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A pair of tongs flipping a burger on a grill full of hamburgers and hot dogs

A pair of tongs flipping a burger on a grill full of hamburgers and hot dogs

The Healthier Choice: Burger or Hot Dog?

Do you look around the natural world and wonder? Wonder why things work the way they do, why things are the way they are? With summer BBQs and bathing suit season just around the corner, let’s wonder about the relative nutritional and health value of burgers versus hot dogs.

It’s a glorious, late spring afternoon, with just a hint of summer in the air. Heading for the first backyard cookout of the year, you’re faced with a dilemma: burger or hot dog?

Let’s leave aside the question of whether a burger or hot dog tastes better and go at this question as scientists. We’ll focus on which is better in terms of caloric and fat content, and in terms of health benefits or risks.

You’re probably already objecting. A burger isn’t a burger isn’t a burger, after all, and the same for hot dogs. Is the burger made from regular ground beef or ground sirloin? Are your hot dogs made from beef, turkey, or pork? Are they regulation size or jumbo?

We need to set some ground rules. (Ground beef rules? Sorry, bad pun.)

Let’s take a typical burger made of ground beef with a lean-to-fat content ratio of 85 percent. We’ll start with a third of a pound of pre-cooked meat, which will shrink down to about a quarter of a pound when it comes off the grill. (Although much of the weight difference is due to the release of water, the rendering of the fat that drips through the grill gives burgers better flavor and texture.)

For our typical hot dog, let’s liven things up and go for a premium “bun length” frankfurter. It weighs in at around 2 ounces after grilling, about half the weight of one of our typical, cooked burgers. So in running the numbers, we’ll compare one burger to two hot dogs.

Regardless of whether you choose a burger or a hot dog, you’ll likely put it on a bun and add a variety of fixings: lettuce, tomato, relish, mayo, mustard, and ketchup. Although the options for a burger include more items that are healthier than those for a wiener—think lettuce, tomato, and red onions versus sauerkraut or chili—let’s consider the toppings to be about the same for either choice. Let’s focus just on the meat.

If you watch what you eat, you likely start any food comparison by looking at calories. For our selected burger and two hot dogs, the caloric intake is about the same, about 300 calories for the burger and 350 calories for the wieners. But here’s a strike against the hot dogs: twice as many of their calories come from fat compared to the burger.

Protein? The burger will deliver about three times as many grams of protein as the hot dogs. Carbohydrates? The burger contains perhaps 30 times fewer grams of carbs. But the biggest health difference between the burger and our two wieners is seen in the amount of salt they deliver. A third of a pound of 85/15 ground beef contains about 100g of sodium. The hot dogs—nearly 1,200g! Even if your health status doesn’t cause you to watch your salt intake, that’s a whole lot of salt.

Manufacturers often add sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate to processed foods—like hot dogs—as a preservative. Although not all experts agree, there is some evidence that when heated, these produce compounds that are carcinogenic. Yet another reason that the hot dogs aren’t the best choice.

But here’s some positive thinking to wrap this up. (Bad pun? In case you weren’t aware, a lettuce-wrapped burger has become a popular, healthier alternative to the traditional burger-in-a-bun.) There are many ways to make your burger or hot dog healthier. Go for lean ground meat for your burgers and nitrate-free, low sodium hot dogs. Pile on healthy fixings and skip the extra cheese, chili, and (shudder) the fried egg. And most important—don’t over indulge!

 

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Questions to ponder:

How does your favorite burger—with your favorite fixings and condiments—stack up on the unhealthy to healthy spectrum? How about your favorite hot dog or sausage?

I’m a sucker for grilled kielbasa, with relish, onions, mustard, barbecue sauce, and a little mayo. How am I doing, do you think?

Science
Illuminate, health

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