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Eating a hot dog could shave 36 minutes off your lifespan

Credit: Pixabay.

Every time you queue in line at the hot dog stand, it’s not just wasting time standing idle. According to a new study by health and nutrition scientists at the University of Michigan, a single hot dog could take 36 minutes off your life due to the ill effects of highly processed foods. On the other hand, the same study found that fresh foods like fruits, nuts, legumes, and non-starchy vegetables add valuable moments to your lifespan with each bite.

The researchers led by Olivier Jolliet, professor of environmental health sciences at Michigan University, analyzed 5,853 foods found in the diets of Americans and compared how healthy or unhealthy they were using a single standardized measure: time added to or removed from our lifespan.

In order to index the beneficial and detrimental health burden of each food, the researchers used the most recent nutritional scientific literature to estimate morbidities associated with certain classes of foods. For instance, the authors of the study assumed 0.45 minutes are lost per gram of processed meat. Conversely, 0.1 minutes per gram of fruit are added to your lifespan when you consume these foods.

The number of healthy minutes of life gained or lost per serving of food is measured by the Health Nutritional Index (HENI), which the researchers introduced to the scientific literature.

“HENI takes into account 15 dietary factors from the Global Burden of Disease, which studies the burden of disability and death from a number of causes. These cover health benefits associated with food containing milk, nuts and seeds, fruits, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids from seafood, fibers and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and health damages associated with food containing processed meat, red meat, trans fatty acids, sugar-sweetened beverages and sodium. For each of these dietary factors, we estimated the healthy minutes of life lost or gained per gram of food consumed,” wrote Katerina Stylianou, a research associate at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and the director of public health information and data strategy at the Detroit Health Department.

Using these estimates, the researchers calculated, for instance, that a standard beef hot dog on a bun takes 36 minutes off your life, considering its high content of processed meat, sodium, and trans fatty acids.

If this assumption reflects reality, it spells very bad news for professional competitors in hot dog eating contests. Miki Sudo, who won every edition of the woman’s competition at the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest since 2014, with an average of 40 hot dogs eaten per contest, could have lost 10,080 minutes or seven days of her life. That’s not counting the hot dogs she ate to train for the famous competition, which takes place every 4th of July in New York City. In 2020, the men’s competition was won by Joey Chestnut, who set a new record by eating 75 hot dogs at the cost of 2,700 minutes of his lifespan.

Other popular processed foods that may shorten your life include bacon (6 minutes and 30 seconds per serving), pizza (7 minutes and 8 seconds), and double cheeseburgers (8 minutes and 8 seconds). On the opposite end of the spectrum, foods that add to your lifespan include salmon (13 minutes and 5 seconds per serving), banans (13 minutes and 30 seconds), and avocados (2 minutes and 8 seconds).

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich surprisingly adds 33 minutes and 6 seconds to your lifespan, thanks to the nut butter that is rich in healthy fats, protein, and fiber. Seafood ranges from about 10 minutes of extra life to about 70 minutes, a broad range that is due to the healthy omega-3 fatty acid content that can vary wildly from fish to crustaceans.

These estimates are not meant to be exact, but rather to serve as a guideline to help consumers make more healthy choices for their diet. Every individual is different after all, and that includes their reaction to certain foods. Modern nutritional research unanimously agrees that ultra-processed foods significantly increase the risk of premature death, being associated with cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The takeaway is to stop eating processed foods, not do the math every time you feel guilty for eating a hot dog with way too much topping. Combining burgers with peanut butter servings so they cancel each other out is likely a very bad idea and would be missing the point of these findings.

The HENI index was described at length in a study published in the journal Nature Food.

How many hot dogs can a person eat in 10 minutes?

In the race to eat as many hot dogs as possible in just ten minutes, competitive eaters may actually have a limit. A study looked at almost 40 years worth of Nathan’s Famous Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest and showed that the maximum is 83 franks, buns and all.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Every Fourth of July renowned competitive eaters descended on New York City to compete in the famous hot dog eating contest, which first started in the 1970s. The event was different this year, as only 10 people competed due to the pandemic. Still, Joey Chestnut won with a new world record, eating 75 hot dogs.

It might seem impressive but he could have eaten more. Researcher James Smoliga, a physiologist at High Point University in North Carolina, was watching the competition and came up with the idea of applying mathematical equations used to estimate the limits of athletic performance to feats of gluttony.

Looking at data from 152 competitors over 39 years, obtained from Nathan’s website and from personal records, Smoliga calculated an upper hot dog limit of about 83 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Eating as many hotdogs translates to a consumption rate of about 832 grams per minute and more than 23,000 calories in total.

Smoliga graphed the winning active consumption rate (ACR), which he defined as “the mass of food consumed in a given active feeding time period” by year. He also took into account the observed trend that athletic records frequently progress in an S-shaped (or sigmoidal) pattern over time.

In the beginning, progress tends to be slow with records not increasing by much. However, as a sport grows in popularity, at some point, athletes bring new techniques, approaches, and talents, resulting in a period of rapid improvement. This pushes records up higher in an accelerated fashion.

Record performances in sports like track and field have improved about 40% since record-keeping began, whereas hot dog-eating prowess has improved approximately 700%. Competitive hot dog eaters have a consumption rate that’s actually higher than grizzly bears and coyotes, according to Smoliga, though wolves lead the pack.

Eating large quantities of food quickly can be a useful strategy for carnivores when food is scarce. Smoliga argued humans’ capacity for a relatively high consumption rate may have proved useful at some point in our evolutionary past. But that’s not likely the case now, with eating many hotdogs in a small period of time just leading to digestive problems – or a prize at Nathan’s.

The study was published in Biology Letters.

hot dog

1 in 10 veggie hot dogs contain meat, sprinkled with some human DNA

Nobody wants to know how a hot dog is made, because you always know there’s some crazy stuff inside. If you’re one of those persons, stop reading now. Alright, time for a reality check. According to the  “The Hot Dog Report” released by Clear Food, a company on a mission to demystify the black box that’s the US food industry, many consumer brands add more ingredients in their sausages than you’d wished for, i.e. labeled.

The company sequenced the genetic material from 345 samples of hot dogs across 75 brands and found that around 15% were problematic. This means a deceiving label, whether exaggerating the protein content or finding pork in your chicken sausage. About 67% of the veggie samples had hygiene issues. Perhaps most disturbing is that 1 in 10 so-called veggie hot dogs had meat in them, and 2% of all samples had human DNA inside.

hot dog

Image: Pixabay, HannahChen

“It’s sort of the ultimate mystery meat,” says Clear Food co-founder Mahni Ghorashi motivating the company’s decision to start their first large scale report with hot dogs. As expected, Ghorashi and colleagues found a lot of problems with the hot dogs, which also account for a considerable market worth $2.5 billion in the US. Another $3 billion market makes up dinner and breakfast sausages.

What’s inside a hot dog

Basically, a hot dog is made up of leftovers from butchered meat, also called ‘trimmings’. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): “The raw meat materials used for precooked-cooked products are lower-grade muscle trimmings, fatty tissues, head meat, animal feet, animal skin, blood, liver and other edible slaughter by-products.” Basically, that’s the worst kind of meat you can wish for, but that doesn’t stop a lot of Americans from readily buying them. The National Hot Dog & Sausage Council estimates that Americans eat about seven billion franks during hot dog “season,” which stretches from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Of course, some high quality producers make hot dog without trimmings. Examples include  kosher, all beef hot dogs that have no by-products, fillers or artificial colors or flavors.

Almost all the sausages and hot dogs you buy from a retailer are made in factories where they’re churned out by the second. Large machines mix and chop the meat along with spices and other ingredients, then through automatic stuffers where the emulsified mixture is cased. Then, long links of hot dogs are cooked in a smokehouse, cooled by being passed under a water shower, and packaged. Some companies are less careful than others with this process and some unexpected ingredients come up. For instance, the report found:

  • pork substitution in 3% of the samples tested, i.e. where pork shouldn’t have been.  In most cases pork was substituted for chicken or turkey;
  • 14.4% of all hot dogs had problem of some sort;
  • labels of some vegetarian products exaggerated the amount of protein in the item by as much as 2.5 times;
  • evidence of chicken (10 samples), beef (4 samples), turkey (3 samples), and lamb (2 samples) in products that didn’t list those ingredients.
  • veggie hot dogs were the worst. One in ten contained meat, and 67% were prepared in non-hygienic conditions.
  • Human DNA was found in 2% of all samples and 2/3 of all veggie samples. Human DNA isn’t harmful but the contamination suggests that the manufacturing process isn’t clean and human contaminants easily slip in. For instance, a worker might shed some hair or skin in the factory, but sometimes maybe even harmful bacteria.

The report isn’t all gloom, though. The researchers found some brands that prepared their hot dogs with integrity. The company assigned a clarity score to each brand from 1 to 100, where 100 means everything inside is as the label states. The most ‘honest’ hot dogs are made by Butterball, McCornick, Eckrich and Hebrew National (all scored 96). Next, Clear Food plans to test other food stuffs using the same methodology.