Oscar Mayer may have found a way to make hot dogs 'healthier'

Oscar Mayer, a unit of Kraft Heinz (NASDAQ:KHC), says they might have found a way to make their hot dogs a bit healthier.

The iconic brand is touting over its new hot dog recipe that uses nitrite derived from celery juice instead of artificial sodium nitrite, which is a preservative used to give processed meats its pinkish color and prevents botulism (a type of food poisoning).

Kraft Heinz says they changed their recipe to reflect consumers growing desire for products containing natural ingredients. The push also comes amid a broader trend of other big food companies announcing similar plans to remove artificial ingredients from their products.

However, critics says that the change makes little difference.

Kana Wu, a research scientist at Harvard’s school of public health told The Associated Press that processed meat is still processed meat even if it's made with natural ingredients.

Wu was part of a group that helped draft the World Health Organization report in 2015 that said processed meats such as hot dogs and bacon were linked to an increased risk of colon cancer. However, Wu notes that WHO did not pinpoint what exactly about processed meats might be to blame for the link.

One concern about processed meats is that nitrites can combine with compounds found in meat at high temperatures to fuel the formation of nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens in animals. It’s a chemical reaction that can happen regardless of the source of the nitrites, including celery juice.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture caps the amount of artificial nitrites that can be added to meats to prevent excessive use, said Andrew Milkowski, a retired Oscar Mayer scientist who consults for the meat industry. Meat makers also add ingredients to processed meat like bacon that help block the formation of nitrosamines, he said.

Though the terms nitrates and nitrites are used interchangeably, the meat industry says it’s mainly sodium nitrite that companies currently use to cure meats such as hot dogs, cold cuts and bacon.

The Associated Press contributed to the report