Every summer, millions of Americans dust off their barbecues in preparation for the warm weather. And when the grills eventually get fired up, there’s a good chance that hot dogs will be on the menu. Despite their delicious taste, however, these famous food items could actually cause some real damage to our health.
Hot dogs are arguably the biggest summertime food in America right now, and the numbers certainly back up that suggestion. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council claimed that people in the United States eat around 818 franks each second between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Americans are estimated to consume around seven billion hot dogs over a roughly three-month period. And if that wasn’t enough, the same post also noted that around 150 million franks are eaten over the course of the Independence Day celebrations, too.
The connection between the food item and the latter holiday was formed back in the 1980s. That decade, the hot dog business Nathan’s Famous created a yearly competition that would be held in New York City on Independence Day. And “Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest” would soon tie the popular food to the holiday.
But as we suggested earlier, this delicious summertime staple is far from healthy. The good news is there are some alternative, nutritious choices available. So, if you want to celebrate the summer without making major alterations to your seasonal diet, you might be in luck.
To kick things off, let’s focus on so-called plant-based hot dogs. These items don’t contain any traces of meat, and most – depending on the product that you go with – tend to contain gluten, peas or soy. And these franks are, of course, considered to be a healthier choice than their standard counterparts.
Plant-based ingredients might be a turn off for some, but you shouldn’t be fooled by one of the other options in the supermarket. “Fake meat” hot dogs are another popular alternative available, yet the Food Revolution Network website claims that they’re not very nutritious. Furthermore, organic dogs could be another choice to consider, too.
Another alternative to store-bought hot dogs is, of course, whipping up your own healthy versions at home. The Food Revolution Network argues that carrots could serve as a unique substitute to meat. Apparently, all you have to do is peel and boil a selection of the vegetables, soak them in your fridge for several hours and then roast the carrots in the oven.
According to the website, the carrots are good to go once they’ve spent some time in the oven. And much like a traditional hot dog, the usual condiments can still be applied to add some extra flavor as well.
But as we highlighted before, a huge number of Americans are still enamored with standard hot dogs once the summer rolls in. But how did the product first arrive on these shores? Well, people in New York got their first taste of the delicious sausage back in the 1860s after they arrived from Germany. The famous item then gained its unique name many years later.
Time magazine spoke to the historian Bruce Kraig to discover more about the hot dog’s early days in the United States in July 2016. He is the author of several books on the popular product and argues that the hot dog name actually sprang up for a rather humorous reason.
Kraig explained, “The origin is that it’s a joke about what went into the meat itself, and the running joke that once a butcher set up shop, all cats and dogs in the neighborhood disappeared. Somebody – we’re not sure who – coined the term ‘hot dog’ because there were lots of cartoons from this period about dogs going into sausage machines.”
“That song ‘Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?’ [played a role too],” Kraig added to the publication. “But you’ll see ‘red hot’ and ‘hot dog’ kind of merge together in this period.” As for the production process, hot dogs are actually made from the trimmings of certain animals.
Standard hot dogs are largely produced from whatever’s left over from a pig’s carcass after it has stripped of the meat that makes steaks and pork chops. Meanwhile, items like food starch, sorbitol, liquid smoke and water are thrown into the mix as well. Once it’s all been churned into a meaty paste, the franks are then cooked.
An average single hot dog is just over 200 calories and has under 20 grams of fat, according to Time. Keeping that in mind, a member of the Sustain food lobby group came forward to speak with the Daily Mail newspaper in July 2012. His name is Charlie Powell, and he had a warning for those who consume too many hot dogs.
Powell told the paper, “Cheap frankfurters are highly processed and have little in them that will improve your health. If they are eaten on a regular basis, they cannot be good for you. They are one of the least natural foods I can think of.” And his argument has certainly been backed up by some other sources in the last few years.
The World Health Organization (WHO) added processed meat products to its list of “Group 1” carcinogens. That means items such as hot dogs are seen as a serious cancer risk. Worryingly, this puts the food product in the same category as asbestos and tobacco.
One of the WHO’s branches is the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). It aimed to examine the relationship between colorectal cancer and the consumption of processed meats. In order to do this, the IARC reviewed more than 800 studies from ten countries. The findings were then released in October 2015, and the conclusions were startling.
The IARC claimed that a 50-gram helping of processed meat would raise your chances of developing colon cancer by nearly 20 percent. Worryingly, that’s the equivalent of a single hot dog. And in light of the figures, one of the organization’s heads shared his views on the matter.
Head of the IARC Monographs Program Dr. Kurt Straif said in a press release at the time, “For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small. But this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed. In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”
But it’s not just colon cancer; youngsters face a couple of other risks, too. Dr. Michael Greger outlined those concerns in a video for the Nutrition Facts website in 2009. And in the clip, the physician reveals some concerning statistics that parents might want to take note of.
Greger says in the video, “Our children are seven times more likely to develop a brain tumor eating just a single hot dog a week than using a cell phone. In fact, if our children insist on wanting to [eat] Oscar Mayer wieners, they are multiplying their odds of getting childhood leukemia by 950 percent.”
For its part, Oscar Mayer actually made some significant changes to its food products in 2017. It stopped using harmful preservatives such as nitrates due to the cancer risks. A few other products were also taken out in order to reduce the threat to health.
But hot dogs don’t just pose a potential cancer risk. They could also cause consumers to develop type two diabetes if they’re reliant on processed meats. The Food Revolution Network website claimed that a single frank every day might raise an individual’s chances of becoming diabetic by up to 30 percent.
But let’s return to one of the additives that we mentioned a little earlier on. In addition to the cancer, nitrates have the power to affect a person’s pancreas. Specifically, the Food Revolution Network claims that the chemical – and another preservative called nitrite – can stop the organ from producing insulin.
Hot dogs also pose a risk to your heart; a single frank houses more than 25 percent of a person’s daily “sodium allowance” and plenty of saturated fat, according to Food Revolution. Given the risks, two different reports were published on the matter in 2014, and each one revealed some intriguing results.
One of the aforementioned reports was included in an issue of the Public Health Nutrition journal. That project focused on the potential link between processed and red meats and heart disease. The six authors analyzed over 150,000 deaths, and they uncovered some interesting information to conclude the paper.
The authors wrote, “The present meta-analysis indicates that higher consumption of total red meat and processed meat is associated with an increased risk of total, cardiovascular and cancer mortality.” As for the other report, that appeared in the Circulation: Heart Failure journal. And the researchers working on that particular paper took on a different approach.
The latter study started in 1997 and round 37,000 men in Sweden aged between 45 and 79 participated in it. They filled out a form detailing their meat-eating habits, and the paper’s authors kept watch over their subjects until 2010 – sharing their findings four years later.
Just under 2,900 of those men developed heart failure during that length period of time. Sadly, another 266 subsequently passed away from the medical ailment. And by analyzing the results, the three authors discovered that an intake of 48 grams-worth of processed meat each day increased their risk by about 8 percent.
One of the noteworthy findings from the study in Sweden was analysis of the men’s health status at the start of the project in 1997. Remarkably, none of the participants had experienced heart issues or cancer before then.
Alicja Wolk – who was one of the study’s co-authors and worked at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute – talked about some of the dangerous ingredients found in items like hot dogs. She said, “Smoked and grilled meats contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. All of [those] may contribute to the increased heart failure risk. [But] unprocessed meat is free from food additives, and usually has a lower amount of [salt].”
However, the American Meat Institute Foundation contested the connection between processed goods and heart disease soon after. Vice president of scientific affairs at the American Meat Institute Foundation Betsy Booren sat down to talk with the HealthDay website in June 2014. And she looked at the paper’s results in a bit more detail.
Booren told the health website, “Heart failure and cardiovascular diseases are complex conditions that appear to have a variety of factors associated with them – from genetics to lifestyle. Attempts to link heart failure to a single type of food oversimplifies this complex disease. [The paper also makes other] questionable assumptions.”
“The data is based off a single food frequency questionnaire given at the start of a 12-year period,” Booren added. “And [it] assumes this reflects a person’s diet over the entirety of the study [duration]. The researchers themselves note that the questionnaire is only 38 percent accurate. [The paper] struggles to disentangle other lifestyle and dietary habits from meat and processed meat consumption.”
Meanwhile, hot dogs are known to spark allergic reactions in consumers as well – due to the sheer amount of contents found in them. Nitrites, nitrates and a food dye called tartrazine are found in the product and they can cause issues such as hives or head pain.
Tartrazine isn’t just found in hot dogs; it’s also present in other foodstuffs such as cheese, ice cream and salad dressing. The dye can also cause a certain amount of swelling if you’re allergic to it. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America website also claims that asthmatic issues can arise from consuming the substance.
However, some don’t have to be allergic to the ingredients found in hot dogs to become ill from them. Back in July 2015 Time magazine compiled a list of unwanted items that were discovered in franks down the years. And with the aid of federal records, the publication noted that consumers had found things like glass, rubber bands and bits of hair.
One particularly shocking story came from a concerned parent who had contacted the agency about a potentially dangerous hot dog. The parent wrote, “I put a hot dog in the microwave for my toddler, and it started sparking and smoking. But [I] looked at it and didn’t see anything wrong, so [I] gave it to him. After eating it, he kept picking at his teeth. When I looked he had a piece of metal stuck between his teeth.”
As we’ve seen, standard hot dogs come with a number of health risks and should be eaten in moderation. Anyone concerned about the ingredients can always try the plant-based variety, or even try making their own. So, if you’re among those Americans eating one of the roughly seven billion hot dogs consumed during the summer period, remember that there are healthy alternatives.