The Department of Agriculture requires that they are made from real meat (beef, chicken, pork, turkey, or some combination of those), and they can’t contain more than 3.5 percent of nonmeat binders or fillers (which include nonfat dry milk, cereal, or dried whole milk).
But even the hot dogs marketed as “healthy” can still be nutritional landmines—high in sodium, fat, and nitrates. “Summer cookouts, picnics, and trips to the ballpark often mean hot dogs are on the menu, and indulging once in a while is okay,” says Ellen Klosz, a Consumer Reports nutritionist. “But make sure they’re only an occasional treat, and limit your consumption to just one.”
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Consider What’s Inside
When it comes to the quality of the meat they contain, not all hot dogs are created equal. Some, such as Oscar Mayer Classic Wieners and Ball Park Classic Franks, include what’s called “mechanically separated meat” (pork or poultry), which the USDA defines as “a paste-like and batter-like meat product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible meat, under high pressure through a sieve or similar device to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue.”
The USDA says that mechanically separated meat is safe (however, mechanically separated beef is not allowed because of concerns about mad cow disease). But the European Food Safety Authority notes that the way this meat is processed increases the chance of microbial growth. “If hot dogs are properly cooked, I wouldn’t be concerned about bacterial growth,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety at CR. See below for cooking safety tips.
If you prefer to avoid mechanically separated meat, check the ingredients list on your hot dog package—if it contains mechanically separated meat, the manufacturers are required to say so. You may also want to opt for brands that are made with grass-fed beef (such as Applegate Naturals Beef Hot Dog) or organic hot dogs, which are made with meat from animals that have been raised without antibiotics.
Factor In What Else You Eat
No matter how healthy your hot dog may sound, it is still a processed meat product. The World Health Organization defines processed meat as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” In addition to hot dogs, processed meats include bacon, beef jerky, deli meats, ham, salami, and sausage.
Processed meat has been shown to cause a number of negative health effects. A review of 20 studies including more than a million people, published in the journal Circulation in 2010, found a consistent link between processed meat intake and an increased risk of coronary heart disease. In fact, the researchers concluded that each daily serving of processed meat (a hot dog counts as one serving) was associated with a 42 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease.
Don’t Be Swayed by ‘No Nitrite’ Claims
By USDA regulations, if a hot dog label says “cured,” it was made using synthetic nitrites or nitrates (such as sodium nitrite)—preservatives found in many processed types of meat. Curing is a process used to preserve meat, add flavor, and maintain color. However, nitrites and nitrates may form cancer-causing compounds called nitrosamines in the body. The same regulations require that hot dogs that don’t contain synthetic nitrites be labeled “uncured.” (Those labeled “organic” are also required to be free of synthetic nitrates or nitrites.)
If a product makes a “no nitrite or nitrate added” claim, check the fine print. The USDA requires that products making this claim include a line that says “except for those occurring naturally in” whatever naturally-occurring source the company used.
Keep an Eye on the Extras
Few people choose to eat their hot dogs naked, and how you dress them can either improve or worsen their nutrition profile. “Typical hot dog buns are made from refined white flour that has very little fiber or nutritional value,” says Kate Patton, R.D., a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. “Plus, they often contain added sodium and sugar.” Whenever possible, opt for a 100 percent whole-grain bun instead.
As for toppings, a little ketchup or mustard won’t hurt. But be sure to read the ingredients list and check the Nutrition Facts label for sodium and sugars content. Both can have around 160 mg per tablespoon. And ketchup and some mustards, such as honey mustard, can also contain added sugars. For example, a tablespoon of Heinz Tomato Ketchup has 4 grams of sugars, while a tablespoon of Gulden’s Honey Mustard has 6 grams—a hefty amount, considering that the American Heart Association recommends that women have just 24 grams of added sugars a day; men, 36.
Cook and Serve Safely
Be extra careful when serving hot dogs to children. Whole dogs or ones cut into circular slices, are a major choking hazard for children younger than 4 years old, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The safest ways to serve hot dogs to young children is to cut them lengthwise and then into small pieces. If the hot dog has a casing, be sure to remove it before cutting into pieces; the casing can also cause choking.