There’s no doubt that Americans love hot dogs. During peak hot dog season, Memorial Day to Labor Day, we typically consume 7 billion hot dogs or 818 hot dogs every second.
But hot dogs have a bad reputation, (not without merit) for being unhealthy. While it’s true that many hot dogs are made with low quality meat, fillers and chemicals including nitrates, there are a growing number of healthier options.
Today there are hot dogs made from premium cuts of beef, alternative meats like turkey and chicken, as well as organic and vegan options. How you dress your hot dog can also improve the nutritional value of this American classic.
What to Look For
Scan the Ingredients List and Nutrition Facts. Ideally a hot dog should be made of premium cuts of meat and/or poultry. Watch out for meat/poultry ingredients described as “mechanically separated” or “variety meats” which are terms for lower quality meat trimmings.
Choose organic hot dogs if you can find them. They are made from organically raised animals, not treated with antibiotics or hormones. Plus they skip the nitrites and nitrates.
Other than a meat or vegan protein source, you should see spices like garlic and paprika and no fillers or chemicals on the ingredients list.
A healthier hot dog will have less than 150 calories and 14 grams of fat (with no more that 6 grams of saturated fat) and no more than 450 milligrams of sodium per serving.
Cured vs. Uncured
We couldn’t talk about hot dogs without touching on the subject of preservatives used in curing. Traditionally, sodium nitrite/nitrate is added to cure products like hot dogs, bacon and ham to prevent spoilage. It also gives cured meats a pink color and distinctive flavor.
Unfortunately studies have linked high consumption of processed meats containing nitrates to cancer. When cooked, especially at high temperatures such as boiling or grilling, nitrites can combine with amines in meat to form nitrosamines which are considered carcinogens.
You can reduce the formation of nitrosamines, by cooking meat at 350 degrees or less. Antioxidants like Vitamin C and E also reduce the formation of nitrosamines and are often added to cured products.
Still, some argue that cured meats contain relatively low nitrite levels. According to the American Meat Institute, nearly 93% of the nitrites that we ingest on a daily basis are derived from vegetables and water. Less than 5% come from cured meats.
An alternative to sodium nitrate are natural nitrates, derived from vegetables, typically celery powder. The FDA requires that naturally cured products are labeled “uncured” as only meats with synthetic sodium nitrite are considered “cured.”
Dressing Your Dog
What you put on or under your hot dog can also make or break a healthy meal.
- A refined white bun delivers a shot of simple carbohydrates and no fiber. Opt instead for a more nutritious whole wheat bun and avoid the insulin spike.
- Go light on the ketchup, mustard and relish. A tablespoon of each can add about 500 mg of added sodium. You can reduce your sodium intake by half by using two tablespoons of sauerkraut instead.
- Top your dog with fresh tomato, onions, peppers, avocado or lettuce. They are naturally lower in sodium and provide vitamin C, lycopene and fiber. Avocado adds heart healthy fat.
- Skip the cheese and save about 90 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat and over 500 grams of sodium.
Have a healthy, happy and safe 4th of July!
National Hot Dog & Sausage Council
American Meat Institute