Whether it’s at a 4th of July barbecue, camp cookout, or baseball game, chances are, you’re going to want to eat a hot dog this summer. Yes, you know: They’re made of nasty pig parts, they contain cancer-causing nitrites, and they’re also pretty much a sodium bomb. Yet, summer wouldn’t feel the same without them. So we asked a nutritionist to weigh in and tell us: Is it ever okay to eat a wiener?
Marissa Lippert, MS RD, the founder of NOURISH, a New York-based nutrition counseling and media communications firm, gave us her rule of thumb for clients:
I’m definitely with the “everything in moderation” crowd. Most of us know that hot dogs are not the best thing in the world for us: They’re typically pre-processed, not the best cut or combination of meats, they have a lot of sodium and nitrites, depending on the type that you’re getting. But they really just epitomize the summer; sometimes there’s just nothing better than a great hot dog right off the grill. It’s just not something we need to be having all the time.
But that doesn’t mean you have a free pass to load up on just any hot dog, with just any condiments and sides. Although no hot dog is really “healthy,” they’re not created equal. As Treehugger outlines in their gross-out post, “Anatomy of a Hot Dog,” traditional brands like Ball Park can contain some pretty horrifying ingredients. Mechanically-separated turkey, pork that’s been scraped off the bone by machines (but no beef), corn syrup, and a disconcerting list of chemicals we can’t pronounce or even spell right are involved in many traditional franks.
Thankfully, there are better choices available, according to Lippert:
Obviously, you can reach for organic hot dogs, and now a lot of higher-end, local farmers and butchers are not making them, which is great, so at least you know where they’re coming from, and the quality is going to be higher and there’s less processing going on.
But how much healthier are they?
I can’t speak to specific brands; any hot dog will still be relatively high in saturated fat, but they should definitely have lower sodium content, and if it’s a local, all-natural hot dog, it shouldn’t have nitrites in it, nor should it have any preservatives.
Nitrites–the chemicals used to cure meats because of their ability to prevent bacterial growth–send off alarm bells for many consumers, and with good reason: By themselves, they can be toxic to humans (which is why there’s a legal limit to how much can be in a hot dog), but when they cook and combine with other chemicals, and create carcinogens. Yum.
But again, Lippert says that if you want to have an annual hot dog (or two), you shouldn’t spend the rest of the year worrying about what it could do to your health:
Nitrites in a lot of things, like processed cold cuts or other meats, they’re all over the place. In terms of research, we just don’t know [all of their health effects]. It’s not something we really want to eat a lot; you want to aim to eat as fresh, whole food as often as possible.
Lippert adds that when it comes to vegan or vegetarian “dogs,” she’s more of a purist—although they might be lower in fats, they’re still processed, and she would still recommend a natural meat hot dog, unless you’re vegetarian or vegan.
Whichever type you opt for, remember to balance your plate:
Think about what else you’re putting on your plate, given that a hot dog is going to be fairly high in fat content, don’t do a ton of heavy sides like only coleslaw and potato salad. Try balancing it out with some green salad or maybe corn on the cob; something that’s a little bit lighter.
At the end of the day, sometimes you just want to eat a hot dog, and hopefully it won’t kill you! It’s really about looking at the bigger picture and not over-stressing about it, and bringing balance to your plate or to whatever meal you’re at.
With that, we hope you enjoy a natural, organic hot dog this weekend if you’re craving one–and come back to Blisstree for some healthy ideas to balance it out.
Photo: Steven Depolo