Unhealthful News 83 – Hot dogs better for you than television health news

[Housekeeping note:  This is the first of what will be some short posts for the next two or three weeks.  Too much going on.]

Most of the news reports were not quite as absurd as MSNBC’s which said, “Hot dogs for better health? Actually, yes”.  The study actually just showed that the concentration of one specific set of carcinogens, heterocyclic amines, in one particular set of samples studied, was comparatively low in hot dogs and a few other prepared meats and high in rotisserie chicken.  Some slightly – but only slightly – less dumb headlines were “Hot dogs healthier than previously thought” from ABC and “Hot dogs may be healthier than chicken” from Fox. 

It should be obvious that no study of the chemistry of a food is definitive about how healthful it is, let alone a study of a single chemical.  That study cannot even support the claim that was reported in the news that “rotisserie chicken contains more carcinogens than hot dogs”; that distinction probably goes to whichever has more chemicals of the kind that are measured in grams rather than micrograms and that cause colon cancer.  Presumably what the reporters want to be able to say is that one causes a greater risk for cancer than the other, but they are going to have to study a little harder before they can figure that out.

As for the conclusions that hot dogs are healthy because there is a lot of that one chemical in something else, well, good news:  A new study of Twinkies, cheesecake, Four Loko, deep-fried brownies, Coke, bourbon, and tuna revealed that tuna had much higher level of mercury than any of the others, so enjoy the others! 

The MSNBC story actually reported the concentration of the chemicals in the various foods, which mean nothing to the audience, and I am quite confident meant nothing to the reporter who wrote the story.  The researcher that did the study, and who was interviewed for that report, might have known the importance to health of those quantities, but he apparently kept it a secret (and, frankly, I would bet that he has no idea either).  So the audience and the reporter, at least, have no idea whether those quantities matter and thus whether the differences found in the new study matter.  The story does not tell us whether science even knows what level of  differences matter in terms of health risk.  My bet, based on experience with related matters, would be that such quantification is really not known, though I do not know about this specific topic.  But I am pretty sure I could find out the conventional wisdom (which might be wrong) in about twenty minutes, and dig down a bit within a few hours.  Perhaps with such effort a reporter could have turned this into a story that actually contained information.  But it is so much more fun to mislead people into thinking that hot dogs have been shown to be healthy. 

2 responses to “Unhealthful News 83 – Hot dogs better for you than television health news

  1. Carl,

    please may I have your opinion on my study design?


    It is a study of the distribuion of lung cancer amongst US (white) males, by county, 1970 – 1994, VS satillite light maps ~1997.

    What do you think?

    cheers and best wishes

  2. Fredrik,
    I have commented over at your blog.

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