Should Hot Dogs Come With Cigarette-Style Warning Labels?

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The medical reform group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine likes to stir up the hot dog debate with its billboards. Every spring it brings its cancer awareness message to billboards outside of baseball stadiums, race tracks, and other hot dog-friendly venues. PCRM is on a crusade to bring cigarette-style warning labels to hot dogs.

A steady diet of hot dogs can send you to an early grave.
According to a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health, a daily hot dog raises the risk of heart disease by 42 percent and diabetes by 19 percent. Research from the American Institute for Cancer Research found that the risk of colorectal cancer rises by 21 percent, and the Cancer Research Center at the University of Hawaii linked hot dog consumption to a 67 percent increase in the risk for pancreatic cancer. Hot dogs have also been linked with prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, and childhood leukemia. All told, a multi-nation meta-study of 450,000 participants headed by the University of Zurich concluded that the overall risk of mortality increases by 18 percent for each hot dog consumed per day.

The problem with hot dogs.
There’s plenty of salt and saturated fat in hot dogs, but it’s the nitrites that’ll kill you. And all hot dogs have them—regardless of what it says on the package.

The salty preservative that’s added to conventional hot dogs is sodium nitrite. It develops flavor, keeps the meat’s pink color, and inhibits bacterial growth. A hot dog isn’t going to taste like a hot dog without sodium nitrite. So what about the premium and organic hot dogs that are labelled ‘no-added-nitrates’ or ‘naturally cured’? Brands like Applegate and Niman Ranch get around it with a little additive sleight-of-hand plus some arcane labeling loopholes courtesy of the FDA. They pour on the celery juice, which happens to be loaded with naturally occurring nitrate, then they add a naturally-derived bacterial culture that converts the harmless nitrate into harmful nitrite.

Alas, nitrite is nitrite. It makes no difference if it’s added directly or formed later, synthetic or naturally-derived. Take any kind of nitrite, add any kind of meat and heat, and it’s going to form cancer-causing compounds. When the Journal of Food Protection looked at popular hot dog brands, it found that the natural hot dogs had anywhere from one-half to 10 times the amount of nitrite that conventional hot dogs contained.

About those warning labels
The PCRM wants graphic labeling that would make consumers think twice about what they’re eating. Other public health organizations like the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund call hot dogs “unfit for human consumption” and would like to see an outright ban. Even the USDA has been trying to rid the meat industry of nitrites since the 1970’s.

Meanwhile, the American Meat Institute, the meat industry’s oldest and largest trade association, has taken a stand against additional labeling requirements with the publication of its own sodium nitrite Fact Sheet. The AMI dismisses much of the research as “old myths” and the work of vegans and animal rights activists. It refers to sodium nitrite as “an essential public health tool,” and points to a 2005 animal study suggesting therapeutic uses for nitrites in the treatment of heart attacks, sickle cell disease, and leg vascular problems.

Most experts say that the occasional hot dog isn’t going to kill you. The choice is yours. And if there is honest and accurate labeling, you can make an informed choice.

 

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