Are hot dogs bad for you? Here's how to choose the healthiest hot dog

Cookout season is finally here.

The weather is getting warmer, Memorial Day is just around the corner and the first day of summer is quickly approaching. For many, this is a sign to fire up the grill for some hamburgers and hot dogs.

A staple at any ballpark or backyard barbecue, Americans ate about 3.7 billion hot dogs from May 2021 to May 2022, research firm The NPD Group found.

But when you’re at the store buying your franks, is there a healthiest option?

What are the healthiest hot dogs?

There are plenty of wieners to choose from. You can pick up a classic ball game-style hot dog, but there are also hot dogs made of turkey, beef and even salmon. Vegetarians and vegans can also opt for plant-based dogs.

Hot dogs are typically a once-in-a-while meal, so they won’t greatly impact your overall health. Because of that, it’s okay to choose what tastes best to you, says registered dietitian Chris Mohr.

But if you are looking for a healthier option, Mohr suggests 100% beef hot dogs because they contain fewer additives than traditional hot dogs.

“I want a hot dog that tastes like a hot dog,” Mohr says. Applegate, one of the common 100% beef brands, only contains beef, water and spices. “That’s kind of what I’m looking for – it still has that flavor that you’re used to from that cookout hot dog.”

There are also a few ways to make your hot dog even healthier.

Vegetable-based toppings like sauerkraut, grilled onions, pickled onions and even kimchi add some extra nutrition to your hot dog. Only 10% of Americans met their daily vegetable intake in 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found, so it’s important to sneak in veggies whenever you can.

Don’t fear condiments – they often get a bad rap in diet culture spaces for adding unnecessary calories but they’re crucial for flavor. Experts previously told USA TODAY mustard is one of the best low-calorie condiments. Mustard is low in calories, fat and sugar and contains selenium and magnesium, minerals important for several body functions. Mustard seeds also contain omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants that help protect against oxidative stress.

Don't have a grill? Here's how to boil your hot dog

Are hot dogs bad for you?

Like any processed meat, hot dogs are higher in fat and sodium. You certainly shouldn’t be eating them every day.

But the average American is likely not having a hot dog every night for dinner. If you’re grilling them up for dinner every few weeks or enjoying them at the occasional baseball game, the health impact is negligible, Mohr says. There may be healthier proteins, but in moderation, hot dogs are a perfectly adequate one.

“What we do most of the time is more important than what we do some of the time,” he says.

You can balance out your plate by enjoying your hot dog with fruits or vegetables on the side.

“Enjoy the food, enjoy the beer or whatever else you might have (at a cookout),” Mohr says. “Stressing over it will probably cause you more harm than actually just enjoying it and moving on like any other meal.”

The nitrates present in some hot dogs are a particular concern among consumers. These preservatives help color processed meat and prevent bacteria growth.

High intake of processed meat is associated with an increased risk of cancer, which some believe is due to the nitrates. Nitrosamine, a carcinogenic compound, can form when nitrates are cooked at high heat. However, nitrates are also found in vegetables, water and naturally in our bodies and studies show these sources of nitrates can modestly lower blood pressure.

Manufacturers have to limit the nitrate in processed meats per Food and Drug Administration standards. Many studies contend more research is needed to understand the impact based on acceptable daily limits.

The moral of the story? Don’t stress about your occasional hot dog, Mohr says. If you are concerned about your overall diet, replace processed meats with lean protein, fruits and vegetables whenever you can.

What are hot dogs made of?

Most hot dogs are a hodgepodge of meat. The process starts with meat trimmings, often from beef, pork, chicken or turkey.

Meat trimmings are the bits and pieces leftover from prepared steaks and roasts. Manufacturers use the same trimmings for ground beef or pork, just chopped less finely. Then, manufacturers fold in spices and other ingredients, which may include beef stock, corn syrup, sugar, salt, garlic puree, starch, water or ice. These will be listed on the ingredient label.

They also may contain up to 15% of mechanically-separated pork and poultry in the form of a paste-like meat product. It’s sometimes called “white slime.” Any mechanically-separated meat must be specifically declared on the ingredients label, experts told USA TODAY.

Manufacturers mix the ingredients into a batter-like substance called an emulsion and pump it into casing before it gets cooked. The hot dogs are then cooked or smoked and the casings are removed.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Healthiest hot dogs: No, they're not as bad for you as you may think