It’s pink, it’s long and it comes in many different sizes. That’s right, it’s the hot dog – America’s favorite sausage.
Normally, you’ll find the meat products all over the shelves of supermarkets and concession stands, but for a brief moment you can find them in mush form on a highway in Pennsylvania.
About 15,000 pounds of pink hot dog meat seeped from a huge tractor trailer that capsized on May 20, according to photos that went viral. The driver lost control of the car on Interstate 70 in Westmoreland County, according to a police report.
Fortunately, the spilled meat didn’t smell too funky, despite its stomach-churning looks, according to Rostraver’s central fire department, who responded to the accident.
“The only smell came from the product itself, which was minimal and nothing special. Not what would be described as something that ‘stank,'” the fire department told BuzzFeed News via Facebook DM. “It was definitely a unique product, but we’ve run into other things on the highway before…basically a load of Twizzlers in almost the same place.”
The accident, which fortunately didn’t seriously injure the driver or passenger (both refused to undergo medical treatment), got us thinking: What are hot dogs actually made of? Are they bad for you? (One thing to know, they sure are not considered sandwichesaccording to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council.)
You may be pleasantly surprised to learn that we’ve spoken to several registered dieticians who all agree that the hot dogs you eat on July 4th or any other time of year are nutritionally fine to eat. But moderation is, of course, the key.
“What’s summer without grilled franks on the grill with some sauerkraut?” said Keri Gans, a registered dietitian nutritionist in New York. “Let’s be real.”
(Fun fact: Americans will eat 150 million hot dogs on July 4, the NHDSC says, “enough to go from DC to LA more than five times.” Plus, July is National Hot Dog Month.)
What are hot dogs made of?
Hot dogs have long been called a mysterious meat, but you can actually find one extensive ingredients list online† Brands may vary slightly, but the NHDSC offers a guide to what you’ll generally find in your hot dogs, which are regulated by the USDA.
“People have all kinds of ideas about the mythology of what goes into a hot dog, but in general it’s mythology,” Eric Mittenthal, president of the NHDSC, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s a very simple process and what you see on a package label is exactly what you get.”
The sausages can be made from beef trimmed from steaks or roasts, pork from larger cuts such as chops and tenderloin, or chicken and turkey – or a mixture of the different meats.
Certain hardeners, such as sodium nitrite and celery powder, are added to the dogs to not only give them their flavor and pink color, but also prevent the growth of bacteria. Then, other ingredients like ascorbic acid, sodium erythorbate, and cherry powder (all different forms of vitamin C) are thrown into the batch to speed up the curing process.
Some other contents include corn syrup, yeast extract, and flavorings made up of herbs, spices, and vegetables.
Most hot dogs are wrapped in a cellulose casing during the cooking process, which is later removed before packaging. Others have what’s called ‘natural gut’, which consists of ‘cleaned lamb or pig gut,’ the NHDSC says. This kind of casing gives you that “clicking” feeling when you bite into it. The skin of the hot dog may be made from a different animal than the hot dog itself; if yes, that information must be stated on the labelsays the USDA.
The meat used in the filling is: cut and ground into small pieces and tossed into a mixer that blends all ingredients into a cake-like batter. The mixture is then put into a machine that forms it into links and wraps the housing around it. The meat is then cooked in a “smokehouse” and then showered in cold water to remove the casing until it is finally vacuum sealed in the package.
Some hot dogs may contain animal byproducts, such as heart, kidney or liver, also known as organ meats, but these aren’t common in North American hot dogs, Mittenthal said. In some states, they are even considered “delicatessen.” Labels will say “with different meats” or “with meat by-products” if they have them.
If you’re still unsure about what exactly a hot dog is, Mittenthal said there are “USDA branch numbers” on the package, which you can use to look up where the meat comes from and how it’s produced.
Are hot dogs bad for you?
Hot dogs, as well as ham and bacon, are considered processed meats, meaning they have been modified in some way to extend shelf life or improve flavor. Common methods include salting, curing, fermenting, and smoking.
The International Agency for Cancer Research classifies processed meat as carcinogenicbut it all comes down to how often you eat these types of foods.
“I know a lot of people are afraid of a lot of ingredients in hot dogs, but I think we should take that with a grain of salt too,” Gans said. “It depends on how much of something we eat, so an occasional hot dog isn’t bad for one’s health.”
“It’s the idea of a diet that regularly consists of overly processed foods,” she said. “That’s where there is cause for concern.”
The American Cancer Society says research shows that eating 50 grams of processed meat every day – equivalent to about four pieces of bacon or a hot dog — increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 18%, or an average lifetime risk of about 6%.
As long as you keep track of your intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, you’ll be fine, Gans said, “Hot dogs have minimal nutritional value. That’s what it all boils down to.”
Sodium nitrate has been linked to certain health risks such as: diabetes and heart disease, but none of the connections found so far are convincing. Otherwise, hot dogs are usually high in saturated fats, salts and sugars, which can cause stomach problems and bloating in some people with sensitivities to those ingredients, according to Vanessa Rissettoa registered dietitian and nutritionist.
Hot dogs are already fully cooked, but the USDA recommends reheating them “until hot” before eating them to avoid the risk of developing listeriosis — a bacterial disease that can be serious for pregnant people, adults over 65 and people with weakened immune systems. The bacteria can grow slowly at refrigerator temperatures and can also be found in processed meats, soft cheeses and unpasteurized milk.
There are ways to make your hot dog healthier
Experts agree that eating hot dogs shouldn’t make you feel bad, but there are ways to make your meal a little “healthier” if you’re concerned about it.
“Go into your 4th of July celebration with the knowledge that all foods are part of a healthy lifestyle,” said Vandana Shetha registered dietitian nutritionist based in Los Angeles and author of: My Indian Table — Quick and Tasty Vegetarian Recipes† “Find healthier options that serve you well or enjoy your favorite hot dog but just one and balance your meal with plenty of fruits and vegetables.”
For example, replace your white flour bun with a whole-wheat bun, Gans suggests — that way, you’ll get some fiber from the whole grains. And try adding some sauerkraut, which will infuse you with good-for-you probiotics gut health†
To minimize your exposure to sodium nitrates and nitrites, shop the grocery store for “uncured, nitrate-free” hot dogs; she said the company applegate has some good options.
And, of course, there are some plant-based alternatives you can find, though Gans said, “Don’t be fooled into thinking” they’ll taste just as good. These options generally have less saturated fat, more fiber and extra protein than a regular hot dog, but can still be high in sodium, Sheth said.
“Basically, enjoy a hot dog and don’t feel bad about it,” Gans said.