One person involved in these contests told me that there hasn't been a single choking incident in the hundreds of events held by Major League Eating, which runs the competition shown on ESPN every July 4. A 2006 newsletter for gastroenterologists said there had been two deaths during competitive eating contests at that time, both from choking. But it didn't cite its source.
So it's probably pretty rare. But in the general population choking turns out to be quite common. Here are some things I learned about choking, hot dogs and competitive eating while researching this topic:
• Choking on food is the 19th most common cause of death overall, with odds of 1 in 4,404 that it will happen to you, according to this list. Heart disease (1 in 6) and cancer (1 in 7) are the leaders. Suicide ranks fifth, car accidents eighth, assault by firearm tenth, falls involving furniture 18th and falls from buildings 23rd.
• Hot dogs are a leading cause of choking for children under the age of 14. Most non-fatal choking incidents involve food (coins and other objects are also a problem) according to a 2010 study in the journal Pediatrics. More than 10,000 children under 14 go to the emergency room each year after choking on food, and as many as 77 have died, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The academy has called for a redesign of the hot dog, whose current shape makes it a perfect plug for a young child's airway, according to one doctor. About 17 percent of the food-related asphyxiations are caused by hot dogs.
• Mama Cass didn't choke to death on a ham sandwich. (She died of a heart attack at age 33, brought on by her chronic obesity.) Jimi Hendrix died by choking on his own vomit after a drug overdose.
• The 61 hot dogs and buns Chestnut consumed in 10 minutes amounted to "23,790 calories, 1,189.5 grams of fat, 60,390 milligrams of sodium, 2,245 grams of carbohydrate and 793 grams of protein," according to ESPN.
• According to an excellent piece on the Huffington Post Web site two years ago, only one competitive eater has been studied in truly scientific fashion. Researchers asked 29-year-old competitive eater Tim Janus and a male control subject to eat as many hot dogs as they could in 12 minutes, according to the 2007 study in the American Journal of Roentgenology, then scanned their stomachs. (The control subject ate seven, Janus finished 36 before the researchers told him to stop.) They concluded that Janus, either through natural ability, training or both, accommodated all that food by expanding his stomach to the point where it became "a giant, flaccid sac occupying most of his upper abdomen."
They speculated that in the long run, speed eaters "may develop morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for a gastrectomy."
• I know you're wondering (even if you won't admit it), so here's what happens to all that food after the contest is over, according to that newsletter for gastroenterologists: "Some competitive eaters take laxatives to get food through their systems—as do people with eating disorders. Others swear they let the food take its natural course, accompanied by Alka-Seltzer and herbal teas. They often have diarrhea and/or frequent and large stools that commence within 30 minutes after the competition and last for more than 24 hours...After eating 12 oranges in 30 minutes, [one competitive eater] reported eight bouts of diarrhea or loose stools within two hours, followed by a day of diarrhea."
Major League Eating didn't want to talk about the death of 47-year-old Walter Eagle Tail during a Custer, S.D., hot dog eating contest sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce. (A pie-eating contest scheduled for the next day was canceled). This was not one of MLE's contests, but the death somewhat overshadowed Chestnut's victory and the marriage proposal he made right before consuming all those franks. (His girlfriend said yes).
The organization released a statement saying that "what happened in South Dakota is tragic. This was not a Major League Eating event and we were not involved. Since its inception, Major League Eating has mandated that emergency medical personnel be present for any speed eating, including contests, demos, or even 30-second exhibitions. The League does not allow those under the age of 18 to compete, and all of its events are structured with safety as a top priority."