Friday, March 5, 2010

Hot Dog! (Enter the Nitrite-Free Zone)

We hit a culinary milestone in our household last week – our home is officially a Nitrite-Free Zone!

“Who wants hot dogs?!”

“I do!” – “I do!” – “I do!”

“I want three!” That would be Jackson, our family foodie who can smell and taste the subtlest of ingredients.

“You can have two,” I said. “And when you finish those, we’ll decide.”

Then I placed a plate in front of each kid and stood back, fingers crossed. You see, last week, without warning the kids, we switched our hot dogs from Hebrew National (a doggone good dog by any standard, including the “Higher Standard”) to an uncured nitrite-free version from Trader Joe’s.

Berkeley, 4-years old, wasn’t in a hot dog mood, so she passed and had something else.

Nolan, 8, chomped down and never looked back. Interesting…

Then Jackson (photo at left), 6, our resident food critic, took a bite. Slowly chewing and eventually swallowing, he had this inquisitive look in his eyes. Uh oh…

“This tastes different,” he said, after putting the bun and hot dog back on his plate. “Dad, taste it.”

“What—what do you mean?” I said as I looked to Maria, the both of us staring at each other with eyes wide open and teeth clenched.

“It’s spicy,” he said.

I took a bite, my first bite actually, since I didn’t bother to try it before serving. And what do you know? Jackson was right. It did taste different. A little spicy even. Darn!

But I really wanted this experimental switch-a-roo to stick, so I said, “Mmmmm… it’s goo-ood! Mommy bought these special hot dogs just for you, Jackson. They’re so-oo good!”

He took another bite.

All the while, I kept talking about what a wonderful and special hot dog mommy had bought just for the kids whom she loves so-oo much.

Then another bite.

Hmm… this is working! He’s not rejecting it.

Two minutes, two and a half hot dogs later, the experiment was a success!

So what’s the big deal about regular hot dogs, Hebrew National, even? The problem is the preservatives – especially, sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite reacts with amines present in meat to form nitrosamines, a known carcinogen which has been associated with cancer of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, bladder, and even the brain.

Nitrites were originally added to meats in your grocery store’s deli section—we’re talking cured meats, lunch meats, hot dogs, bacon, almost every meat that’s not considered fresh meat—to combat botulism poisoning and preserve the red “fresh” color of the meat. With today’s modern refrigeration methods, however, there is no longer a need for the sodium nitrite to prevent disease. True, the color of the meat may be somewhat closer to brown than red, but at what cost?

A study (Peters et al) of kids is Los Angeles County done from 1980-1987, found a relationship between eating hot dogs with an increase in leukemia in children from birth to 10 years old. They found that eating 12 hot dogs per month put children at nine times the risk of developing childhood leukemia. Other studies have even shown that mothers who ate hot dogs one or more times a week during pregnancy increased the risk of that child developing brain tumors.

But what about the nitrites naturally existent in vegetables, especially spinach, celery, and green lettuce? How is it that consumption of these veggies has actually been linked to preventing cancer? It turns out that these veggies also contain vitamins C and D, which actually inhibit the formation of nitrosamines, the cancer causing agent. So now federal regulations require that ascorbic acid (vitamin C) be added to all cured meats using sodium nitrite as a preservative.

Sounds like a problem solved, right? Well… maybe. But our “gut” reaction is why are we adding all this extra stuff to what’s supposed to be just meat?

We’ve decided that we would rather not take the risk of eating food that may look good on the shelves—unnaturally preserved to last far longer on store shelves than reason and our own stomachs will allow—and have chosen to seek out nitrite-free meats.

This is not a drastic lifestyle change. We are not saying that our children will never have another hot dog outside the house. Not to mention pizza with pepperoni, sausage, or Canadian bacon. You’ll pretty much find nitrites everywhere prepared (cured) meats are. But we can’t avoid eating out for the rest of our lives. After all, we have our requisite trips to Legoland and Disneyland. What we can control is what we choose to bring into our home to serve to our family. Also, just being aware is good enough to help us make better choices. Maybe we don’t have to eat out as often. Maybe we pack a healthier snack instead. Or maybe we can hold off eating until later, when we can feed our family with better choices.

As of last week, we were able to find nitrite-free hot dogs (and bacon) at Trader Joe’s, but not any of the large supermarkets nearby. However, we were able to find smoked turkey deli meat at Albertson’s that was nitrite-free; it both tasted and looked just fine.

We wish you all the best and hope this helps you take a small step toward minding yours and your children’s health!

I have to run now. Jackson is asking for more hot dogs.


  1. Thanks, Adrienne.

    The credit really goes to Maria since without her I'd still be having nitrites pumped directly into my system intravenously -- typically via a 50/50 solution with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

  2. thanks...very informative! i had no idea... looking forward to future topics!