Despite their endless flavors, varieties, and possibilities, at the end of the day, hot dogs are quick and cheap–and when you’re hungry, they can really hit the spot. During peak hot dog season (Memorial Day to Labor Day), Americans typically consume 7 billion hot dogs. But the fact is, they’re delicious and edible year-round.
Having said that, there’s no denying that our yummy friends are not the most healthful thing you can consume. In fact, according to one source, 43 percent of Americans don’t even want to know what’s in their hot dogs: United States-based organic meat company Applegate surveyed regular folks concerning how they feel about the iconic summer food.
Not only are Americans happy with their hot-dog ignorance, over 33 percent of us actually avoid hot dogs because of the low-quality meat, chemicals, and artificial ingredients. Health-conscious millennials were found to avoid hot dogs more than any other group, with 24 percent saying that they never buy hot dogs. Yikes!
A Healthy Hot Dog? Well, Sorta …
While no one is claiming that hot dogs are the healthiest thing you can eat, their overall goodness factor has improved. No longer stuffed with mystery meat, the Department of Agriculture requires dogs be 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).
Appetizing, huh? No wonder people don’t want to know: even the good ingredients sound sketchy.
And in truth, even hot dogs touted as “healthy” can still be nutritional black holes: the sodium, fat, and nitrates that make the darn things taste so good are also the things that make hot dogs so NOT good for you (ain’t that always the case?).
So how do you mitigate as much risk as possible while enjoying as many dogs as possible? Where’s that fine line? Nutritionists can be fuzzy on the exact tipping point, but they do offer some guidelines.
The Good, the Bad, and the DUH!
To start with, make sure that whatever’s in your hot dog is as good as it gets. When it comes to the quality of the meat, not all hot dogs are created equal. Some feature what’s called “mechanically separated meat” (pork or poultry), which the USDA says is safe. The European Food Safety Authority, however, notes that the way this meat is processed increases the chance of microbial growth. Yum.
Of course, if your dogs are properly cooked, bacterial growth shouldn’t be an issue. Still, if you prefer to avoid mechanically separated meat, check the package—if the ingredients include mechanically separated meat, the manufacturers are required to say so. You can also opt for brands that are made with grass-fed beef, or go with wholly organic hot dogs, made from animals raised without antibiotics.
Secondly, you want as little of the bad stuff as you can get away with: specifically, salt and fat. A lot of dogs out there boast 500 mg or more of sodium. That’s almost a quarter of the maximum (2,300 mg) you should have in a day. If you’re not careful about the rest of your diet, a single frank can easily push your daily sodium intake right over the line.
Choosing to go with chicken or turkey dogs won’t help with the salt, but it can help you cut the fat by as much as 70%. Knowing that can lead to a choice between two so-so dogs or one really good one …
Finally, you have to factor in the rest of your diet. I know: DUH, right? You can only get a dog so healthy: it is, after all, still processed meat, which has been shown to have more than it’s fair share of unhealthy effects. In fact, researchers have concluded that each daily serving of processed meat (a hot dog counts as one serving)comes with a 42 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease. Given the uncertainty of health care in this country, it’s something to consider: if you want that hot dog, you might think about cutting back on bacon or lunch meat.
On the other hand, a nice topping of chopped cabbage can help compensate for the less savory parts of your hot dog.
In Part Two, we’ll cover nitrates, curing, and how your bun is compounding the felony.