Bangers, weenies, tube steaks, franks, wieners – what do you call hot dogs? Whether you’re relaxing around a campfire or making a mad dash to prepare a dinner with just minutes to spare, hot dogs have long been a staple in numerous homes across America.

However, just because something that many people love has been around for a while doesn’t mean that it’s good. In fact, a lot of eye-opening studies since the 1970s have suggested that eating the beloved hot dog can actually raise the risk of childhood cancer. So, let’s look at the science behind these childhood cancer claims.

Studies Link Hot Dog Consumption to Childhood Cancer

meat and cancer

If you’re a parent, grandparent, or a child whose kitchen table saw many hot dogs over the years, hearing this news can be tough to swallow. But what’s at the root of this claim that hot dogs consumption is linked to childhood cancer?

It has to do with nitrosamines… big word, right? Put simply, they are chemical carcinogens that form when preservatives are added to foods such as cured or processed meat. Because of their carcinogenic nature, some scientists suggest that consuming nitrosamine-filled foods can increase the risk of cancer in children and adults alike.[2,3]

One of the earliest studies to explore the relationship between this chemical carcinogen and cancer came out in Nature on 3 January 1970. It was in this study that scientists William Lijinsky and Samuel Epstein suggested that “human cancer might be caused by nitrosamines formed in the body from ingested nitrites.”[1]

That Nature paper helped set the stage for other studies about processed meat and cancer including one that explored the connection between maternal diet and risk of tumors in children. After analyzing 155 cases of children aged six and under with brain tumor diagnoses, scientists found a trend between mothers who consumed cancer-linked cured meats and children who developed the most common childhood brain tumor, astrocytic glioma.[4]

You would be right to say that this is only one study concerning meat and cancer – and it’s from the seventies. So we dug into the databases to find others suggesting a link between eating hot dogs and childhood cancer.

More Scientists Replicate the Findings: Link Between Processed Meat and Cancer in Children Grows Stronger

childhood cancer, cancer in children, processed meat, processed foods

A similar study from the same year found that broiled and processed meat consumption during pregnancy was linked to childhood cancer. Researchers assessed five meat groups:

  • Ham, bacon, or sausage
  • Hot dogs
  • Hamburgers
  • Bologna, pastrami, corned beef, salami, or lunch meat
  • Charcoal broiled foods

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Researchers looked at 234 cancer cases (56 of them leukemia and 45 of them brain tumors). They discovered an association between mothers who ate 1+ hamburgers or hot dogs a week and higher risks of childhood leukemia and brain tumors. Childhood cancer risk was heightened especially if mothers’ diets lacked vitamins.[5]

Another study from Cancer Causes & Control found that in 232 cases of cancer in children, fathers and kids who ate 12+ hot dogs per month increased risk for childhood leukemia by 11 and 9.5 times respectively.

Yes, many of the studies cited were from the mid-nineties, but the evidence didn’t stop there… In 2009, a population-based case-control study in the American Journal of Epidemiology reinforced the meat and cancer connection. Out of 145 acute leukemia cases, researchers found that children consuming cured/smoked meat and fish more than once a week had a 1.74x higher cancer risk.[6]

Processed Meat and Cancer: Why Are Hot Dogs Raising the Risk of Cancer in Children?

We see all those studies, new and old, but what is the actual science behind how hot dogs trigger leukemia or brain tumors?  If you recall the term “nitrosamines,” which we defined earlier, they begin to form when nitrites or nitrates are present in processed foods.

Preservatives have been used for hundreds of years to prevent food spoilage. But when scientists discovered that one way to preserve foods was to reduce nitrate to nitrite and add it as a salt mixture to edible consumer goods, the industry changed completely. Now grocery chains store foods that even have the potential to outlast some of us!

What Are Nitrites?

Generally, nitrites serve three purposes when producers add them to processed foods:[7]

  1. Maintain flavor by helping prevent food becoming rancid
  2. Give cured and processed meat their characteristic pink color
  3. Inhibits spoilage and bacteria growth (i.e., Clostridium botulinum) which can produce a lethal neurotoxin

Good flavor and bacteria-free sound good to you? While some consumers may think those points are desirable while out grocery shopping, processed foods filled with nitrites is not something you want to be putting into your body. Especially if you want to lower the risk of cancer in children.

It’s important to know there are different types of nitrates and nitrites that behave differently inside the body. We have organic ones found in beetroot, spinach and lettuce and inorganic ones such as the ones found in hot dogs and other processed foods.

childhood cancer, cancer in children, processed meat, processed foods

(Don’t Worry, It’s Okay to Consume Nitrites Found in Veggies)

Compared to hot dogs, vegetables containing nitrites are not carcinogens because they contain vitamins C and D, which are known to limit nitrosamine formation and even counteract the (carcinogenic) effects of nitrites. This is possible because the vitamins stop nitrites from binding to amines, which prevents cancer-linked nitrosamines from forming.[8-10]

Your body should excrete preservatives but, in some cases, nitrites can result in health problems including:[11]

  • Dehydration
  • Diarrhea
  • Changes in hemoglobin (i.e., the molecules responsible for helping carry oxygen through your blood become less effective)
  • Tumors (e.g., brain)
  • Cancer (e.g., leukemia)

And when fetuses or infants are in their earliest stages of development, the last thing you want is for this high-risk preservative found in processed foods to jeopardize their growth and overall wellbeing.

A pregnant woman and her fetus might be more sensitive to toxicity from nitrites or nitrates near the 30th week of pregnancy,” according to the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.[11] “Infants with diarrhea and vomiting form more nitrates inside the body that place them at higher risk for health effects with or without nitrate exposure.”

There’s no doubt that hot dogs are a delicious American staple… But just because something tastes good, does not mean it is healthy. Despite many studies having linked hot dog consumption to childhood cancer, scientists maintain that they’re potentially co-carcinogens and still hesitate to publicly make any causal claims.

So, Should I Stop Eating Hot Dogs and Other Processed Foods?

childhood cancer, cancer in children, processed meat, processed foods

If you can, absolutely! We know that for many families, hot dogs and other similar foods are often less expensive and more convenient. However, if not, keep your eyes open for hot dogs that are:

  • Nitrite-free
  • Nitrate-free
  • Organic
  • Uncured
  • Antibiotic-free
  • Hormone-free

That way, you can still enjoy a childhood favorite and help lower the risk of childhood cancer without worrying about the meat and cancer health risks posed by hot dog (and other processed foods) consumption!

Sources:

[1] Lijinsky, W., & EPSTEIN, S. S. (1970, January 03). Nitrosamines as Environmental Carcinogens. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/225021a0

[2] NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/nitrosamine

[3] Nitrosamines. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/nitrosamines

[4] Bunin, G. R., Kuijten, R. R., Boesel, C. P., Buckley, J. D., & Meadows, A. T. (1994). Maternal diet and risk of astrocytic glioma in children: A report from the Childrens Cancer Group (United States and Canada). Cancer Causes & Control, 5(2), 177-187. doi:10.1007/bf01830264

[5] Sarasua, S., & Savitz, D. A. (1994). Cured and broiled meat consumption in relation to childhood cancer: Denver, Colorado (United States). Cancer Causes & Control, 5(2), 141-148. doi:10.1007/bf01830260

[6] Liu, C., Hsu, Y., Wu, M., Pan, P., Ho, C., Su, L., . . . Christiani, D. C. (2009). Cured meat, vegetables, and bean-curd foods in relation to childhood acute leukemia risk: A population based case-control study. BMC Cancer, 9(1). doi:10.1186/1471-2407-9-15

[7] “Nitrite and Nitrosyl Compounds in Food Preservation.” Egyptian Journal of Medical Human Genetics, Elsevier, 24 May 1999, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000527289900033X#BIB7.

[8] Tannenbaum, S R. “Preventive Action of Vitamin C on Nitrosamine Formation.” International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research. Supplement = Internationale Zeitschrift Fur Vitamin- Und Ernahrungsforschung. Supplement., U.S. National Library of Medicine, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2507690.

[9] Bednar, C, and C Kies. “Nitrate and Vitamin C from Fruits and Vegetables: Impact of Intake Variations on Nitrate and Nitrite Excretions of Humans.” Plant Foods for Human Nutrition (Dordrecht, Netherlands)., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 1994, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8146105.

[10] Schwarcz, J. “Nitrosamines.” McGill Office for Science and Society, https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/science-science-everywhere/nitrosamines.

[11] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “Nitrates/Nitrites Poisoning: Patient Education Care Instruction Sheet.” CDC, https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/nitrate_2013/docs/nitrate_patient-education.pdf.

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