As summer begins to wind down, many of us are working to make the most of every cookout and barbecue before the chill of fall. Enter hot dogs, an admittedly delicious staple of summertime that’s — not that good for us. Packed with sodium, fat and nitrates (which are linked to cancer), hot dogs don’t exactly have the best reputation.
But exactly how many hot dogs is too many? We talked with nutritionists, and here’s what they had to say about hot dogs and some healthier alternatives.
Just how unhealthy are hot dogs, anyway?
The short answer, sadly, is that a traditional hot dog — think a ballpark hot dog — is very unhealthy.
“The traditional ballpark dogs tend to be very high in sodium (over 500 mg in one hot dog), which can contribute to high blood pressure,” explained Jenna Stangland, a registered dietician and co-founder of A4 Health who’s also the team dietitian for the Minnesota Timberwolves. “The quality of the meat can make a hot dog unhealthy, and this is because many times hot dogs are not 100% beef, chicken or turkey — they are processed meats and may contain what is called MSM.”
MSM is mechanically separated meat, Stangland explained, and this means the hot dog is a combination of meat, veins, tendons and skin.
“Processed meats may also have added nitrates, which, when combined with protein, can form a compound that has been linked to certain cancers,” Strangland continued. “You want to look for a 100% meat (or veggie) hot dog that is not processed, cured or with added fillers.”
Another unhealthy component of the hot dog is fat, she said. “Hot dogs can be high in saturated fat, and that is a fat that can increase risk of cardiovascular diseases.”
If you love hot dogs and are going to eat them anyway, how many is too many?
There’s no specific number, but try to think of a traditional hot dog as a “once in a while” food instead of an “everyday” food.
“I would say this is a once-in-a-while food that would fall into the once-a-month category, especially for people who have high blood pressure (hypertension) or are at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease,” said Maggie Michalczyk, registered dietitian and founder of the blog Once Upon a Pumpkin.
Luckily, there are a handful of healthier hot dog options that you can feel comfortable eating more frequently, although still probably not every day.
“There are absolutely ways to seek out a healthy dog and be able to enjoy a grilling night out,” Stangland said. “You want to look for an uncured hot dog without nitrates, 100% beef (grass-fed is even better), chicken, turkey or pork, and typically water listed as the next ingredient. You want to find a label with the sodium content below 450 mg and the saturated fat content as low as possible.”
If you aim for a hot dog within those parameters that incorporates healthy toppings, it’s a way to enjoy hot dogs in moderation throughout the summer months. And while there are “healthier” hot dogs (or hot dog-like items), some of them are just as processed as traditional dogs — so make sure you choose wisely.
Which hot dog options are the least unhealthy?
The Healthiest And Least Healthy Hot Dogs
“For a chicken sausage choice, Applegate makes a great organic chicken sausage or Thin n Trim Gourmet chicken sausage,” Stangland said. “Both very lean choices and no processed meat, just 100% chicken.”
For a plant-based dog, Strangland recommended Jack and Annie’s Applejack sausage, with whole ingredients including jackfruit. Plus they’re not overly high in sodium and still pack great flavor. Yves’ tofu dog is the lowest sodium out there and is another good plant-based option if you like tofu.
If you’re thinking about totally abandoning hot dogs on a grilling night out, Strangland suggested other great grill choices: kabobs with chicken, or chicken or turkey sausage.
“These are lean meats so you get far less fat, more high-quality protein and without fillers or preservatives,” Stangland said. “You could make a bun with an alternative protein choice such as seafood — lobster roll or shrimp roll — or a veggie dog by just stuffing the bun with beans, cabbage, onion and mustard. This would be another way to eliminate the saturated fat while still having a bun filled with delicious foods on the inside!”
While you shouldn’t have a traditional ballpark hot dog every day, having one once in a while is probably OK. And there are a lot of other great end-of-summer options.