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Flags and Fireworks and Hot Dogs, Oh My!

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The 4th of July is kind of like the daily embodiment of Disneyland: a smorgasbord of sensory overloading sights, sounds, and junk food tastes. And by now, you should be aware of how much I enjoy dawning a set of mouse ears and standing in lines all day. But as we get ready to celebrate the adoption of our nation’s Declaration of Independence, as a parent, it is not firecracker safety or the importance of minimizing UV exposure under the prominent July sun that I want to discuss, but processed meat.

Hot dogs are every bit as much a part of national independence celebration tradition as American flags and sparklers. Walk up and down every neighborhood in main street USA on July 4th and you will encounter grills stacked with frankfurters as far as the mouth can eat. Downing a few processed meat sausages at a baseball game or the neighborhood block party is all part of the American experience. For Asperger’s-related reasons, I tend to look at things through a black-and-white (right and wrong) lens, so let’s get fanatical about the hot dog, shall we?

Not in any way related to my obsession with health, I have some different food aversions. Some of them are because they trigger childhood memories that I would rather forget (cheese) and others, which I have no logical explanation for. Hot dogs and other processed meat products fall into the latter category. One of my most vivid childhood memories is spending the day at my friend Andre’s home in 2nd grade and quickly stuffing pieces of bologna sandwich in my pockets every time his mom turned her head, then shortly after, methodically tossing the sandwich, piece by piece, into the bushes as we played outside. In my younger days, I was well-known for consuming copious amounts of pretty much everything and anything certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as generally recognized as safe (GRAS), but I couldn’t stomach processed meat in almost any of its iterations. Just last weekend, we visited my in-laws to celebrate Father’s Day. I scanned the kitchen counter spread, confirmed that the foundation of the celebratory meal was hot dogs, and nonchalantly and silently grabbed my keys and headed home. I prepared my own meal, ate, and drove back within the hour. I don’t think the rest of the family was startled by my reaction. My wife (understandably) wasn’t exactly amused by my Houdini act. My children, my wife, my family, and much of America does not share my repugnance of processed meat. But maybe you should, and give me a few moments to science my way into convincing you why.

My mantra is always that most of the food you consume shouldn’t need an ingredient list. Flip over that 10-pack of franks and check out the chemistry going on. There is likely quite a bit of it, with approximately 15 ingredients in the average dog. A mechanically separated meat (beef, turkey, pork) is turned into a paste by forcing the leftover bits of animal flesh through a sieve. The gummy substance includes bones, ligaments, and other tissues that you probably wouldn’t feel comfortable eating if you knew you were eating them. Corn Syrup? Yep, that very cheap sweetener derived from corn starch that is put into just about every processed food known to man is in there too. Hey, you need your sweet with your meat, right? Various fillers, including modified starches, maltodextrin, and processed cereal grains are added because the meat-like paste is too expensive and we need to maintain a pleasant mouth-feel and texture. Then we get to the fun stuff: preservatives. Ever heard of potassium lactate, sodium diacetate, or sodium erythorbate? Yeah, me neither. These substances are added because they inhibit bacterial growth (to increase shelf life) and provide (and maintain) the pinkish hue in meat-based products. Yum! And that’s how you get food you can eat, hot or cold, without fear of getting sick during the post-apocalyptic zombie scourge.

Consumption of processed meat, and the nitrates and nitrites it contains, is associated with all kinds of serious health concerns, right? Well, those compounds do sound quite scary; they are, after all, also used in the production of fireworks and fertilizers, but our bodies also produce them naturally and they are found in high concentrations in many root vegetables, especially the delicious beet. In fact, vegetables contain far more nitrates than what you put between your white bread bun. But those combinations of nitrogen and oxygen aren’t the issue; in fact, as part of entero-salivary circulation, they actually help inhibit pathogenic bacteria, such as salmonella. It is when they are exposed to high levels of heat and acidity and their composition is altered to form nitrosamines that things take a different turn. Do you cook hot dogs with high heat? What about your green beans? Is the human stomach a highly acidic environment? I think you see where I’m going here.

As much as I want hot dogs to be highly associated with chronic and debilitating nutrition-related disease (OK, that is going a bit too far), there is, admittedly, a bit of fear mongering within the nutrition community. There are a number of studies correlating processed meat consumption and various negative health consequences, including increased risk for heart disease, various forms of cancer, and hypertension, among many chronic health concerns, but there is no direct evidence (that my database searches have uncovered) that processed meat is the cause. The fact of the matter is, those who consume large amounts of processed meat products tend to have higher rates of unhealthy lifestyle habits - everything from smoking to alcohol consumption, to lower intakes of fruits and vegetables and less exercise. What we can do is isolate compounds that are not found in fresh meat, but are commonly found in various manners of processed meat and are known to have adverse effects. Well, actually we have a few animal studies suggesting that consumption of nitrites and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (another compound produced when food is cooked at high heat) may (or may not) increase risk of cancer. But the evidence overall is corollary in nature, and runs into the same problems isolating root cause. Furthermore, the EPIC study, an ongoing study that is the single largest examination into diet and cancer, has come up with all kinds of interesting data in regards to food and cancer risk, none of which I feel comfortable saying provides strong evidence that any individual food component directly increases risk. There are, of course, several more tankers full of data to support a holistic healthy lifestyle, one that includes a whole food diet and regular exercise, as a means to decrease chronic disease risk.

So, we’ve been down this road before, having a perfectly logical and generally accepted conclusion, but honestly little to support it—at least so much as a I can surmise. It’s not about the hot dog in and of itself being toxic, but that regular consumption of them does not foster healthy dietary behaviors in general. There are two definite correlated health issues: nearly 80% of the average hot dog is comprised of fillers and preservatives (by volume) with virtually no nutritional value, and it is used as a vehicle to shovel more nutritionally void (but calorie dense) substances into your body. What does a hot dog provide to your body? To my son: ketchup. I watched in amusement last week as my two-year-old was introduced to the red liquid sugar we in this country like to slather on everything from hot dogs to eggs. I couldn’t get upset, it was funny. Watching him double, triple, quadruple dip the hot dog on a fork into a bowl of ketchup without taking a single bite, then looking up at me, “Mmmm, daddy. Candy!” I couldn’t stop laughing fast enough to go into daddy food-czar mode. For others, it may be similarly empty-calorie accoutrements like mayonnaise and cheese. A hot dog is a calorie-dense source of little nutrition and it serves as a delivery system for more highly processed food-like substances. But then again, so can healthy foods such as salad (would you like some greens with those croutons and dressing?) or a fruit smoothie (how about some antioxidants with that cup-o-fructose?).

Nobody is going to confuse a hot dog with health food, but refusing to down one (ungarnished) with my father-in-law on the one day a year we all celebrate paternal awesomeness, was probably a bit dramatic. All things in moderation, including moderation. You’ll never find hot dogs (not) cultivating bacteria in my fridge, but I think I can refrain from the “Thanks for injecting my kids with poison!” diatribe I was saving for my own parents this afternoon. Happy 4th of July. And if you feel so inclined, enjoy a sausage-shaped processed meat-like substance in a white bread bun for me.

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