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Consumer Reports rates hot dogs and light beer

Posted Tuesday, June 19, 2007

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CR identifies lower fat dogs with flavor; and consumers can wash it down with top-rated lower cal beer

Yonkers, NY — Just in time for summer, the July issue of Consumer Reports rated the quality of hot dogs and beer for consumers watching their calories.

Savvy consumers in search of a lower fat frank can fill their buns with a relatively flavorful dog, though the pickings are slim. Of the seven hot dogs that received the “Very Good” Rating by Consumer Reports for flavor and texture, two were of the lower fat variety: Hebrew National Kosher Reduced Fat Beef Franks (120 calories/10 grams fat) and Boar’s Head Lite Skinless Beef Franks (90 calories/6 grams fat). While these two lower fat dogs contain less sodium than many of the hot dogs, as a general rule, hot dogs are loaded with sodium.

When it comes to beer, bigger flavors can be had, even when calories are spared. Eleven light beers rated “Very Good” for flavor with Michelob Ultra Amber leading the pack (114 calories), followed by Michelob Light (113 calories) and Michelob Ultra (95 calories). And beer lovers will be pleased to learn that Consumer Reports also identified three Best Buy beers, Busch Light, Natural Light, and Keystone Light. They all combine fruity and floral notes and cost less than $4 for a six pack. Unlike “light” foods, there are no government regulations for “light” beers so consumers should keep a watchful eye on calorie labels. CR also notes that consumers watching their alcohol intake may be surprised to learn that light brews have almost as much alcohol as regular beer, despite the “light” label.

Hot Dogs: Dogging Your Health


Consumer Reports tested hot dogs from 23 well-known brands and leading retailers on a concession style grill with rollers. CR identified three Quick Picks, chosen because they had less fat calories and sodium than their full fat brandmates, but a taste and texture that was similar: Hebrew National Kosher Reduced Fat Beef Franks ($.57 per dog/120 cal/10 g fat/360 mg sodium); Boar’s Head Lite Skinless Beef Franks ($.44 per dog/90 cal/6 g fat/270 mg sodium); Oscar Mayer Light Beef Franks ($.32 per dog/90 calories/7 g fat/380 mg sodium). However, most of the best tasting hot dogs were the full-fat beef variety. Nutritionists consulted by CR refused to put these dogs in the “never, never eat” category, noting that a sound diet, with moderation, can accommodate an indulgence from time to time.

Whether sizzled on the barbecue or scarfed down at the ball game, hot dogs are so popular that it seems almost unpatriotic to point out that they’re essentially tidy little bundles of sodium, additives, and fat. Going light can help, but don’t think you have to buy “uncured” or poultry dogs. Consumer Reports tests found that they weren’t necessarily better than regular franks.

Consumer Reports did find good choices when they cooked some 620 full-fat and lower-fat hot dogs from 23 well-known brands and leading retailers on a concession stand-style grill with rollers. Several of the light dogs tasted nearly as good as their full-fat cousins and were considerably lower in fat and sodium (see Ratings). One of those, Ball Park Lite Franks, was among the lowest priced.

The dogs Consumer Reports tested ranged in size, which could affect a head-to-head comparison of their nutritional value. However, when we compared the dogs on an equal weight basis, the lighter models still had less fat. Moreover, with few exceptions, franks within the same brand were the same size, which would still make picking the lighter version of a favorite hot dog a smart choice.

‘HEALTHIER’ FRANKS MIGHT NOT BE

If you thought you were doing the right thing by selecting chicken or turkey franks or uncured dogs with no added nitrates, think again. Consumer Reports tests found they did not all deserve a health halo. While three of the four regular poultry dogs we rated had 30 to 80 fewer calories than the average of beef and mixed meat dogs, the other poultry frank had as many calories as beef. And most had plenty of fat and sodium. While the three uncured franks might boast of “no added nitrates,” our testing found that Applegate Farms, Coleman Natural, and Whole Ranch contained nitrates and nitrites at levels comparable to many of the cured models.

The vegetarian crowd will find it harder to fill their buns. Consumer Reports tasters screened four popular soy dogs to see whether there were at least two that could be included in a separate taste test. But the dogs were so off the mark (“they seemed to just mimic real food,” said one tester) that even a vegetarian might find them hard to swallow. Morning Star Farms Veggie Dogs was the best of the lot, but the kindest words our testers could find for them was that if you smother them with your favorite condiments, they might be OK.

WHAT’S INSIDE THE CASING

Long considered a “mystery meat,” hot dogs were thought to contain all kinds of horrors. Today, according to Department of Agriculture standards, they’re made of beef, pork, poultry, or a blend of all of those, which can contain no more than 30 percent fat, plus water used to cool the meat as it is ground, binders such as nonfat dry milk or cereal, salt, sweeteners, and seasonings.

Hot dogs may also contain sodium nitrite and nitrate, preservatives that give franks their characteristic flavor and color, ward off spoilage and rancidity, and help prevent botulism. Those compounds, which occur naturally in some foods, spices and water, have raised health concerns because they have the potential to form nitrosamines, chemicals found to cause cancer in lab animals. Research also suggests that a steady diet of cured meats might increase the risk of certain cancers and serious lung disease in people.

Consumer Reports analysis found that the nitrates and nitrites in all the hot dogs we tested were well below the maximum level for the additives established by the USDA. While a hot dog can be labeled uncured if no nitrates or nitrites have been added, that does not necessarily mean the product is free of them. The three uncured models we tested contained nitrites and nitrates because the compounds occur naturally in spices and other natural ingredients added during processing.

Manufacturers are permitted to process franks using machinery that scrapes meat from the bone. That brings a remote possibility that hot dogs might include central nervous system tissue, which has been recognized by the USDA as a transmission risk for mad cow disease if it comes from an infected animal. We sent 15 beef franks to an outside lab to test for the presence of the tissue. None was found to contain it.

Dogging your health

While additives and central nervous system tissue pose theoretical health risks, the frequent consumption of hot dogs can have more concrete consequences for your arteries.

Franks can contain so much fat that even some light versions can have significantly more fat than other meats. Alas, the two fat-free models we tested, Ball Park Bun Size Smoked White Turkey Franks and Ball Park Fat Free Beef Franks, had little meat flavor, as well as a spongy or rubbery texture, pushing them toward the bottom of our Ratings.

Some lower-fat franks, including Jennie-O Turkey Store Turkey Franks, had around 5 grams of fat, but experts recommend against making even those a dietary staple. You simply won’t get as much bang for your buck nutritionally from them as you would from a leaner meat or chicken, explains Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Hot dogs are not the best source of protein (though most Americans get much more of the nutrient than they need). Three ounces of frankfurters have about 10 grams of protein, while 3 ounces of lean beef, turkey, chicken, or salmon have about 20 or more grams of protein.

With a sodium range of 300 to 760 mg per frank in the models Consumer Reports tested, just one serving of any of them could contribute a hefty chunk to your daily sodium intake. The average American already consumes far more than the recommended maximum of 2,300 mg of sodium a day. And while occasionally exceeding that limit might not be harmful for everyone, studies have shown that high sodium intake can raise blood pressure in susceptible people and exacerbate certain conditions, such as asthma.

So it’s best to avoid making hot dogs a steady part of the diet, even for children.

How to choose

If you want to cut the fat. Because the two fat-free dogs ranked only fair for taste, those concerned about calories and fat should consider one of the lower-fat franks: Hebrew National Kosher Reduced Fat Beef Franks, Boar’s Head Lite Skinless Beef Franks, Oscar Mayer Light Beef Franks, and Ball Park Lite Franks.

If you’re going for taste. All seven of Consumer Reports “very good” dogs were beef and three models stood out from the others: Hebrew National Kosher Franks, Nathan’s Famous Skinless Franks, and Boar’s Head Skinless Franks. Regular and light mixed meats and poultry franks fell largely in the good category; take your pick from those higher in this ranking.

If kosher is a must. Try Hebrew National Reduced Fat Franks. They had fewer calories and less fat than regular Hebrew National, and 60 mg less sodium per serving.

Best of the Light Brews


Americans now drink more light beer than any other kind, and more varieties have frothed up to quench the thirst of calorie-counting drinkers. Since there are no standards for light beer, calories and taste are all over the lot. The range of calories across the light beer category is wide, from the 65 calorie Beck’s Premier Light (deemed “cardboardy” by CR’s testers) to the 119-calorie Sam Adams Light (which merited a “Very Good”).

If you have been drinking Bud Light or Miller Lite, the best-selling light beers in the country, it might be time to consider a new brew, our taste tests show. Although those two beers were judged very good, several others scored higher. The top light beer: Michelob Ultra Amber, which hit the market just last year.

More expensive brands such as Sam Adams and Heineken have entered the fray in recent years. Market leader Anheuser-Busch, meanwhile, has expanded its premium Michelob light line and introduced Budweiser Select, a “new beer offering a bold taste” and with just 99 calories a serving. Consumer Reports gathered those pricier newcomers together with top-selling light brews and beers that have done well in our past tests. Then Consumer Reports sat down two experts with more than 25 years of experience tasting beer and put their trained palates to work.

The experts saw no bottles, no cans, no labels. All they got was sample after sample of beer, straight from the fridge, poured carefully into wine glasses to allow for some foam formation.

MATTER OF TASTE

 

ALL SIZES Bud Light comes in many containers, including aluminum bottles, far right, but keep an eye on unit costs.
As they sipped they focused on whether a beer tasted fresh and had a balanced mix of floral, fruity, malted grain, hops, and other appropriate flavors. If a beer tasted skunky, stale, soapy, or had a weak finish, that was noted as well. Overall, the light beers we tested were similar in quality to domestic and imported full-calorie beers, but they had a less-intense flavor.

Consumer Reports found that six brews were better than the rest--three light Michelobs, including the newer Michelob Ultra and Ultra Amber, Sam Adams Light, Budweiser Select, and Coors Light in a can. Bud Light and Miller Lite were very good as well, though they fell a notch below the best beers because of slightly lower flavor complexity.

Heineken Premium Light, on the other hand, was described as a “simple beer with boiled hops” and at least some off-notes in every sample.

Taste matters, of course, but we suspect most people turn to light beer because of the calorie savings. Fair enough, but note that unlike “light” food products, there are no government standards for “light” beer. Companies using the term have to list calories (and carbohydrates, protein, and fat) on the label. Generally the light beers are lower in calories than their regular-beer siblings, but you need to pay attention to the labels.

A Bud Light, for example, has 110 calories a serving vs. 145 for a regular Budweiser. But the range of calories across the category of light beers is wide, from 64 calories for the cardboardy Beck’s Premier Light to 119 calories for the very good Sam Adams Light.

The calorie savings, however, doesn’t exactly give you license to swill. Light beer has almost as much alcohol as regular beer. The calorie cut comes mainly from a reduction in carbohydrates. Keep that in mind when you designate a driver.

Less is More When You’re Filling Your Cooler

Check Consumer Reports' ratings (available to subscribers) to find the kind of beer that’s right for you. Here’s what else Consumer Reports learned from their tests:

 

 

 

  • Pay less, get more. Except for Sam Adams Light, at about $7 a six-pack, the best-tasting beers were all in the mid-price range, about $5 to $6 a pack. Three cheaper beers--Busch Light, Natural Light, and Keystone Light, at less than $4 a pack--were almost as good and are CR Best Buys. The other more expensive imported beers (Heineken Premium Light, Amstel Light, Corona Light, and Beck’s Premier Light) fell to the bottom of the Ratings because of defects, including oxidized and metallic flavors.
  • New brews offer a different taste. Most light beers are domestic lager-style beer, lightly hopped, with pale malt, fruit and floral character, and a mild flavor overall. Michelob Ultra Amber and Sam Adams Light are somewhat darker beers with a more intense flavor--more hops, more roasted malt, more fruit, and, well, more flavor. They also have slightly more calories than most of the other lights we tested. Yuengling Light is in the same style, but it didn’t fare as well because it had cardboard-tasting off-notes as well as some other defects.
  • Try these calorie cutters. If you’re counting calories, try a Michelob Ultra, Budweiser Select, Busch Light, Miller Lite, or Natural Light. All have fewer than 100 calories a serving and taste very good, though all have slight drawbacks--such as lower flavor intensity. Michelob Ultra, Budweiser Select, and Natural Light have a finish that tasted a bit too much like club soda. Run, however, from a Beck’s Premier Light. Though a beer with just 64 calories per bottle might seem tempting, our experts said there was “little beer flavor in this skunky light beer with cardboard and oxidized notes.
  • Do not shun cans. They might not be trendy, but they protect beer from light and tend to keep it fresh longer.
  • Consider a keg for parties. In past tests, Consumer Reports found that keg beer tasted fresher (and therefore better) than beer in a bottle or can. Consumer Reports expects the same to hold true for the light beers we tested this time around.
  • Beer is a delicate drink. Fresh is better when it comes to beer quality (“aging” is for wine lovers), and freshness is lost when beer is exposed to light and heat. So pay attention to expiration dates when they do exist. Unlike many foods, old beer won’t make you sick, but you might be in for a nasty surprise if you decide to pop the top of the can that’s been sitting in the back of your refrigerator since last summer’s pool party.
 
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Consumer Reports rates hot dogs and light beer
Consumer Reports identified three Best Buy light beers, Busch Light, Natural Light, and Keystone Light.