Hot Dogs and Brain Tumors in Children Print
Written by Dee McCaffrey, CDC   
Sunday, August 29, 2010


Hot dogs are on almost every child's list of favorite foods. Second ranking would probably be bologna and pepperoni sausage. Many kids also eat deli lunchmeats on a fairly regular basis.

But could these American staple foods be killing our children? In 1995, a petition was brought before the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requesting the FDA to require a cancer risk warning on packages of hot dogs that contain preservatives called nitrites. The grounds for this petition were alarming: scientific information on excess risks of childhood brain tumors and leukemia have been linked to the consumption of hot dogs-specifically hot dogs containing nitrite preservatives.

What are nitrites and why are they used in hot dogs and other deli meat products? Nitrites, more specifically compounds called Sodium Nitrite and Potassium Nitrite, are chemical preservatives traditionally used in the processing of cooked and smoked deli meats. Their primary purpose is to prevent botulism, and to improve color and flavor in cured meat and poultry products (bologna, hot dogs, bacon).

Nearly all processed meats are made with sodium nitrite: breakfast sausage, hot dogs, jerkies, bacon, lunch meat, and even meats in canned soup products. During the cooking process, nitrites combine with amines naturally present in the meat to form cancer-forming N-nitroso compounds. When consumers eat sodium nitrite in popular meat products, nitrosamines are formed in the body where they promote the growth of various cancers, including colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and cancer of the oral cavity, urinary bladder, esophagus, stomach and brain.

There is substantial evidence on the risks of childhood cancer from the consumption of meats containing nitrites. A 1982 study found that consumption during pregnancy of meats cured with sodium nitrite has been associated with development of brain tumors in the offspring.

Recent case-control studies have confirmed the risks of cancer from consumption of hot dogs. Eating many hot dogs by children, as well maternal hot dog consumption during pregnancy, has been shown to be associated with brain cancer and leukemia in children.

Another study was performed between 1986 and 1989 on children who were diagnosed with brain cancer before age six. Of 53 foods and beverages and three alcoholic beverages consumed by mothers during pregnancy, only hot dogs were associated with an excess risk of childhood brain tumor.

Another study of 234 childhood cancer cases in Denver found a strong association between the consumption of hot dogs and brain cancer. Children born to mothers who consumed hot dogs one or more times per week during pregnancy had approximately double the risk of developing brain tumors. Children who ate hot dogs one or more times per week were also at higher risk of brain cancer. In addition, children who ate hot dogs and took no vitamins, which retard the formation of N-nitroso carcinogens, were more strongly associated with both acute lymphocytic leukemia and brain cancer. The study's authors concluded:

"The results linking hot dogs and brain tumors (replicating an earlier study) and the apparent synergism between no vitamins and meat consumption suggest a possible adverse effect of dietary nitrites and nitrosamines."

Peters, et al. studied the relationship between the intake of certain foods and the risk of leukemia in children from birth to age 10 in Los Angeles County between 1980 and 1987. The researchers found that children who ate 12 or more hot dogs per month had approximately nine times the normal risk for developing childhood leukemia. A strong risk for childhood leukemia also existed for those children whose fathers' intake of hot dogs was 12 or more per month.

The carcinogenic effects of nitrites are not limited only to children who eat hot dogs. Research in Sweden found that Swedes who ate on average 3 ounces of processed meat each day had a 15 percent greater chance of developing stomach cancer than those who consumed 2 ounces or less.

The Cancer Research Center of Hawaii and the University of Southern California reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that they studied 190,000 people, ages 45 to 75, for seven years. Those who ate the most processed meat (bacon, ham, cold cuts) had a 68% higher risk of pancreatic cancer than those who ate the least.

"Most" was defined as at least 0.6 ounce processed meat, 1-ounce beef or 0.3-ounce pork per 1,000 calories consumed.

The USDA actually tried to ban sodium nitrite in the 1970's, but was preempted by the meat processing industry, which relies on the ingredient as a color fixer to make foods look more visually appealing. Meat processors responded by saying that since nitrite inhibited the growth of bacteria which caused botulism, the benefits out-weighed the risks.

It is important to know that there are safer ways to inhibit the growth of botulism spores but these alternatives don't improve the color or flavor of meat. The danger of botulism can be checked by proper refrigeration and cooking. Apparently the botulism spores germinate at a slow rate and refrigeration retards this growth. The meat industry concedes this point while quickly pointing out that consumers may not be as careful about refrigeration as it is. Nitrite does not destroy the spores but simply retards their germination. Dr. Ross Hume Hall describes an experiment in which bacon was held at 26 degrees Celsius (80F). The spores did not reach a toxic level (at which botulism poisoning would occur) until the tenth day. If the bacon had been refrigerated, it would have retarded the growth for an even longer period. Hall feels that consumers would agree to have meat marked with throw-away dates.

I don't know about you, but I would rather have an earlier expiration date, especially if it would mean putting an end to sodium nitrite in our food.

Expectant mothers should avoid consuming meats that contain sodium nitrite due to the greatly heightened risk of brain tumors in infants. Parents should also be warned to avoid feeding their children products that contain sodium nitrite, including all popular hot dogs, bacon, jerkies, breakfast sausages and pizzas made with pepperoni or other processed meats. Sodium nitrite is especially dangerous to fetuses, infants and children.

Sadly, nearly all school lunch programs currently serve schoolchildren meat products containing sodium nitrite. Hospital cafeterias also serve this cancer-causing ingredient to patients. Sodium nitrite is found in literally thousands of different menu items at fast food restaurants and dining establishments. The use of this ingredient is widespread and it's part of the reason we're seeing skyrocketing rates of cancer in every society that consumes large quantities of processed meats.

When you are in the store, look for nitrite-free and nitrate-free meat products, which are far healthier alternatives. The other alternative is to cook your own chicken and turkey to use for lunchmeats. When you make it yourself, you are guaranteed that it isn't prepared with sodium nitrite.