Are there healthy hot dogs? Are vegan hot dogs better for you? Answers to your pressing processed meat questions

Hot dogs
Are hot dogs really that bad for you? Here's what to know. (Getty Creative)

Hot dogs are a summer staple — it’s hard to go to a baseball game or a barbecue without encountering at least one party where someone is firing up these meat sticks on the grill. Yet while hot dogs may be much beloved, many of us are aware that hot dogs are pretty high on the “not-so-healthy” list. What many of us don’t know is why — and whether there is any type of hot dog that’s maybe a little bit better for you.

Here’s what experts say.

There are many different kinds of hot dogs on the market (including vegan ones), but let’s talk about the most traditional kind, which is a blend of meats, spices, flavorings and preservatives. Different brands use different ingredients for their products, but traditionally, hot dogs are made of pork or a combination of beef and pork. (The fact that hot dogs are a bit of a mystery meat doesn’t exactly help their cause.)

Dietitian Michelle Routhenstein tells Yahoo Life that there are a few reasons why hot dogs have a bad rap — and that’s due to their “high-sodium, high-saturated-fat content and highly processed preservatives.”

The methods used to make hot dogs typically involve curing and smoking, which can lead to the formation of nitrosamines, says Routhenstein. Nitrosamines are carcinogens — substances linked to cancer and heart disease because they trigger inflammation and oxidative stress in the body, she says. Oxidative stress can lead to cell and tissue damage.

One study found that people who consume about 5 ounces of processed meat (or less than two hot dogs) weekly have a 46% greater risk of heart disease and a 50% increased risk of mortality compared to those who don’t eat processed meat, Routhenstein notes. A standard hot dog is roughly 1.5 ounces.

Hot dogs also fall into the category of processed meats along with ham, sausages, corned beef and biltong or beef jerky. “Animal-based hot dogs are classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization, which means that the scientific evidence showing that they cause cancer is just as strong as it is for smoking and asbestos,” dietitian Kaytee Hadley tells Yahoo Life.

If you’re wary of traditional hot dogs, you may think that turkey dogs are a better alternative. But that’s not the case, says Hadley. “Eating red meat is worse for human health than poultry in many ways, but that doesn’t apply to processed meat like hot dogs,” she says. “The negative impacts are in large part due to the way the meat is processed, not just what animal the meat comes from. The studies linking processed meat to cancer included poultry, so while you’ll likely get less saturated fat, all the other risk factors are still there.”

Hadley says that vegan hot dogs, such as those made by Impossible Foods, may be a better option, since “when plants are processed and cooked, they don’t produce the same high levels of toxic compounds that animal meat does.”

Many plant-based alternatives also have less saturated fat and sodium, she says, and they don’t contain cholesterol. “Take Impossible hot dogs, for example, which have 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 50% less saturated fat and 45% less total fat than an animal-based hot dog,” says Hadley, “as well as 12 grams of protein per serving.”

Experts are split on this. Hadley suggests that people limit hot dog consumption to “only special occasions, a few times each year,” due to the cancer risk associated with eating processed meat, while Routhenstein suggests only having hot dogs once a month or less.

However, dietitian Stephanie Van't Zelfden tells Yahoo Life that she prefers her clients take a moderate approach with their diets, and says that hot dogs can “absolutely” be a part of an overall “nourishing and balanced diet.”

“I would consider a ‘healthy’ hot dog to be the hot dog you enjoy,” she explains. “Don’t feel like you have to choose a turkey or plant-based hot dog if you dislike them — you’ll just be looking for something else to eat because you won’t be satisfied.”

Instead, she suggests including some healthy additions to your hot dog meal. For example, you can “add veggies on top like a Chicago-style dog, or a side of fruit, veggies or a whole grain to get some extra nourishment with your hot dog.”

Routhenstein says that ultimately it’s about “balancing the plate.” While a hot dog may fit in on occasion, she recommends focusing on “lean protein and complex carbohydrates” for most of your meals.