With all the vegan health and weight loss transformations you see out there, some people assume all vegan food is healthy. But what about fake meats like vegan hot dogs? Are vegan hot dogs actually healthy?
Vegan hot dogs have less saturated fat, more fiber, and more protein than regular hot dogs. Regular hot dogs are “processed meat,” a carcinogen according to the WHO, while veggie dogs are not. However, vegan hot dogs are still processed and high in sodium, so they’re not completely healthy, either.
Below, I’ll dig into the ingredients for three leading brands of vegan hot dogs. I’ll compare head-to-head the nutrition facts for vegan hot dogs vs regular hot dogs. I’ll address hot dogs and cancer risk… and lastly, I’ll share a tip for a truly healthy alternative to hot dogs.
What Are Vegan Hot Dogs Made Out Of?
For most vegan hot dogs, the main two ingredients are (1) plant protein and (2) vegetable oil.
For the protein, it might be soy protein, pea protein, vital wheat gluten, or others. For the oil, it might be soybean oil, canola oil, safflower oil, or others. The exact combination varies by brand.
Each brand also has a mix of ingredients added for flavor, color, and texture. These commonly include: Salt, cane sugar, carrageenan, natural smoke flavor, xanthan gum, and paprika oleoresin.
Here are the full ingredients for three leading brands of vegan hot dogs in the United States:
- Lightlife Smart Dog Ingredients: “Water, Soy Protein Isolate, Soybean Oil, Evaporated Cane Sugar, Pea Protein Isolate, Tapioca Starch, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Yeast Extract, Carrageenan, Dehydrated Garlic, Natural Flavor, Natural Smoke Flavor, Xanthan Gum, Fermented Rice Flour, Guar Gum, Oleoresin Paprika (Color), Vital Wheat Gluten.” (source)
- Tofurky Plant-Based Jumbo Hot Dog Ingredients: “Water, vital wheat gluten, pea protein, expeller pressed canola oil, tofu (water, soybeans, magnesium chloride, calcium chloride), contains less than 2% of cane sugar, sea salt, spices, onion powder, annatto (for color), natural flavors, natural smoke flavor, oat fiber, carrageenan, dextrose, konjac, xanthan gum.” (source)
- Field Roast Plant-Based Frankfurter Ingredients: “Filtered Water, Vital Wheat Gluten, Expeller Pressed Safflower Oil, Yeast Extract (Yeast, Salt, Sugar, Natural Flavor), Organic Expeller Pressed Palm Fruit Oil, Barley Malt Extract, Tomato Paste, Apple Cider Vinegar, Paprika Color, Spices, Sea Salt, Onions, Wheat Flour, Garlic, Natural Smoke Flavor, Celery Seed, Paprika Oleoresin (Color).” (source)
Before we move onto the rest of the Nutrition Facts label, let’s answer some questions about the ingredients and substances found in vegan hot dogs.
Do Vegan Hot Dogs Have Nitrates?
Regular hot dogs are known for containing “nitrates” (actually nitrites) that are thought to lead to the formation of carcinogens. Most famously, this includes “sodium nitrite.” It’s a preservative used to keep hot dogs pink in color.
It turns out these nitrite preservatives, when cooked in meat, can form nitrosamines, which are powerful carcinogens, particularly for pregnant women and children. (Hot dogs have been associated with childhood leukemia and pediatric brain tumors.)
So, do vegan hot dogs have any of these potentially dangerous preservatives?
Vegan hot dogs do not contain nitrite preservatives. And even if they did, it’s not necessarily the case that this would result in the same carcinogenic nitrosamines that commonly form when cooking processed meat like real hot dogs.
So there’s nothing to worry about. Indeed, one vegan hot dog brand, Yves, answers this question clearly on their website’s FAQ: “We do not use any nitrites or any artificial preservatives in our products.”
Put simply, vegan hot dogs don’t require nitrite preservatives—so they don’t have this same potential carcinogenic risk factor.
Should I Worry About Carrageenan in Vegan Hot Dogs?
Carrageenan is an ingredient found in many (but not all) vegan hot dogs. It’s a thickener and fat substitute made from a type of red moss. And some evidence suggests that it may cause digestive issues and lead to leaky gut.
However, these concerns with carrageenan are mainly based on in vitro studies (in a petri dish). We still lack sufficient evidence to know how carrageenan really works in our bodies.
So, should you be concerned about the carrageenan in vegan hot dogs? Well, there’s some cause for concern—but it’s far from proven that carrageenan is harmful in actual human physiology.
Personally, I would consider carrageenan to be a negative ingredient, due to its potential risk. But I wouldn’t consider it on the same level as food compounds that we know to be awful for human health. It’s more of a question mark.
Are Vegan Hot Dogs Highly Processed?
I’m not sure exactly what qualifies as “highly processed,” but vegan hot dogs are definitely processed. When we talk about “processed food,” we’re really talking about the removal of healthy parts of a food, or the addition of unhealthy parts.
So, how do vegan hot dogs stack up in that regard?
- Quite a lot of salt is added. (More on this below.)
- A small amount of sugar is added.
- Fiber and nutrients are removed by using “soy protein” or “vital wheat gluten” rather than whole soybeans or whole wheat.
- Fiber and nutrients are removed by using oils rather than whole food sources of fat.
These are four significant ways that vegan hot dogs qualify as “processed” or even potentially “heavily processed food.” That said, they are not the most processed junk food out there.
Vegan hot dogs are actually quite low in sugar, and certain brands (like Lightlife’s Smart Dogs) are impressively low in calories (50 calories per link). So it’s not like vegan hot dogs are among the most processed foods or anything.
Are Vegan Hot Dogs Healthier Than Regular Hot Dogs?
Of course, it’s not as simple as saying “vegan hot dogs are good for you” or “vegan hot dogs are bad for you.” All foods exist on a spectrum, and they can be healthy or unhealthy by a number of factors. So we need a better question than just “Are vegan hot dogs healthy?”
We need to look at how vegan hot dogs compare to regular hot dogs specifically.
We’ll be looking at a few different factors, but let’s start by looking at the nutrition facts for three vegan hot dogs (the same ones listed above), compared with three “real” hot dogs.
Here are the full names of the products I’m comparing and where I grabbed the nutrition facts from:
- Real Hot Dog 1: Ball Park Beef Franks (source)
- Real Hot Dog 2: Oscar Mayer Classic Wieners (source)
- Real Hot Dog 3: Vienna Beef Franks (source)
- Vegan Hot Dog 1: Lightlife Smart Dogs (source)
- Vegan Hot Dog 2: Tofurky Jumbo Hot Dogs (source)
- Vegan Hot Dog 3: Field Roast Plant-Based Frankfurters (source)
Let’s take a look at how they compare. The vegan dogs are on the right:
|Product||Ball Park||Oscar Mayer||Vienna Beef||Lightlife||Tofurky||Field Roast|
Here are some of the interesting things I noticed from this table:
- Vegan hot dogs are lower in saturated fat. Two of the three veggie dogs even have 0g of saturated fat! This is a big win for vegan hot dogs. Most health orgs agree that saturated fat raises LDL (bad) cholesterol and increases heart disease risk. So less saturated fat is good!
- Vegan hot dogs contain fiber—regular hot dogs don’t. All three veggie dogs contain at least some fiber—but none of the real hot dogs do. Fiber has a ton of health benefits, and 95% of Americans don’t eat enough. So another win for vegan hot dogs.
- Vegan hot dogs contain more protein. Isn’t this one crazy? Everyone thinks meat is such a great source of protein. But when it comes to hot dogs, they are mostly fat, not protein. Tofurky veggie dogs contain 4x the protein of Oscar Mayer Weiners.
- Both are high in sodium. Vegan hot dogs are not noticeably better or worse overall when it comes to sodium. This is a shame, as high-sodium diets lead to higher blood pressure, which can be a risk factor for heart disease.
- From the numbers, Lightlife’s Smart Dog looks healthiest. This little veggie dog is the lowest in calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugars.
- From the numbers, Ball Park Franks look the least healthy. This hot dog has the most saturated fat by far and among the highest sodium levels. It also actually contains a gram of trans fat. Trans fat is the most dangerous kind of fat—the only safe intake is zero.
Based on this comparison, vegan hot dogs clearly win. However, that doesn’t address everything. There’s something else, which isn’t visible in the ingredients list or nutrition label…
Hot Dogs and Cancer
Remarkably, in 2015 the World Health Organization explicitly stated that regular hot dogs are carcinogenic. Hot dogs and other “processed meats” (like bacon) were categorized as Group 1 carcinogens.
“Group 1” is the group of carcinogens for which there is the strongest evidence for cancer risk. This is the same category that includes asbestos and smoking. (source)
This is pretty shocking for a lot of people to hear. Many parents don’t realize they’re feeding their children known carcinogens when they make hot dogs.
However, it’s worth noting: Being classified as a Group 1 carcinogen doesn’t say anything about the potency of the cancer-causing effect. It just says we have a high level of certainty about the cancer-causing effect.
This makes sense when you realize that “solar radiation” is also a Group 1 carcinogen. Yeah… sunshine is a Group 1 carcinogen, too.
Arguably, then, the title “Group 1 carcinogen” shouldn’t necessarily scare us off. We should look at the actually data for how large the increased risk of cancer is. So let’s do that.
Eating one hot dog per day is believed to increase your risk of colon cancer by 18%. Since the average chance of getting colon cancer in your life is about 5%, this means eating one hot dog per day raises your lifetime risk to about 6%. (source)
But that’s not all. One study showed that eating only 20 grams of processed meat (less than half of a hot dog) per day raised breast cancer risk in women by 21%.
Some people may find these risks unacceptable. Others may find them no big deal. But the fact is that regular hot dogs do raise your risk of cancer.
So what about vegan hot dogs? Do they increase cancer risk, too?
Are Vegan Hot Dogs Carcinogenic?
Vegan hot dogs are not known to be carcinogenic. Vegan hot dogs are not “processed meat,” so unlike regular hot dogs, they are not included in the WHO’s Group 1 carcinogens. Vegan hot dogs also lack the nitrite preservatives in regular hot dogs that are believed to cause childhood cancers.
This doesn’t mean vegan hot dogs are perfectly healthy. As I covered above, vegan hot dogs are usually made from processed ingredients, so they’re mostly empty calories. Their high salt content and low fiber may contribute to weight gain or high blood pressure in the long run.
But unlike regular hot dogs, vegan hot dogs are not known to cause cancer.
A Healthy Alternative to Vegan Hot Dogs
Many people are fine with eating an unhealthy meal once in a while. Even healthy vegans may choose to have occasional cheat meals full of processed foods like vegan hot dogs. But what if you’re looking for a truly healthy option?
What can you eat in place of hot dogs that is actually healthy? Well, I have a pretty cool recommendation: Carrot dogs.
It’s just what the name sounds like—carrots that are seasoned and grilled like hot dogs, eaten in a bun. It’s kind of funny, but it’s actually surprisingly good.
I’ll be honest that I haven’t vetted all the different recipes out there or perfected my own yet. Here is one that looks like it has promise. But honestly, the first time I had a carrot dog, it was an extremely simple version of it.
Basically, one of my friends just grilled plain carrots on a real grill, and she got them all charred like real hot dogs. Honestly, just the shape and the grilled/charred taste was enough to make the carrot seem like a hot dog.
Combine the grilling/charring effect with a proper marinade, and you can truly make some incredible carrot dogs. Carrots are way healthier than any of the common vegan hot dogs (or real hot dogs) on the market today. Dig in!
Two More Recommendations for Your Vegan Journey
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