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Healthy Picnic Alternatives

April 30, 2010 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

Summer is quickly approaching and that means picnics aren’t far behind. The standard fare at such outdoor feasts often includes a plethora of unhealthy foods. Chief among them are hot dogs preserved with nitrites, potato chips and sugar-laden sodas. Today I’m going suggest a few healthier options that will hopefully satisfy your taste for the old favorites while at the same time supporting better health.

Why am I picking on hot dogs? I think I can illustrate my reasoning best by first presenting the ingredient list for a very popular hot dog brand and then comparing it to a much “cleaner” alternative that’s available in health food stores.

  • Oscar Mayer Classic Wieners – Mechanically separated turkey, pork, mechanically separated chicken, water, contains less than 2% of salt, flavor, sodium lactate, corn syrup, dextrose, sodium phosphates, sodium diacetate, sodium ascorbate and sodium nitrite. (1)
  • The Great Organic Hot Dog – Organic grass-fed beef, water, contains less than 2% of the following: sea salt, organic spices, organic garlic powder, organic paprika, celery powder, organic onion, lactic acid starter culture (not from milk). (2)

The difference in the quality of the ingredients is readily apparent. However, it is the final ingredient in the conventional hot dog that I want to focus on today: sodium nitrite. Nitrites have long been linked to a variety of cancers. The most recent example was presented in the November-December edition of the journal In Vivo. In that experiment, a group of 60 rats was fed normal diets or food enriched with sodium nitrite. The test animals given the nitrite exhibited a much a higher incidence of Barrett’s esophagus, “one of the complications of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and a premalignant condition”. These damaging cellular changes lead to a 33.3% greater risk of cancer (adenocarcinoma) in the sodium nitrite diet alone. I believe it’s best to avoid foods with added nitrates and nitrites. Choosing nitrate/nitrite-free bacon, cold cuts and hot dogs is one way of reducing exposure to these potentially harmful elements. (3,4,5)

The food you eat can either accelerate or slow down the rate by which you age. I touched upon this briefly when I recently covered the topic of alternate day fasting. A study just published in the FASEB Journal suggests that reducing consumption of dietary phosphates may be a practical strategy to slow the aging process. Conventional soda is one of the richest sources of added phosphorus in the form of phosphoric acid. But not all sodas are created equal. Once again, let’s compare a popular brand of soda to more natural options. (6)

  • Coca Cola – Carbonated Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Caramel Color, Phosphoric Acid, Natural Flavors and Caffeine. Calories: 140. Sugars: 39 grams per 12 oz. Caffeine: 34 mg per 12 oz. (7)
  • Zevia Cola – Carbonated Water, Erythritol (natural sugar alcohol), Stevia, Citric Acid (natural), Kola Nut Extract, Natural Caramel, Natural Fumaric and Tartaric Acid and Natural Caffeine. Calories: 0. Sugar: 0. Caffeine: 45 mg per 12 oz. (8,9)
  • Blue Sky Free Cola – Triple Filtered Carbonated Water, Erythritol, Natural Flavors (African Ivory Coast Kola Nut, South American Kola Nut Oil), Caramel Color (Natural), Tartaric Acid, Rebiana (Stevia Extract). Calories: 0. Sugar: 0. Caffeine: 0 mg. (10)

The two natural sodas above do not include phosphoric acid nor any added sugar. The Zevia Cola yields a comparable energy boost due its natural caffeine content (derived from coffee beans). The Blue Sky Free Cola provides a caffeine-free alternative for those who are trying to limit caffeine intake. Both Blue Sky Free and Zevia are technically classified as “diet sodas”. However neither of them rely on artificial sweeteners of any kind.

Potato Chip Consumption May Lower Cellular Antioxidant (Glutathione) Levels
Source: Am J Clin Nutr 89: 773-777, 2009. (a)

If you want to support your long term health prospects and reduce your rate of aging, you should strongly consider adopting a diet and lifestyle that curbs excess inflammation and oxidative stress. On the other hand, if you want to age more quickly, eat plenty of foods that are loaded with acrylamide such as cereals, french fries and potato chips. A paper that appeared in the March 2009 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that eating 160 grams of potato chips a day for 4 weeks resulted in higher levels of inflammatory substances (C-reactive protein and interleukin-6) and “reactive oxygen radical production” or “free radicals” – which have the opposite effect as antioxidants. These troublesome changes were still evident, to a certain extent, 28 days after discontinuing the daily intake of potato chips. The authors of the study concluded that, “These novel findings seem to indicate that chronic ingestion of acrylamide-containing products induces a pro-inflammatory state, a risk factor for progression of atherosclerosis”. (11,12,13)

I know what some of you may be thinking: “But I like my potato chips! How can I possibly replace them?!”. I can’t promise you that replacing potato chips will be easy. But it becomes much more manageable when you keep in mind the reason for the change. You want to eat foods that give you the best possible chance at a long, healthy life. Potato chips work against that goal. The following alternatives do not:

  • Sauerkraut – try eating your hot dogs bun-less with sauerkraut and organic mustard. You might be surprised by how little you miss the bread.
  • Pickles and Raw Vegetables (bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, celery, cucumbers, radishes, tomatoes, etc.).
  • Traditional Chicharrones (natural pork rinds) – available at health food stores and on the Internet.
  • Lightly salted or spicy nuts and seeds of almost any kind.

Hot dog buns made with refined flour are at least as deleterious as the contents they hold. However there are a few low carb hot dog buns currently on the market. Some people on carb-restricted diets also use low carb tortillas instead of buns. Both of these options are preferable to conventional wiener buns but they’re not appropriate for people who are gluten-intolerant. For them, I suggest wrapping hot dogs in lettuce leaves and adding all the fixings. It works rather well as a holder and adds some texture to the mix. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

Be well!


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Posted in Food and Drink, Nutrition

8 Comments & Updates to “Healthy Picnic Alternatives”

  1. anne h Says:

    A pic-a-nic!
    With a pic-a-nic basket!
    Hey, hey, hey, Boo Boo Bear!

    I’d eat one of those Organic Hot Dogs in a Yogi Bear minute!
    With a Blue Sky Free Cola, of course!

  2. JP Says:

    This would be a great weekend to do just that, Anne. At least it will be over here. We’re anticipating sunny skies and temps approaching the 80’s! 🙂

    I hope you have a wonderful weekend!

    Be well!


  3. Nina K. Says:

    Good Morning, JP 🙂

    i vote for the salted and/or spicy nuts 🙂 !

    Wish you both a perfect weekend ☼

    Nina K:

  4. Rosemary Says:

    Some time ago I recall reading that we get more nitrites/nitrates from celery, spinach and lettuce than what is added to meats, and that “organic” meats aren’t nitrite/nitrate free because they add things like celery-juice powder which amounts to the same thing.

    It is truly challenging to try sort hype from truth!

  5. GiGi Says:

    I adore those grass-fed beef hot dogs, they remind me of back in the day when I used to eat the ones you’re comparing the healthy dogs to! ha ha. Delicious! And wrapping them in lettuce is exactly what I do – so good!! I love heinz sugar free ketchup and mustard on em!

  6. JP Says:

    I love them too, Nina! 🙂

    Recently we found a new brand of naturally seasoned cashews that are truly delicious. They’re called YumNuts. I doubt they’ve made it all the way to Germany. But if you and your husband ever get to the US, look them up! Highly recommended!

    I hope you both have a wonderful weekend!

    Be well!


  7. JP Says:

    Thanks, Gigi!

    BTW, have you ever tried the Nature’s Hollow sugar-free ketchup? Pretty tasty and 100% natural.

    re: the name of your blog

    Many years ago I had a really eccentric boss who used to say, “It is what it is” all the time. 🙂

    Have a great weekend!

    Be well!


  8. Anavar Says:

    I would definitely eat natural hot dog and cola on a picnic! Buon apetite!

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