CHICAGO — A new TV commercial shows kids eating hot dogs in a school cafeteria and one little boy's haunting lament: "I was dumbfounded when the doctor told me I have late-stage colon cancer.”
It's a startling revelation in an ad that vilifies one of America's most beloved, if maligned, foods, while stoking fears about a dreaded disease.
But the boy doesn't have cancer. Neither do two other kids in the ad who claim to be afflicted.
The commercial's pro-vegetarian sponsors say it's a dramatization that highlights research linking processed meats, including hot dogs, with higher odds of getting colon cancer.
But that connection is based on studies of adults, not children, and the increased risk is slight, even if you ate a hot dog a day. While compelling, it isn't conclusive.
So what exactly is the truth about hot dogs?
The 33-second ad launched last month in several U.S. cities provides the perfect opportunity to separate fact from fiction about this mysterious yet so familiar meat. It is to run in September in Chicago and Denver.
Will it hurt you?
The bottom line from several nutritionists familiar with the ad is this: Hot dogs aren't exactly a "health food,” but eating one every now and then probably won't hurt you.
"My concern about this campaign is it's giving the indication that the occasional hot dog in the school lunch is going to increase cancer risk,” said Colleen Doyle, the American Cancer Society's nutrition director. "An occasional hot dog isn't going to increase that risk.”
Americans as a whole eat hot dogs more than occasionally. According to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, U.S. consumers spent more than $4 billion on hot dogs and sausages last year. That includes more than 1.5 billion pounds of hot dogs and sausages bought at retail stores alone.
The health concerns primarily come from their high fat and salt content and sodium nitrate and nitrite, commonly added preservatives and color-enhancers. Nitrate-related substances have been reported to cause cancer in animals, but there's no proof they do that in people.