Evaluating the healthiest type of encased meat is sort of like ranking types of ice cream by the same standard. Because every nutritionist I spoke to quickly offered the same response: None of them. “They’re all so high in sodium, and the kind you find on supermarket shelves will typically contain nitrates, which are cancer-causing,” says dietitian Sarah Mirkin. She’s right, according to a 2015 study by cancer researchers at the World Health Organization, “Hot dogs, bacon, cold cuts and other processed meats raise the risk of colon, stomach and other cancers, and red meat probably contributes to the disease, too.”
But even among the array of minced meats packed into animal intestines, there are some that aren’t as terrible for you as others — especially if they’re not a staple of your diet. “If you choose to stick with processed encased meats, try not to have them more than once every few weeks,” says Mirkin. “Choose the least processed, lowest sodium versions that are nitrate free.”
And so, since Fourth of July is on the horizon — a holiday that’s seemingly encased in encased meat — here’s a rundown of which sausages/encased meats are the (un)healthiest…
1. Turkey and Chicken Sausage (tied): “Turkey and chicken sausages can be a healthy choice as long as they’re nitrate free!” says Mirkin. To her point, while pork sausage has anywhere between 290 to 455 calories and 23 to 38 grams of fat per link, turkey and chicken sausage have 140 to 160 calories and 7 to 10 grams of fat for the same amount. “You avoid loads of sodium too [nearly 600 milligrams in all, in fact],” writes Robin Miller for Healthy Eats.
3. Blood sausage: Also commonly referred to as black pudding, these sausages are filled with animal blood that’s cooked or dried and mixed with a filler until it becomes thick enough to solidify when cooled. While that sounds like it should be poisonous, it’s actually not that unhealthy. In 2016, Muscle Foods even claimed it ranks alongside kale, broccoli and spinach as a “superfood,” because it’s rich in minerals like zinc and iron according to the BBC.
4. Kielbasa: Also known as a Polish sausage, this meat is usually made up of pork or a combination of beef and pork. Yet surprisingly, a single 3-ounce serving of Kielbasa has nearly the same amount of calories as a chicken sausage. The differentiator is that it has nearly twice as much fat (roughly 15 grams).
5. Hot Dog: The good ol’ fashion American hot dog is the last encased meat on this list that isn’t complete nutritional suicide. While one hot dog only has 150 calories and the same amount of sodium as a Kielbasa (nearly 600 milligrams), it has 3 more grams more of fat per serving and doesn’t have as much protein (only 10 grams).
6. Chorizo: If you’ve ever grilled chorizo, you’re well aware of the residual grease bath than accompanies it. According to Livestrong, chorizo is high in fat — and by high, they mean stratospheric. (It has 38.2 grams per serving.) That means a single serving brings you more than halfway through your recommended daily fat intake.
7. Bratwurst and Pork/Italian Sausage (tied): It’s important to note that most bratwursts are made up of pork and veal, which makes them similar to a pork sausage. The main difference is that one is German and the other is, well, Italian. Now, let’s start with the bad: Both of these encased meats include nearly 400 calories per serving and 35 grams of fat. Not to mention, nearly 1,000 grams of sodium. What about the good? Well, they have roughly 16 grams of protein. But let’s be real, that’s the not the reason you’re eating a bratwurst or pork sausage, is it?