At a recent playdate, the subject of hot dogs came up, and I heard one mom say that, okay, she does let her child eat hot dogs, but only the "nitrate-free" kind from Whole Foods. I didn't say anything, but the portion of my brain devoted to ruthless debunkings lit up.
Last year, you'll recall, Ed Levine took Consumer Reports to task for naming Hebrew National skinless franks the top dog. I'm with Ed: franks with natural casings are better. (You can read the CR report at Consumer Reports.)
But there was this tasty tidbit in the report:
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.
That's because "no added nitrates" is—how to put this gently?—a lie. The manufacturers add celery juice, which is naturally high in nitrites. In answer to your next question, yes, the nitrites naturally occurring in celery juice are exactly the same as the pure sodium nitrite added by sausage makers. (Note that I am fudging the difference between nitrates and nitrites, but as Consumer Reports said, they tested the levels of both compounds.)
In any case, here is my public service announcement to parents: "nitrate-free" hot dogs do contain nitrates and are not nutritionally superior to any other hot dogs. Some of them are tasty, but they are not generally available with natural casings, which are to my mind essential to a great hot dog.
Don't want to serve your kids hot dogs? Fine with me. But if you are serving franks, choose based on taste. We buy Boar's Head all-beef with natural casings, and my four-year-old loves them. Though it's not like she'd turn down any hot dog.