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Maybe hot dogs aren't the point, in diet or in publicity

July 22, 2009 | 11:14 am

Hotdogs The Cancer Project has turned to the courts in an attempt to have this dire notice placed on packages of hot dogs: "Warning: Consuming hot dogs and other processed meats increases the risk of cancer."

Here's today's story in the L.A. Times.

Neal Barnard, president of the Cancer Project, is quoted as saying: "Just as tobacco causes lung cancer, processed meats are linked to colon cancer.... Companies that sell hot dogs are well aware of the danger, and their customers deserve the same information."

Ignoring the fact for a moment that consumers don't seem to read what's already on their food labels, it's worth pointing out that the data on processed meat and colon cancer are not quite as conclusive as the smoking-and-lung-cancer connection.

Someone whose diet includes hot dogs with marked frequency might have a broader problem than the hot dogs themselves.  

(And just to emphasize the fact that few foods are inherently good or bad, here's an earlier Times story, from then-Times columnist Susan Bowerman, then assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. Are nitrite's and nitrate's bad reps undeserved?: "Found in fruits, vegetables and cured meats, the chemicals may reduce risk of heart disease, a study finds.")

If it's colon cancer that worries you, here's an online booklet from the National Cancer Institute: "What You Need to Know About Cancer of the Colon and Rectum."

Here's what it says about diet: "Studies suggest that diets high in fat (especially animal fat) and low in calcium, folate, and fiber may increase the risk of colorectal cancer. Also, some studies suggest that people who eat a diet very low in fruits and vegetables may have a higher risk of colorectal cancer. However, results from diet studies do not always agree, and more research is needed to better understand how diet affects the risk of colorectal cancer."

So when it comes to cancer risk, hot dogs might in fact be a marker of a bad diet, not the definition of one. If you're eating a whole lot of hot dogs -- or nachos or burgers or deep-fried food -- the hot dogs themselves might not be the core problem. You're also not eating a lot of more nutritious food.

Whether the group will succeed is anyone's guess, but then maybe that's not the point either. More people are now aware of the potential dangers of hot dogs, and as the story observes: "The Cancer Project is a branch of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group that lobbies against animal research and pitches the adoption of meat-free diets."

It's hard to deny the suit is an effective publicity move. After all, there was a story -- and a blog -- in the L.A. Times.

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: When eating hot dogs, most people would advise moderation. Perhaps not Takeru Kobayashi, former champion of the Nathan's Famous July 4th Hot Dog Eating Contest.  

Credit: Associated Press