What's In A Hot Dog?

Hot dogs are a classic barbecue food, but is there such a thing as a healthy frank? Learn the dog-gone facts about this summer favorite and decide for yourself.

A grilled hot dog with pickle relish on a bun placed on a white plate with red grid-like edging

Hot dogs are a classic barbecue food, but is there such a thing as a healthy frank? Learn the dog-gone facts about this summer favorite and decide for yourself.

How’s It Made?

Hot dogs are also known as frankfurters, wiener dogs, franks and tube steaks. They’re one of the most widely-sold sausage products in the United States. Hot dogs are made from finely ground cured beef or pork (or both), which are pumped into casings that are twisted and formed into links every 6 inches. The franks are then cooked, passed through hot water or steam, and then hung for smoking (sometimes they’re smoked and then cooked). There are various other techniques that have been developed, but you get the picture.

The Issues

Although I’m a hot dog fan, there are a several nutritional issues to consider. Here’s what you need to know before your next barbecue:

  • Size matters: Traditional 6-inch franks are already brimming with sodium, calories, and fat--- there’s no need to go for the foot-long options that have double the amount of the unhealthy ingredients.
  • Salt madness: If you’re looking for a lower-calorie or lower-fat hot dog, you may want to check the sodium too. Typically when the fat is decreased, salt is used to replace the lost flavor.
  • Preservative playground: Hot dogs are known to contain preservatives called nitrites, added to help minimize bacterial growth and lengthen shelf life. They also give hot dogs their bright red hue. The problem is, they’ve been linked to various types of cancer.
  • Beef alternatives: Think turkey or chicken are healthier than beef? Not always. Oftentimes the fattier parts of the birds are used to create these hot dog alternatives. Compare labels to find the lowest calorie, fat and sodium contents.
Better Choices

What should you look for? Here are a few better-for-you options to choose from.

  • Nitrate-free: Look for the terms “nitrate free,” “no added nitrates” or “uncured.” Be aware that these dogs will have a different and less eye-catching color than you are used to.
  • Organic: If you’re looking to go healthier, this is one organic food you’ll probably want to shell out the few extra bucks. Organic hot dogs don’t use nitrates or nitrites. They also use beef from more humanely treated animals not pumped with antibiotics and hormones. Applegate Farms makes tasty, low calorie dogs.
  • Veggie: Some veggies brands are a good choice if you’re looking for a lower calorie alternative. Just be sure to read the ingredients, especially if you’re trying to moderate your intake of soy.

Bottom Line: Hot dogs are a highly processed food, but you can still enjoy them in moderation. With various choices available, be sure to read the nutrition facts carefully in order to make the healthiest choice.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby's full bio »

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