On Independence Day, Don't Let Your Health Go to the (Hot) Dogs

It's a Yom Ha'atzmaut rite of passage to gather around a grill and chow down on hamburgers and hot dogs with friends. But make sure that when you're feasting, you're still making healthy choices.

Daniel Tchetchik

Most of us ate so much during Passover that we are still digesting, and now Independence Day, with its traditional barbecues featuring meats, breads and no shortage of calories, is just around the corner.

We don't eat different foods on Independence Day. Just more of them. Indeed, the freezer-packed hamburgers and processed hot dogs that we scarf down to celebrate our nation's birthday are not just popular before the holiday. They're hits through the entire year.

According to statistics provided by Nielsen, which are based on 97 percent of the Israeli barcode market, hot dogs lead the sales of frozen and processed meat, with a market share of more than NIS 213 million in 2012. As Independence Day approaches, we took a look at some of the popular meat products with the help of dietitian Michal Sukman of Maccabi Health Services and Einat Mazor of the Clalit HMO.

Both dietitians recommend eating frozen or processed meat only rarely, if at all — and even then, they recommend looking closely at the list of ingredients and nutritional values of each product, and seeing which company offers a product that is closest to the original, or adds the least amount of industrial components.

As for the method of preparation, Sukman and Mazor recommend that the meat be roasted over an open flame, and not charred. Charring meat poses health risks because carbon particles that stick to the meat, together with the fumes of the lighter fluid, are known carcinogens that are released at high temperatures. To prevent such dangers, it is recommended that you use an electric grill instead of a charcoal or gas one.

Sukman and Mazor offer five recommendations for enjoying meat in a healthy way on Independence Day:

Moti Milrod

1. Keep it real

Avoid eating processed meat on a regular basis. It is not a substitute for a meat meal.

“Real beef is recommended. It has lean parts, with less than five percent fat, that one can eat for Vitamin B12, protein and zinc,” says Mazor. Still, she adds, “Processed meat includes additives that give flavor and change the texture, and the result is a product that looks good but is far from natural. Processed meat is not recommended for people who suffer from high cholesterol or high blood pressure because of its high sodium content. It’s the embodiment of junk food.”

Sukman agrees. “Studies show a correlation between processed meat and colon cancer, so it’s better to save it for special occasions,” she says.

2. You dirty hot dog

Nutritionally speaking, hot dogs are the worst.

According to Sukman and Mazor, hot dogs are the worst kind of processed food when it comes to nutrition, since they include a long list of additives that include preservatives and a lot of fat, some of it saturated.

Heavy consumption of saturated fat causes diseases of the circulatory system, Mazor avers.

Nitrites are another problematic ingredient in most hot dogs. “These ingredients are known carcinogens, and when they come into contact with a flame, they become even more dangerous,” says Sukman, adding that studies show that nitrites can cause headaches and irritable bowel disease.

3. Talk about mystery meat!

Food companies do not say which cuts of meat they use.

Except for one product we checked, the food companies note the percentage of meat in every product, but not the specific cut itself. Sukman says this is a problem because consumers do not know which cuts of meat they’re getting.

“It’s hard to believe that high-quality cuts of meat are used since the companies state the amount of meat and the fat content, and in many cases don’t make the division between them, so it’s hard to know how much of the meat is actually made up of fat,” she says.

4. Worth its salt?

Processed meats contain high amounts of cholesterol and sodium.

Sukman and Mazor say that while hamburger and kebabs have shorter ingredient lists than hot dogs and also contain fewer undesirable additives, they also have high amounts of fat, too much sodium and a lot of cholesterol. Sukman says that cholesterol doesn’t necessarily damage one’s health as long as it stays at the proper levels in the body. “The recommended daily allowance is 300 milligrams of cholesterol. Also, the more processed and lower-quality the meat is, the more saturated fat it has, and that raises the amount of cholesterol in the blood.”

5. Don't buy into it

The price of the meat isn’t necessarily an indication of its quality.

Sukman and Mazor say that passing on the dogs and preparing the burgers at home reduces the negative factors by quite a bit. But if you're going to do that, choose fresh over frozen. Mazor says that it makes quite a difference to health. “Frozen ground meat is very similar to processed meat in its nutritional content, so it’s better to buy fresh meat that is ground in the store. If you buy fresh meat, it’s ground together with the fat. But if you choose better cuts, you get ground meat without fat, salt and lots of calories,” Mazor says. As far as the price of processed meat goes, there isn’t always a connection between the price and the quality.