Though I love a good dog as much as the next person, I have to admit that hot dogs have gotten a pretty bad rap in recent years. Though that’s not to say that we’re paying much mind to the health warnings, mind you. Retail sales of hot dogs last year were northwards of $1.68 billion.
So what’s the problem with the all-American summer favorite? Well, hot dogs (and other meat that has been cured, such as bacon or salami) contain nitrates, which are added to the meat during the cooking process to prevent the growth of botulism and to help the hot dogs maintain a vibrant pinkish color (without the nitrates, the hot dogs would turn brown or gray — tantalizing, right?). Here’s the catch, though. In the human body, these nitrates form nitrosamines, which have been associated with various cancers, according to WebMD.
In 2005, a study at the University of Hawaii linked consumption of processed meats to a 67 percent increase in the risk for pancreatic cancer. Yet another more recent study links eating too much processed meats to heart disease and diabetes. This study found that eating one serving a day of foods like bacon, hot dogs and salami was enough to greatly elevate your risk. Interestingly enough, the researchers did not find that eating unprocessed meat at the same rate led to nearly the same risk. What’s the difference in the meats that contain similar amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol? The processed meats had four times the amount of sodium and 50 percent more sodium nitrite.
But the naysayers will retort that even vegetables like spinach and celery contain nitrates. That is absolutely true, but the difference is that these veggies also contain vitamins C and D, which inhibit the formation of those N-nitroso compounds. (Some even say that popping a vitamin C pill before you eat your hot dog may mimic the same result.)
But there are some alternatives. You can buy nitrate-free hot dogs, like the ones from Applegate Farms or Organic Prairie. These hot dogs contain nitrates from vegetables, but don't contain synthetic nitrates.
To make it all more confusing, a 2011 study from University of Kansas researchers revealed that hot dogs and other processed meats are better for you than some grilled non-processed meats, like rotisserie chicken. The study focuses mainly on the presence of HCAs in the meat, a lesser known chemical compound that has also been linked to cancer. The presence of the chemical was found more in grilled and charred meat than in, say, a microwaved hot dog.
So what’s a meat-lover to do? The key is moderation. If you’re going to have a barbecue three times a week for the entire summer, maybe you should think about backing it off a bit, say to once a week or once every two weeks.