‘Eating One Hot Dog Takes 35 Minutes Off Your Life’

On August 23 2021, the New York Post tweeted that eating one hot dog “takes 35 minutes off your life,” citing a “new study”:

Linked in the tweet was an article, “Eating 1 hot dog takes 35 minutes off life, study suggests,” claiming in part:

Researchers released a nutritional index this week aiming to inform guidelines and help Americans achieve healthier and more environmentally stable diets. The index ranked foods by minutes gained or lost off healthy life per serving, with processed meats and sugary drinks among the biggest offenders … The foods studied ranged from 74 minutes lost to 80 minutes gained per serving. Sugary drinks, hot dogs, burgers and breakfast sandwiches were linked with most minutes of healthy life lost, whereas fruits, non-starchy and mixed vegetables, ready-to-eat cereals and cooked grains were associated with the largest gains.

More specifically, researchers found that consuming one 85-gram serving of chicken wings translated to 3.3 minutes of life lost, owing to sodium and harmful trans fatty acids, while a beef hot dog on a bun resulted in some 36 minutes lost “largely due to the detrimental effect of processed meat,” study authors wrote. What’s more, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were associated with an increase of 33 minutes.

Foods like salted peanuts, baked salmon and rice with beans were also associated with gains between 10 and 15 minutes.

Between August 23 and 24 2021, Google Trends indicated interest in the claim, with “trending” searches including:

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  • “eating 1 hot dog.”

Clearly, readers were concerned about their hot dog to minutes of life ratio in the wake of the news. The New York Post attributed the “hot dog study” to the journal Nature (via the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health Sciences), but it didn’t disclose the name of the study.

The claim that eating one single hot dog takes a quantifiable number of minutes off a person’s life might have sounded familiar, due to long-spreading claims that smoking a single cigarette took 11 minutes off any individual’s lifespan (the subject of a January 2000 paper in the journal BMJ). That article described its titular calculation as “admittedly crude,” adding:

This calculation is admittedly crude—it relies on averages, assumes that the health effects of smoking are evenly spread throughout a smoker’s lifetime, presupposes that the number of cigarettes smoked throughout a lifetime is constant, and ignores the difficulties in classifying people as either lifetime smokers or non-smokers.5 However, it shows the high cost of smoking in a way that everyone can understand.

The first day of the year is traditionally a time when many smokers try to stop, and on 1 January 2000 a record number might be expected to try to start the new millennium more healthily. The fact that each cigarette they smoke reduces their life by 11 minutes may spur them on. The table shows some better uses for the time they save.

Discussions in Twitter comments on the Post‘s tweet included those who were skeptical of the minutes vs. hot dog calculation:

We searched for a study matching the description of the research in the article. We found the article published in Nature Food on August 18 2021 (“Small targeted dietary changes can yield substantial gains for human and environmental health”).

An abstract for the research was available, but the entirety of it was not. Its abstract explained:

To identify environmentally sustainable foods that promote health, we combined nutritional health-based and 18 environmental indicators to evaluate, classify and prioritize individual foods. Specifically for nutrition, we developed the Health Nutritional Index to quantify marginal health effects in minutes of healthy life gained or lost of 5,853 foods in the US diet, ranging from 74 min lost to 80 min gained per serving. Environmental impacts showed large variations and were found to be correlated with global warming, except those related to water use. Our analysis also indicated that substituting only 10% of daily caloric intake from beef and processed meat for fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and selected seafood could offer substantial health improvements of 48 min gained per person per day and a 33% reduction in dietary carbon footprint.

Additional information about the content of the study was not available; the vast majority of content was premised not on the research, but on the article. We finally found a summary not based on the New York Post‘s framing.

That secondary reporting explained that the “hot dog takes 35 minutes off your life” study was a bit more complicated that the discourse suggested. One primary element of the researchers’ calculations appeared to involve the purported environmental effects of specific foods, which was folded into the “minutes of life” calculation:

Calculating impact on human health

The index is an adaptation of the Global Burden of Disease in which disease mortality and morbidity are associated with a single food choice of an individual. For HENI, researchers used 15 dietary risk factors and disease burden estimates from the GBD and combined them with the nutrition profiles of foods consumed in the United States, based on the What We Eat in America database of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Foods with positive scores add healthy minutes of life, while foods with negative scores are associated with health outcomes that can be detrimental for human health.

A separate section of the review explained:

Adding environmental impact to the mix

To evaluate the environmental impact of foods, the researchers utilized IMPACT World+, a method to assess the life cycle impact of foods (production, processing, manufacturing, preparation/cooking, consumption, waste), and added improved assessments for water use and human health damages from fine particulate matter formation. They developed scores for 18 environmental indicators taking into account detailed food recipes as well as anticipated food waste.

Finally, researchers classified foods into three color zones: green, yellow and red, based on their combined nutritional and environmental performances, much like a traffic light.

Supplemental materials by the authors were made available separately [PDF], and delved into the externalities researchers factored in to their calculations:

A library of LCIs [life cycle inventory processes] was compiled for food items in raw and lightly processed forms (e.g., dairy products, fruit juices, flours, refined sugar, processed tomatoes, and balsamic vinegar). Three databases were used to maximize coverage (listed in the order of selection priority) … The system boundary for LCIs was “cradle to farm gate or processor gate,” excluding emissions and resources required during the packaging, transportation, storage, and cooking stages … Health damages are reported in minutes of healthy life lost per serving by multiplying μDALYs estimates with 0.5365 so that damages are comparable with [HEalth Nutritional Index (HENI)] scores.

A large number of people saw and shared a New York Post article reductively titled “Eating 1 hot dog takes 35 minutes off life, study suggests,” covering research published in the August 2021 edition of Nature Food. As expected, most people inferred the headline was literal — for every hot dog a person ate, their lifespan would necessarily be reduced by 35 minutes. Unfortunately, the article was behind a paywall and inaccessible to those without a subscription. Nevertheless, an abstract and a further third-party review explained that the researchers developed a nutritional index predicated not just on the direct effect of any given food on individual bodies, but factors such as a foodstuff’s relation to external factors like climate change. The index developed by researchers weighed factors like nutrition, waste, processing, and impact on resources like water to arrive at what became clickbait: “one hot dog takes 35 minutes off your life.”