Is There Such a Thing as a Healthier Hot Dog?
Surprising facts about uncured, kosher and turkey frankfurters
Hot dogs were the ultimate all-American baseball and barbecue staple. Then the nutrition police sent them to the doghouse for being packed with fat, calories and cancer-causing additives. A study conducted by the American Cancer Society found that eating lots of processed meats, including hot dogs, over 10 years was associated with a 50 percent increase in the risk of colon and rectal cancer.
Now dogs have been rehabilitated, with label claims such as “uncured,” “no added nitrates,” “all-beef” and “kosher.” But do they hit a home run in terms of health?
“Uncured” and “no added nitrates”
Nitrates and nitrites are additives used in processed meats like bacon, pepperoni and, yep, hotdogs to preserve flavor and prevent spoilage. The body converts them to nitrosamine, a chemical compound known to cause cancer in animals. Although the cancer-nitrate link in humans isn’t crystal clear, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) limits the level of sodium nitrate to 500 parts per million (ppm) and sodium nitrite to 200 ppm in cured meats.
Just in keep mind that even uncured dogs may contain some nitrates. “Nitrates occur naturally in vegetables,” explains Keri Gans, MS, RDN, author of “The Small Change Diet,” “and the body processes them in the same way it processes the nitrates added to hot dogs.” Because vegetable-based seasonings often are added to hot dogs, even uncured dogs may contain some nitrates. To avoid them, leave dogs with celery salt and celery juice in the store.
Nitrates aren’t the only potential carcinogens in hot dogs According to the American Cancer Society. Like other meats, when they're cooked at high temperates — think roasted over a campfire or charred on the grill — hot dogs form a chemical called heterocyclic amine (HCA). HCAs can damage DNA and cause cancer in animals. The good news: According to a study at Kansas State University, frankfurters form relatively low levels of HCAs compared to deli meat, bacon and even rotisserie chicken.
Related: 8 Tips for Healthy Barbecuing
"Kosher" simply means that a food has been sourced and prepared according to Jewish religious traditions. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, kosher dogs differ from traditional ones only in that they never contain pork and the beef or poultry they’re made from came from animals that were slaughtered according to Jewish law.
Chicken and turkey hot dogs
You’d think a hot dog made from chicken or turkey would be be lower in fat and calories than one from pork or beef. Not so fast. According to the USDA, a chicken or turkey hot dog can “contain turkey or chicken and turkey or chicken skin and fat in proportion to a turkey or chicken carcass.” That means that a poultry dog can contain it’s fair share of saturated fat and calories.
And like other processed foods, chicken and turkey hot dogs can be high in sodium, which for Gans is the real concern with hot dogs, given that Americans tend to eat more salt than is healthy.
“As with any food, you have to read labels — both the nutrient panel and ingredients list — to decide whether you want to feed it to your family or not,” says Gans. If you’re concerned about salt, keep in mind that the American Heart Association recommends keeping total sodium intake to less than 1500 milligrams per day. Also know that “unsalted” or “no salt added” do not mean a food is sodium free. However, franks labeled “sodium free” or “salt free” can have no more than 5 mg of sodium per serving; “low sodium” ones can have 140 mg or less.
Don't let your dog make you sick
Bottom line: When choosing a hot dog, read labels. The amount of fat and sodium can vary widely from one brand to the next, whether you're shopping for a beef, chicken or turkey dog.
Hot dogs are fully cooked, but the USDA warns they can develop Listeria monocytogenes, the bacteria behind listeriosis, an illness marked by nasty symptoms like fever, chills, headache, stomach pain and diarrhea. Hot dogs should be cooked until steaming, the USDA advises. Listeriosis also can cause miscarriage. If you have a bun in the oven, don't put a bun holding a hot dog in your belly.