OK, so hot dogs aren’t the world’s healthiest food, but admit it: If they weren’t on the menu at summer barbecues, it’d feel like losing a friend.
Fortunately, with a growing number of healthier hot dogs hitting supermarket shelves, it’s become possible to indulge and still go easy on your body. You just need to know what to look out for.
First things first: “Avoid traditional or ballpark-labeled hot dogs,” Nicole Avena, a New York-based nutrition consultant, told HuffPost. “These are usually the highest in sodium and contain the most additives and preservatives.”
All processed meats are a health risk ― they’ve been linked to certain types of cancer, like colorectal cancer, because of the way they’re preserved. But there are a few types of meat that offer less risk than the standard beef hot dog, Avena said. Look for a label that indicates whole beef, turkey or chicken, as opposed to mechanically processed and separated meats.
Another important factor is sodium content. “Choose hot dogs that have less than 400 mg (or less than 20% of the daily value) of sodium per serving,” said Gretchen Zimmermann, senior director of cardiometabolic care for Vida Health. (The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults limit sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day.)
Other indications of a higher-quality hot dog are if they’re uncured and nitrate- and nitrite-free, and have minimal ingredients. “Overall, uncured chicken or turkey hot dogs would be a better option, because they’re usually lower in saturated fat and less processed than beef,” Avena said.
But even if the label says “uncured,” “no nitrates added” or “all natural,” it doesn’t mean these options are necessarily healthier. Natural preservatives, such as celery powder and celery salt, may sound better, but there’s no evidence they’re safer, so it’s still best to minimize your intake.
The same goes for veggie dogs: Choose dogs with minimally processed ingredients, such as tofu, instead of heavily processed soy protein concentrate or isolate.
“An occasional processed veggie dog isn’t likely to be harmful, but these soy ingredients haven’t been well-studied, so there are still some concerns about their safety,” said Samantha Cassetty, nutrition expert and co-author of “Sugar Shock.”
To save you time scanning nutrition labels, here are the healthiest and the least healthy store-bought hot dogs according to nutritionists.
What if your favorite hot dog is one of the “unhealthy” options listed above?
If any of your go-to dogs made the “steer clear” list, it doesn’t mean you have to ghost them. “Going to barbecues and eating less healthy foods are part of living a joy-filled life,” Cassetty said.
Her advice? If you feel that no family barbecue is complete without a Ball Park frank in your hand, then have one and enjoy. Just don’t make hot dogs a way of life.
“The occasional hot dog at a barbecue when you’re otherwise eating a mostly healthy diet isn’t going to wreck your health,” Cassetty said. “So pick the one you’ll enjoy and be mindful of your diet as a whole.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.