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?