When eating a low-carb diet it is useful to find quality protein sources that are quick and convenient, not to mention good for you. Surprisingly, there are certain types of hot dogs that qualify. You must be thinking “You must be kidding, hot dogs!?” Please read-on.
There is no doubt that the hot dogs are a ubiquitous food in the U.S. and so is the thought that eating hot dogs is unhealthy. However, it is not that simple and there are a number of misconceptions about hot dogs. Just in case you are wondering, we are not being paid by the national Hot Dog and Sausage Council (yes this is a real organization, see http://www.hot-dog.org/) to write this. There are typically three arguments used to support the idea that hot dogs are disgusting and unhealthy. These three arguments relates to; the quality of the meats used to make them, the amount of fat in them, and the preservatives, sodium nitrites or sodium nitrates, used in them.
Let’s first look at what hot dogs are made of. The following is a good overview of what hot dogs are made of, which is from http://www.sixwise.com/newsletters/06/10/11/what-is-really-in-a-hot-dog-and-how-unhealthy-are-they.htm
On to the million-dollar question: what are hot dogs made of? According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council:
“All hot dogs are cured and cooked sausages that consist of mainly pork, beef, chicken and turkey or a combination of meat and poultry. Meats used in hot dogs come from the muscle of the animal and looks much like what you buy in the grocer’s case. Other ingredients include water, curing agents and spices, such as garlic, salt, sugar, ground mustard, nutmeg, coriander and white pepper.”
However, there are a couple of caveats. “Variety meats,” which include things like liver, kidneys and hearts, may be used in processed meats like hot dogs, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that they be disclosed on the ingredient label as “with variety meats” or “with meat by-products.”
Further, watch out for statements like “made with mechanically separated meats (MSM).” Mechanically separated meat is “a paste-like and batter-like meat product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible meat, under high pressure through a sieve or similar device to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue,” according to the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
Although the FSIS maintains that MSM are safe to eat, mechanically separated beef is no longer allowed in hot dogs or other processed meats (as of 2004) because of fears of mad cow disease. Hot dogs can contain no more than 20 percent mechanically separated pork, and any amount of mechanically separated chicken or turkey.
So if you’re looking for the purest franks, pick those that are labeled “all beef,” “all pork,” or “all chicken, turkey, etc.” Franks labeled in this way must be made with meat from a single species and do not include byproducts (but check the label anyway, just to be sure. Turkey and chicken franks, for instance, can include turkey or chicken meat and turkey or chicken skin and fat in proportion to a turkey or chicken carcass).
As you will see from the few brands highlighted below there is no problem with the quality of meats used. In fact, the organic grass-fed beef hot dogs are a very high quality meat which is better than any “regular” cut of meat you will get in almost any grocery store. Therefore, if you stick to the brands that use “all beef”, or “all chicken”, and particularly the organic or natural meats, there should be no concern with what the hot dogs are made from.
The second issue is the fat content of hot dogs. This really stems from the common, but misplaced fear about fats, particularly animal fats. There are many aspects of this issue but are beyond the scope of this article. For now, realize that a low-carb diet will be a higher fat diet, from both plants (avocados, walnuts, coconuts, etc.) and animals (beef, eggs, salmon, etc). Therefore, eating foods with fat in them is fine. The amount of fat in a particular hot dog will vary so you will need to read the nutrition facts label to know how much is in a specific one and how many you can eat to stay within your goal intake. Additionally, the grass-fed hot dogs will contain a good amount of omega-3 fats and CLA, which both have health and weight loss properties.
The third concern is the preservatives sodium nitrite or nitrates. These can lead to the formation of nitrosamines which are carcinogens (can produce cancer). These have been linked to cancers in the digestive tract. However, recent evidence for this connection has shown that typical intakes of these preservatives are not likely to lead to an increase in cancers (Powlson et al). Additional recent research is finding that food sources of nitrates and nitrites, particularly from vegetables, may be health promoting (Hord et al). There is more about this topic and, in fact, there have been a number of recent papers published on this topic so I will discuss this in greater detail at another time. For now, however, this topic is really not applicable if you eat hot dogs that are not preserved with sodium nitrite/nitrates. All of the following hot dog manufacturers listed below do not use this preservative. Therefore, these hot dogs do not contain nitrites or nitrates and the concern about ingesting cancer causing agents, which is not definitive anyway, is not a valid reason avoid eating this product.
Here are a few examples of healthy hot dogs; hopefully you no longer think that statement is an oxymoron.
Applegate Farms – The great organic uncured hot dog
No nitrates or nitrites.
Made from 100% organic grass-fed and finished beef, these lean hot dogs are bursting with old-fashioned classic hot dog flavor—juicy, flavorful and delicious! These dogs have only 8 grams of fat compared to the average 15 grams in most brands, and because they’re made from grass-fed beef, they’re also high in omega-3 fatty acids (the good fat). Great on the grill or steamed on your stovetop any time you’re craving a taste of summer.
Ingredients:Organic Grass-Fed Beef, Water, Contains Less Than 2% Of The Following: Sea Salt, Organic Spices, Organic Garlic Powder, Organic Paprika, Celery Powder, Organic Onion, Lactic Acid Starter Culture (Not From Milk).
Let’s be Frank – Uncured Beef Frank
No nitrates or nitrites.
Made from 100% Grass-fed Beef
These snappy dogs are loaded with flavor, not junk! Using premium cuts from cattle raised on pasture in California (naturally high in healthy Omega 3 fatty acids!) and organic spices, we’ve crafted a delicious dog that’s lower in fat, calories and sodium than conventional franks. No nitrites, nitrates, hormones, or antibiotics, ever
Ingredients:Grass-fed beef, water, sea salt, organic evaporated cane juice, organic spice, organic garlic powder, natural flavor (celery powder, spice extract, paprika extract), spices, lactic acid starter culture, in a lamb casing.
Trader Joe’s – All Natural Uncured All Beef Hot Dogs
No nitrates or nitrites.
Ingredients: Beef, water, contains less than 2% of the following; allspice, celery juice powder, evaporated cane juice, garlic powder, ginger, honey, lactic acid starter culture, mustard, nutmeg, onion powder, paprika, pepper, sea salt.
In conclusion, the belief that all hot dogs are bad to eat is not supported by the evidence. If you eat a quality hot dog there seems to be no good reason that they cannot be part of a healthy diet, whether high-carb or low-carb. The benefit with a low-carb diet is that you can eat more of them! One way that Matt and I like them is lightly warmed-up with a bit of organic mustard and with a side of baby carrots or a small apple; how easy is that!
Hord, N. et al (2009). Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiological context for potential health benefits. Am J Clin Nutr; 90: 1-10.
Powlson, D. et al (2008). When does nitrate become a risk for humans?J Environ Qual; 37: 291-295.