Similar to the way Janice Dickinson heaps on Kabuki mask amounts of makeup before she leaves the house, the average hot dog also spends plenty of time getting painted and injected before it goes out to face its adoring fans. Sodium nitrite, the Maybelline of food additives, is often added to processed meats such as hotdogs, bacon, bologna, salami and SPAM in order to make them look camera-ready before they arrive on store shelves. Without nitrates, these meats would appear unappealingly drab, gray and unappetizing and would likely end up on one of those Celebrities Without Makeup features on the cover of Star Magazine. We want our hot dogs to be pretty, plump and pink.
While nitrites are needed to cure the meat and keep it safe from forming botulism, sodium nitrite is a sworn enemy to many nutritionists because of claims it causes cancer. Like many controversial food additives, its safety is often a subject of ongoing debate. Some even claim it's actually good for your health. Although sodium nitrite is natural and is also found in vegetables, it forms nitrosamines when cooked over high heat - and that's supposedly where the cancer danger lurks. Since pretty much everything causes cancer these days, not many people are willing to let a little brouhaha stand between them and their delicious bacon-wrapped hot dogs, but if you're concerned, you might be able to minimize the damage by adding antioxidant-rich foods to your meal. They'll tackle the carcinogens while you enjoy your luscious Wiener Tiara Bake. Illustration by Bob Lizarraga.