A Subject That’s Difficult to Stomach

Summer’s coming, so this week we’ve opted for a warm-weather theme. First up: hot dogs. After all, June (haven’t you heard?) is the month when world-class eaters--courtesy of noted hot-dog maker Nathan’s Famous--compete around the U.S. to see how many hot dogs and buns they can cram down their gullets in 12 minutes.

Our first thought was, gosh, wouldn’t it be fab if someone from Southern California could win this contest? So we called up USC pharmacologist Ron Alkana, world banana-eating champ in the Guinness Book of World Records (it’s no longer in the book, though, because the editor decided such records were just too “tacky”). Alas, Alkana has retired from speed eating, preferring to focus on his research into alcohol’s effects on the brain.

So we moved to thought No. 2: How marvelous is the human stomach, the stretchy organ that can tolerate 24 1/4 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes, 1,300 baby eels in 13.7 seconds, and (this from professor Alkana) 17 bananas in two minutes?

Here are some stomach facts. A tight ball at rest, it relaxes in readiness as soon as we swallow some food. You can pile in 10 to 15 bananas before the walls get real tense, and even if you continue eating, bursting isn’t likely because food travels upward first.


What makes a speed-eating champ? “Technique,” insists Alkana (but he won’t tell us his). Large stomachs help too, which may be why men dominate the sport. Still, you can’t judge a stomach by its body: The current hot dog champ weighs a mere 130 pounds.

Finally, the stomach can stretch if regularly pushed to its limits. In one study, New York scientists filled people’s stomachs with water--and found that those of bulimics had 1 1/2 times the capacity of normal eaters’.

OK, we’ve had our fill of stomach chitchat. Let’s move on.

Zappers Might Add Extras to Your Barbecue


Stoking up the barbecue? Consider keeping bug zappers far from your picnic. Why? Just ask Alberto Broce or James Urban, scientists at Kansas State University.

The two were roasting bratwursts and corn on Urban’s farm one day. “The place was knee-deep in flies, and since it was a farm and we knew where the flies may have been walking, we wondered whether it might do more harm than good to have a bug zapper,” Urban says. Wouldn’t the zapper send bacteria-laden fly parts hurtling into the food?

Being scientists with labs and all, they decided to test their hypothesis by filling a room with a swarm of flies and a bug zapper and placing petri dishes all over the place to collect bacteria that got launched when the flies got zapped. They were perturbed by the number of bacteria they collected--and are flummoxed by the hundreds of phone calls they’re now getting from people like us. (Britain’s BBC, says Urban, was not on the phone asking about his years of studies on the growth physiology of E. coli.)

Bottom line? Don’t overreact. “Would I go into somebody’s backyard if they had a bug zapper? Yes, I probably would,” Urban says. “Would I be comfortable if the bug zapper were over the condiment tray? No, probably not.”


Big Resources for Little Summer Pests

Speaking of bugs, what about that other bane of summer--fleas? Read all about them at and a Web site for bug lovers, BioHaven ( At BioHaven, you can see a great photo of a cat flea, in full jump pose, as well as listen to fly buzzes and mosquito hums and even a Madagascar hissing cockroach.

You can also learn about fleas by doing what I did one summer: Venture into a backyard after the resident dog had left for its summer holiday. Within five seconds, my ankles were covered. Why? Says BioHaven, flea eggs and larvae left by the dog reached the “cocoon” stage and then waited for my warmth or movement to tell them it was time to come out and bite.

Finally, be careful if you opt to tackle this itchy problem yourself. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, failure to use protective gear when using flea-killing chemicals can make you sick.


Happy summer!