I was asked this question back on July 4th, where hot dogs are consumed in mass quantities - with or without the 'fattening' buns. I actually forgot about it, until I saw that ESPN Classic was showing the replay of a hot dog eating contest. I guess increasing one's risk of cancer is considered a sport?
So, are hot dogs carcinogenic?
And the cancer risk is not just limited to hot dogs, but any processed meat, such as deli meat (ham, pastrami, turkey, bologna, etc.), bacon, turkey bacon, corned beef, pepperoni, beef jerky, and canned beef (e.g. Spam). Yes, even the lunch meat that comes in the kid's meals counts, as does processed meat from fast food (e.g. chicken McNuggets).
Such foods have been treated in a number of ways to preserve and flavor it, such as salting, curing, fermenting, and even smoking – not to mention the number of chemical processes, additives, and meat glue.
The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) came out with a summary report in 2015, after 22 experts from 10 countries reviewed more than 800 scientific studies. Here is the press release.
Some highlights from the press release:
- The risk is especially strong for colorectal cancer, but the risk broadens to other cancers the more meat we eat (including red meat).
- "The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%."
The American Cancer Society tells us that 50 grams is only about 4 strips of bacon or 1 hot dog each day.
- Our risk increases with the amount of meat consumed.
- Because so many people eat processed meats, "the global impact of cancer incidence is of public health importance."
- Processed meat is now classified as a 'Group 1 Carcinogen'.
Group 1 Carcinogen
After examining all the scientific evidence, the American Cancer Society puts out a list of substances and exposures that can lead to cancer, called 'carcinogens'. Even though carcinogens do not cause cancer at all time, under all circumstances, and in all people, there is a group of carcinogens, called 'Group 1 Carcinogens' that have strong evidence to be carcinogenic to humans.
Some examples of 'Group 1 Carcinogens' that you might be familiar with:
- Engine Exhaust
Well, if you look down the list, you will see:
- Processed Meat (consumption of)
If you do not want to increase your risk of cancer, your goal would be to limit, if not remove, exposures to these carcinogens.
For example, do not smoke a cigarette while running behind a bus on a sunny day with no sunscreen, and then recover with a post-workout hot dog.
Exposure and Risk
Exposure and risk are tricky. The reason eating processed meats are a 'Group 1 Carcinogen', is because of the strong evidence to say it causes cancer. This classification does not mean that if you lick a piece of bologna, you will get cancer (please do not lick bologna).
As the American Cancer Society clarifies,
"The lists describe the level of evidence that something can cause cancer, not how likely it is that something will cause cancer in any particular person. For example, IARC considers there to be strong evidence that both tobacco smoking and eating processed meat can cause cancer, so both are listed as “carcinogenic to humans.” But smoking is much more likely to cause cancer than eating processed meat, even though both are in the same category."
This information should not deter you, however, from limiting or eliminating processed meats, since they still can cause cancer - even though the risks might not be as strong as other carcinogens. Just because eating a hot dog might not have the same risk as gamma radiation exposure, it does not make eating processed meat healthy, or somehow eliminate its known risk of cancer.
Yes, hot dogs and other processed meats, have been determined by expansive, scientific evidence to be carcionogenic. So, this one is 'confirmed'.
Any intake will increase our risk of cancer, especially colorectal cancer. Only 50 grams per day, which is equivalent to only about 4 slices of bacon or 1 hot dog, increases our risk by 18%.
The risk increases with the more we eat, including red meat. The recommendation, then, is to limit intake of processed meat.
Or, if you are like me, and do not want to knowingly increase your or your family's risk of cancer, then eliminate processed meats from your diet. A quick, online search will reveal ample healthy alternatives.