Listen up. I have a secret to share, one that I rarely admit. I really like hot dogs. So when I first discovered uncured hot dogs (also labeled “no nitrates or nitrites added”), I immediately bought them.
Nitrates and nitrites are key in hot dogs and other cured meats like ham and bacon: they prevent spoilage and block the growth of the bacterium that causes botulism (a foodborne illness). They’re types of salts, with nitrates naturally found in many vegetables and converted to nitrites in your body—or in the lab. But I also knew the preservatives are believed to be associated with a higher risk of colorectal cancer.
So these uncured dogs were the healthier choice, right? Turns out most uncured meats still have nitrates/nitrites in them—they just come from a natural source like celery powder. They’re labeled “uncured” and “no nitrates or nitrites added” because that’s what USDA labeling laws require when naturally sourced nitrates/nitrites are used.
According to a 2011 study, uncured meats may contain just as many nitrates/nitrites, if not more, than conventional meats. But whether they have more or less might not matter. For cancer, it’s still unknown if the preservatives are the cause or if it’s something else in cured meats that’s harmful. Plus, newer research suggests that nitrates/nitrites may help lower blood pressure and improve exercise performance. To this end, experts suggest eating more nitrate-rich veggies, such as beets.
The Bottom Line: Pick a hot dog that you feel good about eating—only 5 to 20 percent of the average American’s dietary nitrates/nitrites comes from cured meats. But it’s a good idea to limit them: eating lots of cured meats may up your colorectal cancer risk.
Pictured Recipe: Salsa Dog