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Frankly Speaking


In the continuing pursuit of stripping the American diet of fat, nothing is sacred anymore. Now even the all-American hot dog is vulnerable.

Frankfurter manufacturers are introducing reduced-fat frankfurters made from beef or pork in the hope they will appeal to the ever-increasing segment of the population that is trying to eliminate excess fat from the daily diet. The companies will be vying for space in supermarket refrigerator cases alongside chicken and turkey franks, which are perceived to be lower in fat.

But to determine whether these reduced-fat frankfurters actually are lower in fat requires the consumer, once again, to read the labels. Regular frankfurters contain 9 grams to 17 grams of fat apiece, depending on the size and the type of meat. In spite of being touted as lower-fat food, some of these new products contain up to 11 grams of fat. (To put that in perspective, current nutrition guidelines call for a maximum of 30% of a person's total daily calories to be from fat. In an 1,800-calorie diet, no more than 60 grams, or 540 calories, should be fat calories.)

To add to the confusion, manufacturers play with the numbers. Some package 1.7-ounce franks (10 to a pound), while others choose to make their franks 2 ounces (eight to a pound.) The smaller the frankfurter, the lower the calorie and fat counts in each unit.

Frankfurter fanciers are faithful to their favorite brands because they like the flavor, so the big question is whether it is necessary to sacrifice taste when the fat is reduced.

"Fat carries flavor better," said Lee Miller, Hebrew National's director of research, development and technical services, "and one of the challenges manufacturers have to contend with is the consumers' perception that 'lite' products lose their flavor." When Hebrew National lowered the fat level, additional spices were added to compensate. But this was only part of the reformulation.

A food can be labeled "lite" when it contains 25% less fat than the U.S. Department of Agriculture's standard of identity. This requires a regular frankfurter to contain no more than 30% fat and 10% added water, with protein and spices accounting for the rest. For a frankfurter to carry the "lite" label, it can contain no more than 22 1/2% fat.

The Department of Agriculture's lower-fat frankfurter "new rule of 40" says that the total combined percentage of fat and water can be no more than 40%. Hebrew National's solution was to limit the added fat content to 20%, increase the moisture to 12% and, at the same time, increase the lean protein and add hydrolyzed protein to hold the water.

Frankfurter labels can indicate a variety of ingredients besides fat, water and protein. Oscar Mayer's Cheese Dogs contain pasteurized, processed American cheese in addition to pork and beef. Colonial Extra Mild includes reduced dried skim milk in its ingredients, making the franks difficult to digest by the lactose-intolerant. Hansel 'n Gretel's Lite Pups contain oatmeal as a substitute for some fat.

But changing from regular franks to lower-fat ones does not mean you can go hog wild. "It is preferable that fat be reduced in hot dogs, but one should also remember that hot dogs are a single item in the total diet," said Frances Gizis, director of the graduate nutrition program at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. "Children should not eat hot dogs alone as meals, but should have rolls, fruit, vegetables and dairy products as part of them," she said. "Lower-fat hot dogs consumed with a mixed diet will provide improved balance of calories from fat, but will still provide considerable fat in the diet."

One alternative to regular beef and pork franks are chicken and turkey frankfurters. It is easy for consumers to believe these products fall into the low-fat category because chicken and turkey are perceived to be lower in fat. Look at the label and the first ingredient is always chicken or turkey. Department of Agriculture regulations say that "chicken" or "turkey" can be any part of the bird except the bone.

When processing chickens and turkeys, the breast and thigh are removed first. Whatever meat remains on the frame is mechanically boned and used to make poultry franks. Essentially, this is lean meat, so a certain amount of fat, up to 30%, has to be added to give the franks the texture and juiciness associated with hot dogs. This fat, in the form of skin, is added to chicken and turkey frankfurters, and consumers looking to cut back on cholesterol--found in poultry skin--should avoid poultry franks. One of these frankfurters can contain up to 13 grams of fat, with an average 2-ounce chicken frankfurter containing about 57 milligrams of cholesterol vs. 29 grams of cholesterol in a regular beef frankfurter.

More and more food manufacturers are getting the message: Take out the fat but leave in the taste. "Any low-fat frankfurter has about half the fat of a typical hot dog, and any time there's a significant fat reduction, it's a good alternative," said Mindy Herman, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn. "But if you put cheese on the low-fat frank, or eat it with French fries, you're fooling yourself."

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