What Is An Uncured Hot Dog (And How Is It Different From A Regular One)?

Today's grocery stores have an almost overwhelming number of choices. Take hot dogs, for example. Aside from all the different flavors and combinations of beef, turkey, and chicken dogs — not to mention the vegetarian options — there are natural casings and artificial, and then there are cured and uncured varieties. While some choices are straightforward, the difference between an uncured hot dog and a regular one is a little less noticeable. It's enough to make you consider making your own homemade beef hot dogs instead.

It will get just a touch more confusing before it starts to make sense because uncured hot dogs are still cured. Curing refers to the preservation process that prolongs shelf life while preserving taste, texture, and color. Uncured hot dogs still go through a preservation process, but the all-natural ingredients that are used in uncured dogs are the major difference here.

In both cases, nitrates and nitrites are added to the hot dogs to create everyone's favorite backyard barbecue staple, and those two things have been in the headlines a lot. They're often linked to all kinds of health concerns, but what does that mean for choosing a hot dog? Is one better than the other? We'll explain the difference in detail and help you make the right choice for your needs.

Uncured hot dogs are made with all-natural ingredients

Whether serving them on a bun, in a casserole, on a pizza, or in any number of ways you may have never thought to use hot dogs before, the choice between cured and uncured dogs does matter. The easy way to remember the difference is that instead of being made with synthetic, artificial sources of nitrates and nitrites — the two compounds crucial to the process — uncured dogs are preserved with ingredients like celery salt, juice, or powder and other salts. If you see a package that reads "no nitrates or nitrites added," that's the same as saying "uncured."

Not all sources of nitrates and nitrites are created equal, and uncured hot dogs tend to have a shorter shelf life than cured dogs — but that said, they're still perfectly safe. Uncured dogs also tend not to have that pinkish or reddish color we've come to associate with many cured hot dogs, as that pinkness comes from synthetic preservatives. 

All-natural has a reputation as being much better for you in the long run, but uncured hot dogs come with a footnote. If you're watching your sodium intake, you should definitely check the nutrition labels of uncured hot dogs: They can contain more sodium than cured dogs because salts are often key to the preservation process.

Does the source of nitrates and nitrites make a difference?

The entire subject of nitrates and nitrites is a wildly confusing and controversial one, and some studies have shown that it's entirely possible that the source of the compounds does matter. First, it's important to know that nitrates are stable compounds that the bacteria and enzymes in our bodies transform into nitrites. Nitrites are then changed again and can become either helpful nitric oxide or harmful nitrosamines.

We actually eat a lot of nitrates, and most come from fruits and vegetables. Queen's University Belfast professor Chris Elliot spoke to the BBC about the difference, clarifying that research has shown that when nitrates and nitrites are consumed with meat, that's when the body processes them into the nitrosamines — which is the compound that's been linked to cancer. 

Elliot explained: "The formation of the nitrosamines is a complex reaction that needs proteins to be present i.e. the same reaction does not happen when the chemicals are added to vegetables so there are not the same health related risks."

Healthy nitrites have been linked to benefits like lowering blood pressure — and, in turn, risk of stroke and heart disease. That's something to keep in mind the next time you reach for a package of hot dogs, and it's good news: There are healthy hot dog options out there.