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Could the Chicago Dog Ever Be Healthy?

A Step-by-Step Attempt at a Healthier Hot Dog

The Chicago dog is a fair weather staple and a city treasure. The directions are well known in these parts: an all-beef frankfurter dragged through the garden with no, absolutely never, any ketchup. Chicago-style is not, however, associated with healthy eating and the sad reality is that hot dogs may never truly earn that label.

And yet, while the Chicago dog you grab at a baseball game or from your favorite food truck may represent peak guilty pleasure, grilling up your own at home can offer a few opportunities to make it somewhat nutritious.

One ingredient at a time, here’s where you can add a little health to your hot dog.

Choose Your Dog Carefully

The whole healthiness of a hot dog depends on the dog itself – specifically, the quality of the meat, the processing and the added ingredients. Nutritionists recommend limiting the amount of processed foods, like hot dogs, in your diet and research on processed meats, in particular, suggests an association with a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease. However, many types of meat in your diet are inevitably processed, so you've likely already honed the skills to find the healthiest choice and indulging every once in awhile won't ruin your health.

Additional relief can be found with careful label-reading. A Chicago dog calls for all-beef so start there. Avoid meats labeled as light or fat-free, and look instead for uncured meat free of nitrates. Organic is another good word. Look for hot dogs low in sodium – a reasonable amount is about 370 mg or less.

Other nutrition information goals should include:

  • 6 grams of saturated fat or less
  • 14 grams of fat (total) or less
  • 150 calories or less

Swap a Poppy Seed Bun for a Whole Grain Bun

Buns might be your best bet to make up ground on the quest for a healthy hot dog. Poppy seed buns – the traditional Chicago dog choice – are usually white buns with lots of carbs and no fiber. Not to mention, they’re loaded with sodium. Whole-wheat buns offer more fiber and often times more flavor, too.

If you’re sentimental about the poppy seeds, add them yourself. Lightly butter the buns, place poppy seeds on them and heat briefly on the grill or in the oven.

Lighten Up Your Yellow Mustard

There are, in fact, quite a few health benefits in yellow mustard. It offers protein, fiber and vitamins like calcium, magnesium and potassium. However, when nutritionists say yellow they really mean more of a light beige and that means you want to be buying natural or organic options and passing on that bright yellow bottle, tradition aside.

However, be warned: Like everything else on this list, mustard has its fair share of sodium. Apply judiciously.

Go Low for the Pickle Spear

Good news: Pickles have healthy antioxidants and are low in calories and fat. They’re also a good source of probiotics.

Bad news: Pickles have between one third and one half of your daily recommended intake of sodium.

The best solution you’ll find, save forgoing a beloved part of the Chicago dog, is to use a low-sodium pickle spear. They provide the same flavor with less sodium.

Carry On With Your Onions

Onions are a great source of vitamin C, flavonoids and other nutrients and some research suggests they may reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular disease and stroke. Chefs recommend white onions for crispness and heat may reduce some of the health benefits, so cut them up raw – try not to cry – and sprinkle away.

Feel Good About the Tomato Wedges

This is another topping that provides a key assist in any attempt to make your hot dog healthy. Buy ripe, red Beefsteak tomatoes and cut them into wedges. Add them to your hot dog and feel consoled that one more of your toppings is rich in vitamins and minerals and may reduce your risk of heart disease, among other benefits for your skin, bone and hair health.

Pick Your Pickled Sports Peppers Carefully

Hot peppers can have health benefits and sport peppers – placed whole and certainly not sliced on a Chicago dog – technically count as hot peppers. They contain almost no fat and only about five calories per pepper. The catch is, of course, sodium: two peppers provide 20 percent of your daily value.

Fortunately or not, sports peppers can also be fairly difficult to find in stores, presenting the opportunity to swap in another source of mild spice – one, perhaps, with a little less sodium.

Tone Down the Relish

Bright, even neon, green sweet pickle relish is a fundamental part of the Chicago dog, but food that color is very rarely found in nature. The classic green relish is often high in preservatives, color additives and added sugar. Opting for organic relish or making your own keep those cons down – relish has the major pro of (relatively) low amounts of sodium. Using dill pickle relish instead of sweet pickle relish is a bolder choice that will eliminate the carbs and calories from the sugar.

Perhaps Skip the Celery Salt

Unfortunately, celery salt is mostly just salt. Even with the most aggressive of swaps, a hot dog is already a sodium-heavy meal, so the healthiest spin here has to be a hard pass.

It is essentially impossible to make a healthy hot dog, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try. Cut down on sodium where you can, opt for ingredients that are as natural as possible, and keep an eye on topping size. Then, enjoy your Chicago dog.