When Is A Hot Dog Not a Hot dog?

Along with hamburgers, hot dogs seem to fit right into summer foods for grilling. While most of them aren’t the healthiest protein source, Oscar Mayer seems to have added a healthier twist. But it doesn’t really improve upon the quality.

An article that was written by a reporter for the Associated Press said that Oscar Mayer has added a new ingredient to their hot dog recipe. They included celery juice instead of artificial sodium nitrate, which is used to preserve the pinkish colors of processed meats and prevents botulism. This is suppose to reflect the changing preferences that consumers want.

But nitrites are nitrites. The change makes little difference. Limiting processed meat prevents cancers. The World Health Organization says that you can get acute poisoning from nitrates but it takes a lot of them to be toxic. Kana Wu, a research scientist of Harvard’s school of public health, feels it is best to think of processed meat made from natural ingredients the same as those made with artificial nitrites. Wu was part of a group that helped draft the World Health Organization report in 2015 that said processed meats such as hot dogs and bacon were linked to an increased risk of colon cancer. She notes WHO did not pinpoint what exactly about processed meats might be to blame for the link.

One concern about processed meats is that nitrites can combine with compounds found in meat at high temperatures to fuel the formation of nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens in animals. It’s a chemical reaction that can happen regardless of the source of the nitrites, including celery juice.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture caps the amount of artificial nitrites that can be added to meats to prevent excessive use, said Andrew Milkowski, a retired Oscar Mayer scientist who consults for the meat industry. Meat makers also add ingredients to processed meat like bacon that help block the formation of nitrosamines, he said.

Though the terms nitrates and nitrites are used interchangeably, the meat industry says it’s mainly sodium nitrite that companies currently use to cure meats such as hot dogs, cold cuts and bacon.

N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) are another compound in processed meats This is formed in the stomach from nitrate/nitrite preservatives.

For Oscar Mayer hot dogs, packages now list ingredients like celery juice that has been treated with bacterial culture. That turns the naturally occurring nitrates in celery juice into nitrites that serve a similar purpose.  Nitrites derived from celery juice are no better, the switch may nevertheless help address negative consumer perceptions, said Milkowski, who also teaches at the University of Wisconsin’s department of animal sciences.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest agrees nitrites from natural sources aren’t that different from artificial nitrites in processed meats. But the group has cited the WHO report in calling for a cancer warning label on processed meats, regardless of how they’re made. It also says nitrite-preserved foods tend to be high in salt and should be limited or avoided anyway. The American Cancer Society also suggests limiting processed and read meat, citing a variety of reasons.

Federal regulations require processed meats without added nitrites or nitrates to be labeled as “uncured” and to state that they be labeled as “uncured” and to state that they have no nitrates or nitrites added, except those naturally occurring in the alternative ingredients.

The meat industry has contested the required language of meat becoming “uncured,” because it says the products are still cured,  with nitrites derived from other ingredients.