Few foods have gotten a PR rap as bad as hot dogs have. In one classic scene from the film The Great Outdoors, Dan Aykroyd’s character chides John Candy’s character for ordering a hot dog, saying, “You know what they’re made of, Chet? Lips and [rectums]!”
Technically, Aykroyd used a much saltier word than “rectums,” but ever since that movie moment, hot dogs have had a reputation for being made with ingredients just a step or two above slaughterhouse floor sweepings. Rumors have even persisted that hot dogs include feathers, beaks, hooves, and other animal parts barely even fit for pet food.
Hot dogs may not be in the same league as filet mignon, but is their bad reputation really deserved? The National Hot Dog & Sausage Council estimates that Americans eat about seven billion franks during hot dog “season,” which stretches from Memorial Day to Labor Day. That’s about 818 hot dogs consumed every second. From the backyard to the ballpark, the millions of Americans grilling, boiling, sautéing, and steaming them this summer will be pleased to find out that the ingredients that go into hot dogs are not as sinister as we think.
The Inside Scoop on Ingredients The basic ingredients in the average supermarket hot dog are far less exciting than what some fearmongers would have you believe. Most commercial hot dogs contain meat (usually beef or pork, sometimes chicken or turkey), fillers like flour or bread crumbs, seasonings and spices, binding agents, and curing agents. The ingredients are then blended together into a batter and stuffed into casings, cooked, removed from the casings, and then packaged for sale.
Meat processors who produce hot dogs don’t use the finest or choicest cuts of meat, but they don’t necessarily use inedible leftovers, either. The meat that goes into hot dogs is usually whatever’s left over after those choice cuts have been removed—tiny trimmings, fatty bits, tough sections, and other pieces of meat that aren’t big enough, tender enough, or attractive enough to be sold on their own. Although it’s still common to add variety meats or offal to handmade or artisanal sausages for flavoring, it’s now far less common to include organ meat or by-products in hot dogs.
Animal intestines are the traditional casings for hot dogs and sausages, but like variety meats, those, too, are becoming less common. These days, most commercial franks are made with cellulose, a plant-derived product, and the casings are removed after cooking.
Next: Sticker Sleuthing →
Sticker Sleuthing The USDA requires meat packers to disclose hot dogs’ ingredients right on the label, so a quick glance will tell you exactly what’s in your frank. If you’re looking for the purest hot dogs available, select ones that are labeled “all beef” or “all pork.” These are required to contain meat from a single species, without variety meats or by-products. If the hot dog does contain organ meats, the label should specify it, along with what animal the organs came from. Also, hot dogs that are produced in traditional animal casings, such as those obtained from sheep or pigs, should be labeled as such.
Of course, just because the USDA requires companies to truthfully label products with their ingredients, that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll actually do it. In 2008, hot dog producer Vienna Beef settled a class-action lawsuit after they misled kosher customers into thinking their hot dogs were pure beef, when in fact they used sheep or hog casings. Even though hot dogs that contain meat by-products, mechanically separated meat, or certain chemical additives or colorings should be clearly labeled, companies don’t always play by the rules.
Not So Fast… Even if hot dogs don’t contain the unsavory substances that urban legends warn us about, there are still plenty of good reasons not to eat them. They’re full of preservatives, artificial colors, artificial flavors, and other chemicals common to heavily processed meats. They also have nitrates, which increase the risk of heart disease and heart attack, as well as MSG, which may have its own health consequences.
Hot dogs aren’t so different from many other foods in that they’re best consumed in moderation. The next time you’re at a barbecue or cookout and someone offers you a piping hot frankfurter with mustard and relish (or however you prefer to dress your dog), there’s no need to be concerned about those words of warning from The Great Outdoors. Hot dogs may contain many things that you wouldn’t want to consume every day, but lips and rectums aren’t among them.