A hot dog with mustard.

While no one is claiming that hot dogs could ever be considered a health food, their healthiness quotient has improved since the days when they were stuffed with mystery meat.

The Department of Agriculture requires that they be made from real meat (beef, chicken, pork, turkey, or some combination of those), and they can’t contain more than 3.5 percent of nonmeat binders or fillers (which include nonfat dry milk, cereal, or dried whole milk).

But even the hot dogs marketed as “healthy” can still be nutritional landmines—high in sodium, fat, and nitrates. “Summer cookouts, picnics, and trips to the ballpark often mean hot dogs are on the menu, and indulging once in a while is okay,” says Ellen Klosz, a Consumer Reports nutritionist. “But make sure they’re only an occasional treat, and limit your consumption to just one.”

Here, a few pointers on what to look for, what to avoid, and what some of the language you read on hot dog labels really means.

Watch the Fat and Sodium

If you’re not careful about the other foods you eat in a day, a meal that includes one hot dog can easily push your daily tally of sodium and saturated fat over the acceptable limit.

More on Healthy Eating

“Many hot dogs contain 500 mg or more of sodium, which is nearly a quarter of the maximum 2,300 mg you should have in a day,” Klosz says. For example, Nathan’s Famous Beef Frankfurters contain 560 mg of sodium per single dog. Those made with poultry don’t fare much better on the sodium front—Applegate Naturals Natural Uncured Turkey hot dogs pack 450 mg of sodium each.

Traditional beef and pork hot dogs are also high in fat. A Hebrew National Kosher Beef Frank contains 13 grams of fat, with 5 grams saturated fat. You can cut out some fat by opting for dogs made from chicken or turkey. Applegate Organics The Great Organic Uncured Chicken hot dogs contain 6 grams of total fat—1.5 grams of it saturated—and the company’s turkey variety has just 3.5 grams of total fat, with only half a gram of saturated fat.

Consider What’s Inside

When it comes to the quality of the meat they contain, not all hot dogs are created equal. Some, such as Oscar Mayer Classic Wieners and Ball Park Classic Franks, include what’s called “mechanically separated meat” (pork or poultry), which the USDA defines as “a paste-like and batter-like meat product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible meat, under high pressure through a sieve or similar device to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue.”

The USDA says that mechanically separated meat is safe (however, mechanically separated beef is not allowed because of concerns about mad cow disease). But the European Food Safety Authority notes that the way this meat is processed increases the chance of microbial growth. “If hot dogs are properly cooked, I wouldn’t be concerned about bacterial growth,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety at CR. See below for cooking safety tips.

If you prefer to avoid mechanically separated meat, check the ingredients list on your hot dog package—if it contains mechanically separated meat, the manufacturers are required to say so.  

You may also want to opt for brands that are made with grass-fed beef (such as Applegate Naturals Beef Hot Dog) or organic hot dogs, which are made with meat from animals that have been raised without antibiotics.  

Factor In What Else You Eat

No matter how healthy your hot dog may sound, it is still a processed meat product. The World Health Organization defines processed meat as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” In addition to hot dogs, processed meats include bacon, beef jerky, deli meats, ham, salami, and sausage.

Processed meat has been shown to cause a number of negative health effects. A review of 20 studies including more than a million people, published in the journal Circulation in 2010, found a consistent link between processed meat intake and an increased risk of coronary heart disease. In fact, the researchers concluded that each daily serving of processed meat (a hot dog counts as one serving) was associated with a 42 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease.

And a 2015 report by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified processed meat as a carcinogen. “If you’re going to have a hot dog, consider cutting back on other types of processed meat you may eat, such as bacon or sandwiches made with lunch meat,” Klosz says.

Because eating too much red meat has also been linked to heart disease and cancer, chicken or turkey dogs might be a slightly healthier option. “But a better alternative is to replace red or processed meat with unprocessed, fresh chicken or turkey,” says Kana Wu, Ph.D., principal research scientist in the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and one of the authors of the WHO report. 

Don’t Be Swayed by 'No Nitrite' Claims

By USDA regulations, if a hot dog label says “cured,” it was made using synthetic nitrites or nitrates (such as sodium nitrite)—preservatives found in many processed meats. Curing is a process used to preserve meat, add flavor, and maintain color. However, nitrites and nitrates may form cancer-causing compounds called nitrosamines in the body.

The same regulations require that hot dogs that don’t contain synthetic nitrites be labeled “uncured.” (Those labeled “organic” are also required to be free of synthetic nitrates or nitrites.)

That can be confusing to consumers, says Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst at CR and a sustainability expert. “Most of these products are still cured, but with nitrites from nonsynthetic sources such as celery juice or powder,” she says. “And nitrites and nitrates can be converted to potentially cancer-causing nitrosamines in the body, regardless of the source.”

If a product makes a “no nitrite or nitrate added” claim, check the fine print. The USDA requires that products making this claim include a line that says “except for those occurring naturally in” whatever naturally-occurring source the company used.   

Keep an Eye on the Extras

Few people choose to eat their hot dogs naked, and how you dress them can either improve or worsen their nutrition profile. “Typical hot dog buns are made from refined white flour that has very little fiber or nutritional value,” says Kate Patton, R.D., a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. “Plus, they often contain added sodium and sugar.” Whenever possible, opt for a 100 percent whole-grain bun instead.

As for toppings, a little ketchup or mustard won’t hurt. But be sure to read the ingredients list and check the Nutrition Facts label for sodium and sugars content. Both can have around 160 mg per tablespoon. And ketchup and some mustards, such as honey mustard, can also contain added sugars. For example, a tablespoon of Heinz Tomato Ketchup has 4 grams of sugars, while a tablespoon of Gulden’s Honey Mustard has 6 grams—a hefty amount, considering that the American Heart Association recommends that  women have just 24 grams of added sugars a day; men, 36.

Sauerkraut can be a great option for giving your hot dog a probiotic boost. (Look for refrigerated products. Shelf-stable varieties are pasteurized, which kills off the healthy probiotic bacteria.) Or Patton suggests piling on some raw veggies—like shredded lettuce or cabbage and fresh, diced tomatoes.

Cook and Serve Safely

Although hot dogs are typically precooked, don’t make the mistake of assuming they’re safe to eat as is. They should be heated to an internal temperature of 165° F to minimize the risk of infection with listeria monocytogenes, a potentially dangerous bacteria that can cause food poisoning. This is especially important for pregnant women, older adults, and those with weakened immune systems, because they are most at risk of this foodborne illness.

And be extra careful when serving hot dogs to children. Whole dogs, or ones cut into circular slices, are a major choking hazard for children younger than 4 years old, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The safest ways to serve hot dogs to young children is to cut them lengthwise and then into small pieces. If the hot dog has a casing, be sure to remove it before cutting into pieces; the casing can also cause choking.