Are Hot Dogs Healthy? More Than You Think (But Still Not Healthy)

‘Healthy’ would be a massive overstatement, but frankfurters aren't the carcinogenic villains they're often made out to be.

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Three kids eating hot dogs outside.
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Hot dogs, the most dubious summer staple, may not be the carcinogenic tubes of pureed animal that many people assume them to be. Though low-cost hot dogs are by no means healthy, scientists say that the case against hot dogs is often overstated. Parents who take the time to check the label shouldn’t be worried about serving up frankfurters or wolfing them down themselves.

To understand why hot dogs get a bad rap, it’s crucial to understand what “meat trimmings” actually means. Meat trimmings, which constitute the bulk of any classic dog, are not necessarily taken from less desirable parts of the animal. The term is used to describe muscle and fat that’s cut off T-bone steaks and other popular cuts sold in grocery stores. Think of this as the meat industry’s version of cutting the crusts off.

“One common misconception is that all frankfurters contain meat by-products,” says Elizabeth Boyle, Ph.D., a meat scientist and professor at Kansas State University. “Only frankfurters labeled with the phrase ‘with by-products’ or ‘with variety meats’ may contain meat by-products.”

Still, animal byproducts are not the only reason hot dogs got a bad reputation. Nitrates, a chemical compound used to cure processed meats, have been linked with a number of different forms of cancer. That said, most people don’t understand the difference between nitrates and nitrites. Nitrates are used to keep hot dogs from spoiling quickly, improve their flavor, and give them that distinct pink color. However, when nitrate interacts with the bacteria found in meat, it converts into nitrite, which is found in beets, cabbage, carrots, celery, radishes, and spinach, and regarded as the active chemical ingredient in hot dogs. All-natural or alternatively cured hot dogs are cured with plant-based nitrite instead. Although this doesn’t mean eating hot dogs is the same as eating vegetables, they have this molecule in common.

“There’s this idea that nitrite is going to kill everyone on the planet that’s been taken out of context and blown out of proportion,” says Jeff Sindelar, Ph.D., a meat scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The science tells us that nitrite can be toxic at a certain dose and can cause human health concerns because high levels of nitrite and protein and high heat of 300 degrees Fahrenheit or higher have been found to be carcinogenic, but only in mouse models.”

The temperature is important to note, because nitrites have to be heated above 300 degrees to turn into nitrosamines, which have been linked with cancer. That’s why when hot dogs are made in factories, they’re never exposed to heat greater than 200 degrees, Sindelar explains. That means cooking hot dogs in boiling water, the microwave, or on the grill at a low heat are fine, but also that charcoal grills carry risk. (This is also why bacon is considered more dangerous in terms of nitrates and nitrites — it’s cooked at a higher heat.) Fortunately, the meat in hot dogs is composed of more than 60% water, which makes them self-cooling when they get above 300 degrees on the open flame of a grill, which might reduce some risk. This not only gives new meaning to the “meat sweats,” but may make nitrates and nitrites less dangerous.

“The risk with bacon is never zero, but for processed meats like hot dogs that aren’t cooked above 300 degrees? The risk is about as close to zero as you could ever ask,” says Sindelar.

Both experts agree that the real danger of hot dogs is the high amount of fat and sodium they contain, which is why no expert would ever recommend eating them regularly. But most people who indulge in a few hot dogs a year at Fourth of July celebrations and baseball games probably don’t have to worry. As long as you don’t live every day like it’s opening day, indulging in an occasional sausage party isn’t so bad.

“If someone were to eat hot dogs every day, I’d make the recommendation to better balance their diet. However, it wouldn’t be because of the nitrites,” says Sindelar. “Hot dogs provide a very small contribution of overall nitrites in the human diet.”

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