Ask Keri: Are hot dogs bad for you?
Keri Says: Regularly eating processed meats is associated with serious health risks I won’t sugarcoat. But does that mean you can never again eat a hot dog while watching your favorite baseball player hit a home run? I’m not going to say that.
The answer to “Are hot dogs unhealthy?” is of course more complicated than yes or no. It depends on the brand, how often you eat them, and how you cook them.
Here’s what you need to know.
Hot Dog Nutrition
The base ingredient of most hot dogs is super cheap meat. The fact that you may get some interesting parts of the animal in the mix or that it’s “mechanically separated” is not inherently unhealthy (even if it is unappetizing), but that process can come with food safety risks.
The bigger problem is that cheap meat comes from industrial cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys, so depending on the meat, it may contain hormones or antibiotics (and set off animal welfare and environmental alarm bells).
Next, hot dogs are often very high in sodium. You may be biting into 600 grams between that bun, and that’s not good for your heart.
Now, the worst news: Research shows regularly eating processed meats (like hot dogs) raises your risk of certain cancers, like stomach, bladder, breast, and especially colorectal. (The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies all processed meat as carcinogenic.) It’s also linked to higher risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Some evidence suggests those health risks are associated with the presence of nitrites and nitrates, compounds that can turn carcinogenic when exposed to high heat or acids in the stomach.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, grilling any meat (processed or unprocessed) at a super high heat can result in the formation of different carcinogenic compounds that are also associated with health risks.
In other words, processed meat meets high-heat grill and it’s a match made in…well, the opposite of heaven.
How to Choose a Healthier Hot Dog
Okay, I know I totally freaked you out, but don’t worry! All of those outcomes are associated with regular consumption of processed meats. So the first order of business is not eating a hot dog for lunch every day—or every week, for that matter. It’s just not a food that should ever be a go-to; the goal should be to eat as little processed meat as possible.
Next, when you do eat one, choose a healthier dog. Buy products made with organic meats, ideally grass-fed beef or pasture-raised pork. Look for short, simple ingredient lists and “uncured” versions. (Uncured means the brand hasn’t used nitrites/nitrates. The food may still contain those compounds, as ingredients like celery powder are natural sources. It’s still unclear whether added nitrates/nitrites are one of the reasons eating processed meat comes with health risks. So until the research is clear, I say avoid them.)
Are Hot Dogs Unhealthy? The Bottom Line
If you’re going to eat a regular ol’ hot dog once a year because Uncle Carl made you one at the family bbq, by all means go ahead and enjoy it. But if you’re planning on grilling them up poolside regularly throughout the summer, follow my advice to choose a better option, and then grill your hot dogs as lightly as possible. Bonus points: Make it a side dish, with a giant arugula-watermelon salad in the center of your plate.