Weighing the health of hot dogs without killing the BBQ

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Can we have our hot dog and eat it, too? (Elana Gordon/WHYY)

Can we have our hot dog and eat it, too? (Elana Gordon/WHYY)

Hot dogs are a staple of summer barbecues, but they’re also notoriously bad for you.  Franks are typically a processed food, which has been associated with lots of health issues, including cancer and diabetes.

So what’s one to do?

Nyree Dardarian, a registered dietitian and director of Drexel University’s Center for Integrated Nutrition and Performance, has some workarounds.

From beef to pork and from turkey to veggie, there are a lot of wiener varieties out there. Some packaging goes so far as to tout “lean” or “healthy.”

Dardarian says the truth is in the nutrition label, and, more specifically, three main hot dog components: total calories, fat calories, and sodium.

As an example, on a recent trip to an ACME grocery store in Philadelphia, she picks up a pack of classic franks. It contains 160 calories. 120 of those calories are from fat.

“That’s a lot of fat. I don’t really want to eat fat on a bun, so this might not be the dog I end up with,” she says, adding that any food that’s over 30 percent fat calories is generally considered high in fat.

As for sodium, “a rule of thumb is don’t go over 300 milligrams of sodium for one serving of any type of food.”

Too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and a long list of not so nice things.

Most of the varieties available offered at this store, including the vegetarian option, go over that threshold. So does that mean no hot dogs for her?

Not quite.

Dardarian says context is key: it’s all about padding a hot dog with nutritional sides at a barbeque, like salad.

“Because then you don’t feel as guilty if you balance your hot dog with a side that’s full of whole grains, lettuce, tomatoes,” she says.

For her, portion control is as important as the hot dog itself. That means thinking twice about grabbing another handful of chips or going in for a second hot dog serving.

When it comes to the hot dog preparation, studies have shown that cooking meats at high temperatures, like a grill, may be associated with colon cancer. There’s some evidence that marinating could reduce that risk. Still, Dardarian says humans have been grilling for a millennia. When it comes to hot dogs, the key is to eat them only on rare occasions.

“I think I just take a hot dog for what it is. It’s a hot dog,” she says.

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