Oh the hot dog, one of those foods that gets associated with summer, barbecues and baseball. Hot dogs are in a group of food that has a bad reputation, and its reputation has mostly been well earned. Many hot dogs are often made from very low-quality meats, and contain all sorts of crazy fillers and chemicals that can in no way be defended as healthy. However, hot dog enthusiasts are reluctant to part with their beloved franks, and in recent years there have been a host of “Healthy Hot Dogs” entering the market. Which begs the question, can a hot dog be healthy? Let’s examine a few hot dog brands, whose labels boast that they are healthier than the average dog, and weigh the pros and cons:
Ball Park’s “Better for you” hotdogs, Turkey Franks:
Ingredients: Mechanically Separated Turkey, water, corn syrup, contains 2% or less: salt, potassium lactate, flavorings, modified corn starch, paprika, sodium phosphate, autolyzed yeast extract, beef flavor (Beef stock, Maltodextrin, salt), sodium diacetate, dehydrated garlic, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), Sodium Nitrite, extractives of paprika.
Pros: Less fat than a regular Ball Park hotdog; which must be Ball Park’s reason for listing this frank in the “better for you” section of its product list.
Cons: The first ingredient on the list should serve as a giant red flag. “Mechanically Separated Meat” is “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 bones from the edible meat tissue.” That sounds appetizing, doesn’t it? The addition of corn syrup ups the sugar content of this frank, negating any of its low-calorie virtues. Then of course, there’s Sodium nitrite. Nitrates and nitrites are often added to hot dogs and other processed meats such as bacon, sausage, or sandwich meats to cure and preserve them. These preservatives are also known carcinogens that have been linked to cancer of the esophagus, stomach, large intestine, bladder and lungs. Even though the use of Nitrates and Nitrites are regulated, with concentrations not to exceed 200 parts per million in finished products, it is best to avoid all meat products that contain this dangerous preservative.
Trader Joe’s All Natural Uncured All Beef Hot Dogs
Ingredients: Beef, water, contains less that 2% of the following; allspice, celery juice powder, evaporated cane juice, garlic powder, ginger, honey, lactic acid starter culture, mustard, nutmeg, onion powder, paprika, pepper, sea salt.
Pros: Contains beef that has not been mechanically separated, nor any meat by-products. Any meat product that contains organ meats must be labeled with “variety meats, or meat by-products” so it’s a good sign not to see either of those statements on the list. “Uncured” on a hot dog label, means that the meat is preserved without nitrites, nitrates, or salt curing. Instead, celery juice is used, a source of naturally occurring sodium nitrate. It’s probably more accurate to say that uncured products are naturally cured, for the nitrites in the celery juice are consumed by the lacto-bacteria; this converts the celery juice first to nitrite, then to nitrous oxide, a gas that dissipates in the atmosphere. This slow curing method of preserving meat has been practiced for centuries and is a safer alternative to nitrite and nitrate cured meats.
Cons: This product is not organic, which means that the cows could have been exposed to certain herbicides, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, or GMO feed.
Applegate Farms: The Great Organic Uncured Hot Dog
Ingredients: Organic Grass-Fed Beef, Water, Contains less than 2% of the following: Sea Salt, organic spices, organic garlic powder, organic paprika, celery powder, organic onion, lactic acid starter culture (not from milk).
Pros: Organic grass fed beef means high quality meat from cows that were not exposed to some of the dangerous substances mentioned above. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that grass fed organic beef is higher in Omega 3’s and lower in saturated fats. The majority of the ingredients in this product are organic as well. It is sugar-free and contains no gross meat-by-products, nitrites or nitrates.
Cons: Obviously not vegetarian friendly.
Smart Dogs by Litelife:
Ingredients: Water, soy protein isolate, wheat gluten, evaporated cane juice, less than 2% of natural flavor (from vegetable sources), natural smoke flavor, garlic powder, paprika oleoresin (color and flavor), yeast extract, xanthan gum, guar gum, carrageenan, fermented rice flour, salt, potassium chloride.
Pros: Vegan, low calories, low fat, no nitrites or nitrates.
Cons: Not suitable for gluten free folks. It does not contain organic soy, which means it could likely be from a GMO source. It also contains some pretty gnarly preservatives including potassium chloride, which, when it’s not being used as a table salt alternative, is one of the chemicals used in lethal injections. Of course, the small amount of potassium chloride will probably not pose any significant threat to the body, however, overdoses of potassium chloride can result in vomiting, diarrhea, bleeding of the digestive tract, and in extreme cases, death.
Ingredients: Water, vital wheat gluten, organic tofu puree (water, organic soybeans, magnesium chloride, calcium chloride), expeller pressed non-hexane extracted isolated soy protein, expeller pressed canola oil, spices, sea salt, onion powder, evaporated cane juice, pepper, natural vegetarian flavors, natural smoke flavor, granulated garlic, xanthan gum, konjac flour, carrageenan, wheat starch, natural caramel color and annotto.
Pros: Vegan, low calorie, low fat, no nitrites or nitrates, Organic Soy is used.
Cons: Not suitable for gluten free folk. Not all of the ingredients are certified organic, but most importantly, this is still a highly processed food. Vague ingredients such as “natural vegetarian flavors” (what does a vegetarian taste like anyway…Chicken?) are usually code for MSG. It is also important to note that Soybeans are high in phytates and contain potent enzyme inhibitors that are only deactivated through fermentation, as in miso, or tempeh. The enzyme inhibitors remain active in processed soy, which can lead to protein assimilation problems in those who consume unfermented soy products frequently.
In short, even the healthiest of hot dogs is probably best put in the category of “sometimes food.” Once in a great while, a hot dog made from high quality ingredients will not do one much harm, but the “healthy” labeling does not mean that any of these products will necessarily increase one’s health or well being either.
1. Fallon, Sally, with Mary G. Enig Ph. D. Nourishing Traditions, Revised Second Edition. New Trends Publishing. Washington DC, 2001.