In a world where IoT experts claim we’ll soon have connected wearable devices that track our heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, metabolic rate, and more, it’s safe to say that we’re entering a new age of health-consciousness. Does that mean the hot dogs days are numbered?
We’ve previously written here about ways to get the healthiest types of hot dogs…which is, admittedly, rather like drying to find the driest fish in the pond. Hot dogs are unhealthy, almost by definition.
But why? What makes this lowly (yet indescribably yummy) unnaturally pink finger of processed meat so dangerous that some doctors even claim they’re as bad for you as cigarettes?
Two things, in particular: sodium and nitrates. The first one is pretty easy to understand: doctors are always telling us to cut back on sodium, and a single frank can drop anywhere from 350 to over 1100 milligrams of sodium into your diet. Hard to talk about moderation when you’re getting a day’s worth of salt in one undressed red hot.
So we get the message with sodium, but what are nitrates? Well, for starters, they play a key role in hot dogs and other cured meats like ham and bacon: they prevent spoilage and block the growth of the bacterium that causes botulism (think E. coli, only nastier). There are also what are called nitrites. Both are types of salts: nitrates are commonly found naturally in vegetables. Your body can convert nitrates into nitrites and then into N-nitroso compounds, which have been associated with certain forms of cancer under certain conditions
The important thing to remember is that nitrates/nitrites are preservatives believed to be associated with a higher risk of colorectal cancer—two words guaranteed to kill the mood of any conversation.
Now, since nitrates/nitrites are a part of the curing process, it would stand to reason that uncured dogs are the healthier choice, right? I mean, it says right on the label “no nitrates or nitrites added.” Unfortunately, it says that because it’s what USDA labeling laws require when naturally sourced nitrates/nitrites are used: as it turns out, most uncured meats still have nitrates/nitrites in them—they just come from a natural source like celery powder.
In fact, studies have shown that uncured meats quite possibly contain just as many nitrates/nitrites than conventional meats, if not more. More or less might be a moot point, as no one knows for sure if the preservatives are causing cancer or if it’s something else in cured meats that’s doing the damage.
And as if all this wasn’t hard enough to follow, more recent research suggests that nitrates/nitrites may play a role in lowering blood pressure and improving athletic performance—meaning it might be beneficial to eat more nitrate-rich foods (don’t get too excited: they’re talking about eating more rhubarb and radishes, not more hot dogs. Sorry.)
And in what is quite possibly the biggest insult of all, experts also suggest staying away from white, squishy buns—you know, the best kind? For example, Sara Lee Gourmet White Hot Dog Buns—which are full of additives, preservatives, and high-fructose corn syrup, offers a measly 1 gram of fiber while adding 220 milligrams to your sandwich (because obviously the sodium level in hot dogs isn’t high enough as it is …).
The bottom line is this: hot dogs aren’t great for you. On the other hand, neither is single-malt scotch … and no one is saying that should be illegal. Only 5 to 20 percent of the average American’s dietary nitrates/nitrites comes from cured meats, so pick a hot dog that you feel good about eating, and don’t make it a staple of your diet. Enjoy responsibly, and you’ll probably be fine.