — eg. what about turkey hot dogs?
First, hot dogs are among the category called Processed Meats, which is very consistently linked to increased risk of colorectal cancer. The problem is that multiple mechanisms are potentially responsible for the link of processed meats to cancer risk, and it may be quite beyond whether the hot dog is made of beef, pork, turkey or chicken.
The link of processed meat to colorectal cancer is twice as strong as that of red meat, and fat content is not a factor for colorectal cancer risk. Among reasons considered likely for the risk are the nitrites added, which when combined with amino acids within the gut can be converted to nitrosamines (also referred to as N-nitroso compounds or NOCs), which are carcinogens. If you see nitrite-free versions, we don’t know yet if these are as safe as it sounds; they generally use very concentrated amounts of a celery juice or powder to deliver “natural” nitrate that gets converted to nitrite.
So here’s my take: advertisements that suggest that giving your kids a couple hot dogs over the summer is putting them at risk of cancer is unfairly playing on the emotions and going way beyond the evidence. However, the data really is quite clear that the people who are grabbing a quick hot dog for lunch frequently throughout the week or turning to them as a frequent dinner “because the kids like ’em” are making a choice associated with increased long-term cancer risk. And high consumption of processed meats is also linked to increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular (CVD).
This really isn’t an issue for the person who only eats a few hot dogs over the whole summer. But if you’re thinking of, or talking to people who do, eat them as a frequent choice, those products marketed as healthier choices may not provide that much benefit with a lot of the same risk. Personally, I love to grill, and try to encourage people to embrace the fun and delicious flavor that grilled vegetables add to any meal.
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