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Hot dogs are made of processed meat and they’re loaded with cholesterol-raising saturated fat and sodium.

Mark Lennihan/AP

The question: How bad are hot dogs for me? Is it possible to buy a healthier hot dog?

The answer: Hot dogs aren't exactly nutritious – not even close. They're made of processed meat and they're loaded with cholesterol-raising saturated fat and sodium. The good news: If you read nutrition labels, you can find some wieners that are easier on your waistline and arteries. (Still, health foods they aren't.)

Consider the average beef or pork hot dog (38 grams or kid's size) delivers roughly 110 calories, four grams of saturated fat and 350 milligrams of sodium. That's before bun and condiments. Most "jumbo size" franks (75 grams) serve up double the calories, fat and sodium. Even worse: Shopsy's All Beef Quarter Pounder (113 grams) weighs in at 310 calories, 11 grams of saturated fat (half a day's worth) and 1,120 milligrams of sodium (nearly a day's worth for adults).

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A regular fare of hot dogs can do more than raise your cholesterol or blood pressure numbers. A heavy intake of processed meat – such as wieners, sausages, bacon, cold cuts – is linked with a greater risk of colorectal cancer. Based on evidence, experts recommend we limit or avoid processed meats.

If that wasn't bad enough, consider that cooking meat to high temperatures (e.g. grilling hot dogs or frying bacon) forms heterocyclic amines, compounds shown to cause colon tumours in animals. Processed meats such as wieners also contain sodium nitrite, a preservative that helps prevent botulism food poisoning and gives cured meats their characteristic red colour. During cooking, however, nitrite can react with compounds naturally present in meat to form nitrosamines and nitrosamides, several of which have been associated with certain cancers in humans and animals. Companies add sodium erythorbate (a form of vitamin C) to processed meat to inhibit this conversion and help minimize the risk.

That said, you don't need to go cold turkey on hot dogs this summer. You'll save saturated fat if you switch to chicken or turkey wieners – most brands contain no more than two grams of saturated fat per serving. What you don't save on, however, is sodium. One Butterball Turkey Frank (56 grams) has 470 milligrams of sodium, one-third of a day's worth.

Veggie dogs made from soy protein have no saturated fat and are lower in calories than their meat and poultry counterparts. One Yves Veggie Cuisine Veggie Dog (46 grams) has 60 calories and 1.5 grams of fat (from canola oil). But they're still high in sodium (390 milligrams). They don't, however, contain sodium nitrite.

You can also buy beef, pork or chicken wieners without sodium nitrite from companies such as Life Choices Foods, Schneider's, Maple Leaf and Loblaw. Instead, cultured celery extract – a natural source of nitrites – is used to preserve these products. Naturally sourced or not, nitrites are nitrites. What's more, research has found so-called "natural" hot dogs can have similar or higher levels of nitrites than traditional ones.

Bottom line: if you read nutrition labels and don't make them regular fare, the occasional hot dog can be part of a healthy summer diet. Whether it's beef, pork, chicken or turkey, choose a wiener (38 grams) with no more than three grams of saturated fat and less than 400 milligrams of sodium.

Whether you enjoy a grilled hot dog or steak, be sure to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables each day. Produce rich in phytochemicals called flavonoids – berries, cherries, red grapes, apples, citrus fruit, broccoli, kale, onions – are thought to alter the harmful effects of heterocyclic amines that form during grilling.

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Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is the national director of nutrition at BodyScience Medical. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct ( www.lesliebeck.com ).

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