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Eating Smart

Some Frank Discussion on the Subject of Hot Dogs

May 29, 2000|SHELDON MARGEN and DALE A. OGAR

Even though they are often high in fat and sodium and generally lacking in the healthiest of the nutrients, hot dogs are, without apology, a favorite food of baseball fans, campfire cookers and summer enthusiasts everywhere.

They are an incredibly American food, although their sausage cousins are popular in cuisines around the world. According to some numbers we saw recently, more than 90% of the households in the United States eat hot dogs, usually more than once a week. In the summertime, Americans consume more than 5 billion hot dogs, or enough hot dogs to go around the Earth about 15 times.

One would assume that in our health-conscious culture, the consumption of hot dogs would have plummeted, but such is not the case. Although the number of hot dogs eaten has not changed much, the composition of the hot dogs themselves has undergone a make-over. Some of the new varieties are good, and some are not so good.

The traditional hot dog that we remember from childhood contains beef, pork or poultry, along with corn sweeteners, salt, spices and maybe some smoke flavoring. There might also be some fillers and preservatives. With regular hot dogs, 70% to 90% of the calories from fat (mostly saturated), and they are loaded with sodium.

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Don't worry about hot dogs containing weird animal byproducts like pig snouts and cow lips. Very few brands actually have these anymore and, if they do, the byproducts must be listed on the label.

Dozens of varieties of "light" or low-fat hot dogs are now on the market, but don't be fooled by something that says 80% fat-free. This is a claim that one product made, for example, even though more than 70% of the calories were from fat.

Taking the fat out of hot dogs has been largely accomplished by adding water and vegetable or milk protein. Chicken or turkey franks aren't necessarily low in fat because they probably contain dark meat and skin, where most of the fat is found. And they have as much or more cholesterol (20 to 50 milligrams) than beef or pork franks.

Tofu hot dogs are usually low in fat, and what fat there is is mostly unsaturated. Being made entirely of brown rice, soy flour, vegetables, soy protein, tofu and wheat gluten, they contain no cholesterol. And, if you add a big enough bun and enough nonfat condiments like mustard and onions, you can hardly tell the difference between them and the more traditional versions.

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There are significant differences among various types and brands of hot dogs, so it is very important to read the labels carefully. The amount of fat can vary greatly, along with the sodium content. When selecting hot dogs for your family, note that a generic beef or pork hot dog (2 ounces) contains 180 calories, 16 grams of fat (80% of calories as fat, and 600 milligrams of sodium).

If your taste runs to chili dogs, there are several brands of canned chili that you could add to a low-fat hot dog to make a healthy chili dog. Again, it is important to read the labels carefully. Stay away from the ones that are high in fat and sodium, and look for those that are seasoned with peppers and other nonsalt spices. Vegetarian chili, which can be so tasty that you won't even miss the meat, is a better bet than varieties that contain ground beef.

It is getting easier to enjoy old favorite foods without indulging in fat grams and calories. And you might even find light hot dog choices at the ballpark. Consumer pressure drives this market. Let the food manufacturers and distributors know how much you appreciate their attention to your health, and you can be sure there will be even more to choose from.

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Dr. Sheldon Margen is a professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. Send questions to Dale Ogar, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley, Berkeley CA 94720-7360, or by e-mail to daogar@uclink4.berkeley.edu.

Eating Smart runs every Monday.

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