Given the choice between a hot dog and a rotisserie chicken, any self-respecting health-conscious eater would choose the chicken. But according to a new study in the excellently named journal Meat Science, the chicken would be the riskier option, at least when it comes to cancer-causing agents.
The carcinogens in question are heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are compounds found in meat that has been fried, grilled or cooked at high temperatures. Diets high in HCAs from meat increase people’s risk of stomach, breast and colon cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute. (More on Time.com: Health-Washing: Is ‘Healthy’ Fast Food for Real?)
Researchers from Kansas State University decided to test the HCA levels of eight popular ready-to-eat meat products: beef hot dogs, beef-pork-turkey hot dogs, deli roast beef, deli ham, deli turkey, fully cooked bacon, pepperoni and rotisserie chicken.
They prepared each item as they imagined a typical consumer would: bacon and hot dogs were microwaved, pepperoni was cooked on pizza (either in an oven or in a microwave), and the deli meats and rotisserie chicken were used straight from the package.
Pepperoni had the lowest levels of HCAs at 0.05 nanograms (ng) per gram. Hot dogs and deli meat came in second, with 0.5 ng/g each. Overall, these products were low in HCAs, researchers said.
Cooked bacon (1.1 ng/g) and rotisserie chicken meat (1.9 ng/g) had the highest levels of HCAs, but rotisserie chicken skin had even more than that: a whopping 16.3 ng/g, due to its high-fat, high-protein and low-moisture content (HCAs increase as moisture decreases), according to the researchers. (More on Time.com: Diet Soda May Lead to Stroke Risk? Really?)
But before you toss your low-fat chicken in favor of pepperoni, consider that its low HCA levels may have to do with processing — which is in itself a health hazard. According to a KSU statement:
The reasons for lower HCA content in some of the other ready-to-eat products may be because of the higher water content in the ready-to-eat products. More moisture prevents many HCAs from forming. Ready-to-eat products are often enhanced products, meaning they have a water solution with flavoring added to them.
But in a 2010 study by Harvard School of Public Health researchers, people who regularly ate processed meats, like cold cuts, sausage and bacon, were found to have a 42% higher risk of heart disease and a 19% higher risk of Type 2 diabetes than people who didn’t eat these products. The researchers found no such increase in health problems in people who ate unprocessed beef, pork or lamb.
Further, hot dogs and deli meats are full of nitrates, which were associated with an elevated risk of bladder cancer in a recent study.
Given the risks of processed meats and the separate risks of cooking them over high heat, your best bet may be to avoid ready-to-eat meat products altogether.