The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C., group that promotes preventive medicine and a vegan diet, unveiled a billboard Monday near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the advisory: "Warning: Hot dogs can wreck your health."
The billboard features a picture of hot dogs in a cigarette pack inscribed with skull and crossbones. It aims to increase awareness of a link between colorectal cancer and hot dogs.
Hot dogs, like cigarettes, should come with a "warning label that helps racing fans and other consumers understand the health risk," said Susan Levin, the committee's nutrition education director.
Other health experts disagree.
Although hot dogs are certainly not health food, neither are they toxic, if consumed in moderation, they say.
"It is not necessary to eliminate consumption of red or processed meat; rather the message is that these foods should not be the mainstay of your diet," American Cancer Society guidelines state.
About twice a month, Kimberly Hunt indulges. She harbors no illusions that hot dogs are good for her, but she's not worried about the risks. "Not any more than any other processed foods that we eat," said Hunt, as she finished off lunch in downtown Indianapolis. "There's a lot of things that are going to cause cancer. Are hot dogs on the top of my list? No."
Hot dogs are low in nutritional value, said Dr. Jesse Spear, an internal medicine physician with St. Vincent Medical Group in Fishers, Ind. They're high in salt, which can lead to hypertension and heart disease.
Should we avoid them at all costs? That's not what Spear tells patients. Instead, he advises them to eat a generally healthy diet -- more fruits and vegetables, less processed meats. "I don't personally tell people never to eat hot dogs, because I guess I'm just realistic enough to know that people will still consume them to some degree," he said.
But there's something about a car race that encourages hot dog consumption. Last year, more than 1.1 million hot dogs were sold during the Indianapolis 500. So this year, the Physicians Committee decided to target another Speedway event, Sunday's Brickyard 400, with its $2,750 billboard.
The strong warning is needed to make people think twice about eating hot dogs and all processed meats, Levin said. That includes deli meats, ham, sausage, bacon and pepperoni.
"A hot dog a day could send you to an early grave," said Levin, a registered dietitian. "People think feeding their kids these foods (is) safe, but (it's) not."
The research linking colorectal cancer and processed meat is convincing, says a 2007 report by the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research. Just one 50-gram serving of processed meat -- about the amount in one hot dog -- a day increases the risk of colorectal cancer, on average, by 21 percent, the study found.
George Hanlin has his consumption down to one or two a month, as part of a plan to eat healthier. Monday, he contemplated the data linking hot dogs to health risks. "Will it keep me from never eating hot dogs? No," Hanlin said. "But there's no question I will try to limit it a lot more."