Peanut butter on a hot dog … good for life expectancy?

I  like hot dogs – not on a regular basis, but on some occasions, they’re just right.

But University of Michigan researchers have a dire warning for people like me. They say consuming a single hot dog will rob you of 36 minutes of healthy life. 

That sounds hard to swallow. But the researchers believe it to be true, having examined the nutritional and environmental impact of almost 6,000 foods. They created an index that calculates the net gain or loss to a healthy life, associated with a serving of food.

Hot dogs were at the bleak end of the scale. That we should eat less processed meat was not a surprise – we’ve heard that for years. But I don’t remember seeing a specific loss of healthy life associated with it, or seeing hot dogs called out as the worst of the worst.

On the flip side, researchers praised the likes of nuts, fruits, vegetables and beans. These foods actually give you up to 24 minutes more time on the planet, they say.

The research findings were released mid-August. Since then, they’ve taken on a life of their own. They’ve also sparked unique interpretations of the study.

For example, the researchers were also trying to determine the environmental impact of various foods. But once the alleged connection between hot dogs and shorter longevity surfaced, it’s like the environmental angle didn’t exist anymore. It basically went unreported.

Could the pro-meat faction have been spun that to make hot dogs seem less offensive? Maybe. From an anti-food waste perspective, hot dogs are rock stars. Some parts of the animals that would otherwise end up in landfills are instead ground up and processed into hot dog meat (that’s also one reason they’re relatively cheap).

Those who support the idea of using the whole animal instead of just the glamour cuts point to this kind of processing as responsible.  

However, I doubt that consumers consider this a reason to buy hot dogs.

Plus, some of the parts that are used aren’t especially lean. High fat content, along with preservatives, are among the reasons nutritionists and researchers like those at the University of Michigan aren’t fans of hot dogs.

Nutritional advice is wise, but often joyless. Unfortunately, what’s good for us often doesn’t taste as good as what’s bad for us.

And less healthy food is often less expensive.

Health advocates continually battle this reality and look for new and clever ways to reach the millions of consumers trying to balance affordability with healthy choices.

With this in mind, the Michigan study is helping mount a comeback for an old favourite: peanut butter. The researchers didn’t advocate for peanut butter per se; rather, they liked the health attributes of fibre-rich legumes, a nutritionally gifted food group to which peanuts belong.

And indeed, some peanut butter is simply ground up peanuts. Nothing added. Sounds good.

Some peanut butter, however, has sugar or icing sugar added. That’s not what the researchers were advocating.

Nor were they extolling the virtues of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But somewhere along the line, that’s how the story grew. On Tuesday the Toronto Star ran a story headlined “Spread that PB&J and live a little longer.” In the story, one of the Michigan researchers involved, Olivier Jolliet, cautioned about such claims. It’s the peanuts, not the jelly, he said. Even the bread is neutral, although if it’s whole grain, you get some life points for that. But that didn’t change the headline.

A specialty burger joint in Guelph features peanut butter on one of its most popular selections. People rave about it. How about peanut butter on hot dogs? Why not? And how about a chili dog with beans? Does that make it hotdog neutral?

No question: More research is needed.

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