This is a guest post from Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND, registered dietitian nutritionist who promotes healthy eating as a speaker, consultant and writer. Connect with Karen through her blog, Smart Bytes®, to see how nutrition headlines fit in the “big picture” of overall research, and follow her on Twitter, @KarenCollinsRD.
Q: Is there such a thing as a healthy hot dog? What about turkey hot dogs or those that say they have “no nitrates added”?
A: As Nutrition Advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), I am frequently asked about “safe” forms — eg. what about turkey hot dogs?
First, hot dogs are among the category called Processed Meats, which is very consistently linked to increased risk of colorectal cancer. The problem is that multiple mechanisms are potentially responsible for the link of processed meats to cancer risk, and it may be quite beyond whether the hot dog is made of beef, pork, turkey or chicken.
The link of processed meat to colorectal cancer is twice as strong as that of red meat, and fat content is not a factor for colorectal cancer risk. Among reasons considered likely for the risk are the nitrites added, which when combined with amino acids within the gut can be converted to nitrosamines (also referred to as N-nitroso compounds or NOCs), which are carcinogens. If you see nitrite-free versions, we don’t know yet if these are as safe as it sounds; they generally use very concentrated amounts of a celery juice or powder to deliver “natural” nitrate that gets converted to nitrite.
So here’s my take: advertisements that suggest that giving your kids a couple hot dogs over the summer is putting them at risk of cancer is unfairly playing on the emotions and going way beyond the evidence. However, the data really is quite clear that the people who are grabbing a quick hot dog for lunch frequently throughout the week or turning to them as a frequent dinner “because the kids like ’em” are making a choice associated with increased long-term cancer risk. And high consumption of processed meats is also linked to increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular (CVD).
This really isn’t an issue for the person who only eats a few hot dogs over the whole summer. But if you’re thinking of, or talking to people who do, eat them as a frequent choice, those products marketed as healthier choices may not provide that much benefit with a lot of the same risk. Personally, I love to grill, and try to encourage people to embrace the fun and delicious flavor that grilled vegetables add to any meal.
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Thanks, this was really helpful info to have. On that note, does “processed meat” include things like turkey lunch meat? Even the “natural” kinds?
I think when you factor in the sausage and bacon (we do use Trader Joe’s Applewood) recipes we like, it all adds up rather quickly. In fact we just discovered a sausage with a crunchy skin we like. At the same time, I found a grilled sausage, pepper and polenta recipe that then has “round two” to become baked ziti. So for our family, is isn’t that we do hot dogs all the time…it is that hot dogs aren’t the only processed/nitrate laden food we eat.
Does this apply to bacon? And deli meat? Ham in particular? My kid doesn’t like anything except pork products it seems!
Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND says
Processed meats are those that are salted, cured or smoked, or contain preservatives (such as nitrite or nitrate). Beyond hot dogs, this also includes bacon, sausage, processed canned meats, ham, and certain lunchmeats. That’s why, as Jeri notes, it is easy to accumulate more processed meat overall than we realize.
The good news is that we can make a big dent in how much we eat by switching to other choices as our standard “go to”, and save the processed meats for those times we particularly want them.
For example, if bacon or sausage is your automatic choice with eggs, switch to some berries, melon or other seasonal fruit, or tomato slices or a tomato-black bean salsa that’s quick to throw together. Instead of bacon on a sandwich turkey or chicken sandwich, avocado adds a rich flavor plus nutrients. Some deli turkey is processed, but some is fresh roasted, so just ask. You can also cook an extra couple pieces of chicken when you make it for dinner, slicing and refrigerating or freezing the extra in packets for future sandwiches. Tuna salad (I like to make it with Greek yogurt, but regular or light mayo works, too) with some chopped celery is terrific stuffed in a whole wheat pita. Other kid-friendly choices are hummus and hardboiled eggs. You might try expanding the variety of ways you use beans, too — a quick Internet search will bring lots of ideas.
For Rean and other parents who see a limited range of acceptance in their kids, be patient, but keep at it! Your role as gatekeepers, determining what’s available, is key in shaping your children’s tastes. Fresh pork (as in pork chops or roast pork you slice for sandwiches) counts as red meat, which should be limited to a total of 18 oz./week, but is not a processed meat. Love of ham, bacon, sausage & hot dogs suggests developing a taste preference for salty food, which poses concern for heart health. By continuing to expose kids repeatedly to other options without making a big deal of it, you will be helping to develop habits & taste preferences that support your kids’ long-term health in many ways. Stick with it!
Why can’t a hot dog be made without “processed meat” so that it would be healthy?