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Healthy Balance

Do Hot Dogs Cause Cancer? Processed Meat & Colon Cancer

We know they taste good. But do hot dogs cause cancer?

Do hot dogs cause cancer? What kind of question is that, you might ask. Well, it’s one that started weighing on me as I realized something about my teenagers that wasn't true a year or so ago. Except for family dinners, they mostly eat processed foods: Fast food, candy, chips, hot dogs, pepperoni pizza. When out with friends, at band and bike competitions, at school, these are the main options. These are the affordable options. And the answer about hot dogs causing cancer? The answer is — sadly — Yes.

How to play with your food: Flashback to these still-fresh tips on getting your younger kids to eat better.

Why Do Hot Dogs Cause Cancer?

After some digging (tons of conflicting info online), I spoke with cancer nutrition expert, Carole Havrila. A registered dietician at UVA Cancer Center, she knows what she’s talking about.

Not that I’m happy to hear it. “The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends that people eat little, if any, processed meats. This includes lunch meats, hot dogs, sausage, bacon, and ham,” she says.

The World Health Organization site states it boldly: “Eating processed meat causes colorectal cancer.” They’ve classified processed meat as carcinogenic, right up there with cigarettes and asbestos. 

What Exactly Is Processed Meat?

“Processed meat refers to meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation,” according to the WHO.

“Processed,” technically, could refer to most of our meals. Any food that’s been cooked or cut has gone through some kind of ‘process.’

But when health organizations warn against processed meat, they use the term specifically to refer to meats with high:

The process of preserving meat forms cancer-causing compounds.

And, to make it worse, processed meats can also contain other harmful chemicals formed in meat cooked at high temperatures.

One study found that just 1/2 a hot dog a day upped breast cancer risk by 21%.

National Library of Medicine

What’s Wrong With Nitrates

Nitrates and nitrites are based in nitrogen and oxygen. Nitrates exist in leafy green vegetables and dairy products, as well as in meat. They show up in soil and water.

Here's the thing: If you eat a bunch of healthy spinach, you're consuming nitrates. But at the same time, the spinach (and other vegetables) has chemicals that keep the dangerous compounds from forming.

When you eat meat, however, you don't have that advantage. The nitrates become nitrites and start to ruin the lining of your gut. They create optimal conditions for cancer to show up.

What If a Food Is Labeled Nitrate-Free?

“While there are many 'nitrate -free' meats available now, experts still don't endorse replacing regular luncheon meat with these. Celery powder, a 'natural' ingredient, is high in nitrates," Havrila explains.

The bottom line, she says, is that, "natural or otherwise, nitrates convert during digestion to nitrites and can form carcinogenic compounds.”

Fun fact: Have you ever seen bacon or ham labeled as ‘uncured’? This is meant to make the meat seem safer — not as processed. 

But a Consumer Reports study compared cured and uncured meats and found that, “on average, the nitrate and nitrite levels were essentially the same.”

What to Eat When You Have a Colon Cancer Risk

Choose lean cuts of roast beef, turkey, chicken. Always read the labels. You can also use the Environmental Working Group's online food guide.

I ask Havrila: Are my kids at extra risk for colon cancer because their grandmother had it?

Her answer: Yes.

“Having one or more first degree relatives (parent, sibling, or child) is a risk factor for colon and other cancers," she says.

And, since "it's clear that meats with preservatives (like nitrates and celery powder) can increase the risk of cancer, it’s best to avoid it."

Deli Alternatives on a Budget

The thing about healthy food, of course, is that it usually costs more money. Not to mention, children of all ages tend to be bigger fans of hot dogs than spinach.

"Think of simple things to incorporate in the diet," Havrila says.

She advises:

Allow your kids to make a snack plate with cheese, nuts, fruits, and even sliced (baked) chicken and cream cheese. 

Eat less red meat: Even fresh, lean red meat has heme iron, which has links to cancer. Limit to 18 oz of red meat a week. Consider cooking some turkey meatballs or roast a pork roast on Sunday to eat for the week. 

Some sources suggest that, if you’re going to have a sandwich, you eat fresh deli meat over prepackaged lunch meat. Deli meat that is sliced fresh off the bone or slab contains natural nitrates and is minimally processed.

Meat You Can Eat

Baked or roasted skinless poultry, including chicken and turkey, tuna fish, and other fishes are good alternatives to red meat. Everyone can enjoy one (or more) day a week where the menu is meat-free, such as bean and cheese burritos. 

Any fresh meat is better than those processed. 

Carole Havrila

Baking a bunch of chicken breasts on Sunday and then shredding the meat to eat on sandwiches (and more) during the week works well. (The EWG guide to healthy food on a budget encourages this, too.)

I ask about other factors besides diet that my kids should watch for in terms of avoiding colon cancer.

Change Your Diet

Talk to one of our expert nutritionists.

"Being physically active, and avoiding sitting for long times helps people maintain a healthy weight. This is an important way you can lower your cancer risk."

Bottom Line: Should My Kids Stop Eating Hot Dogs?

Cynthia Yoshida, MD, colon health expert at UVA Health, admits that the risk is there. "But frankly, obesity, alcohol, and smoking may be bigger risk factors than Jimmy John's. I eat meat and processed meat — and follow the mantra 'everything in moderation.'"

Yoshida’s point is well-taken. Too much sugar, for instance, can lead to upped cancer risk. UVA Health researchers are currently conducting research into how to help people stop drinking sugary drinks

Despite growing public health concerns about processed meat consumption, there have been no changes in the amount of processed meat consumed by U.S. adults over the last 18 years.

Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

This is hard work. Havrila explains that, "the rise in colon cancer over the last decade or so has been primarily in younger men and women less than 50. Researchers are not sure why this is; however one theory is related to increasing overweight and obesity rates and more sedentary behaviors."

But she doesn't think my kids are doomed. "While one has no control over their family history, everyone has the ability to modify their diet and activity level to lower their risk of developing cancer.”

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