Whether sizzled on the barbecue or scarfed down at the ball game, hot dogs are so popular that it seems almost unpatriotic to point out that they're essentially tidy little bundles of sodium, additives and fat.
Going light can help, but don't think buying "uncured" or poultry dogs will do you any good. Consumer Reports tests found that the specialty dogs weren't necessarily better than regular franks.
CR did find good choices when it cooked some 620 full-fat and lower-fat hot dogs from 23 well-known brands and leading retailers. Though none were excellent, the best-tasting dogs were the full-fat beef varieties.
Such regulation franks can be a reasonable indulgence if eaten in moderation (a few times each summer). But if you or your children eat hot dogs frequently, it might be wise to choose a lower-fat variety and add condiments for flavor.
Long considered a "mystery meat," hot dogs were thought to contain all kinds of horrors. Today, according to Department of Agriculture standards, they're made of beef, pork, poultry or a blend of all of those, which can contain no more than 30 percent fat, plus water to cool the meat as it is ground, binders such as nonfat dry milk or cereal, salt, sweeteners and seasonings.
Hot dogs also may contain sodium nitrite and nitrate - curing preservatives that give franks their characteristic flavor and color, ward off spoilage and rancidity, and help prevent botulism. Those compounds, which occur naturally in some foods, spices and water, have raised health concerns because they have the potential to form nitrosamines - chemicals found to cause cancer in lab animals.
CR's analysis revealed that the nitrates and nitrites in all the hot dogs it tested were well below the maximum level for the additives established by the USDA. While a hot dog can be labeled uncured if no nitrates or nitrites have been added, that does not necessarily mean the product is free of them.
As for sodium, the hot dogs CR tested ranged from 300 mg to 760 mg per frank, meaning just one serving of any of them could contribute a hefty chunk to the recommended maximum of 2,300 mg of sodium a day. While occasionally exceeding that limit might not be harmful for everyone, studies have shown that high sodium intake can boost blood pressure in susceptible people and exacerbate certain conditions, such as asthma.
The dogs CR rated the tastiest dogs, by category:
¢ Full fat: Hebrew National Kosher Beef Franks (51 cents, 14 grams of fat and 420 mg sodium per dog), Nathan's Famous Skinless Beef Franks (48 cents, 15 grams of fat, 470 mg sodium) and Boar's Head Skinless Beef Franks (43 cents, 11 grams of fat, 350 mg sodium).
¢ Less fat: Providing a texture and taste similar to their full-fat brandmates - but with fewer calories and less fat and sodium - were Hebrew National Kosher Reduced Fat Beef Franks (57 cents per dog, 10 grams of fat, 360 mg sodium), Boar's Head Lite Skinless Beef Franks (44 cents, 6 grams of fat, 270 mg sodium) and Oscar Meyer Light Beef Franks (32 cents, 7 grams of fat, 380 mg sodium).
¢ Beefless: Ball Park Lite Franks (30 cents, 7 grams of fat, 460 mg sodium), a pork-and-turkey-blend, the best tasting of the bunch.
CR's trained tasters also screened four popular soy dogs, but declared them so off the mark that even a vegetarian might find them hard to swallow. Morning Star Farms Veggie Dogs proved to be best of the lot, but the kindest words CR's testers could find for these franks was that if you smother them with your favorite condiments, they might be OK.