Scientists note there is an up to 240-fold variation in levels of these chemicals across different brands.
"One could try and find out what the difference in manufacturing techniques are between the brands, and if it's decided these things are a hazard, one could change the manufacturing methods," researcher Sidney Mirvish, a chemist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, told LiveScience.
Mirvish and his colleagues examined hot dogs because past research had linked them with colon cancer. Hot dogs are preserved with sodium nitrite, which can help form chemicals known as N-nitroso compounds, most of which cause cancer in lab animals.
Extracts from hot dogs bought from the supermarket, when mixed with nitrites, resulted in what appeared to be these DNA-mutating compounds. When added to bacteria, hot dog extracts treated with nitrites doubled to quadrupled their normal DNA mutation levels. Triggering DNA mutations in the gut might boost the risk for colon cancer, the researchers explained.
"I won't say you shouldn't eat hot dogs," Mirvish said. Future research will feed hot dog meat to mice to see if they develop colon cancer or precancerous conditions, he explained.
James Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation in Washington, noted this study is "a preliminary report that the author concedes requires further investigation. The carcinogenic risk to humans of the compounds studied has not been determined."
The possible hazard presented here is not just limited to hot dogs. Salted dried fish and seasonings such as soy sauce may contain similar levels of these chemicals, Mirvish said.
Mirvish and his colleagues reported their findings in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.