What is in a Hot Dog?

What exactly is a hot dog?
What exactly is a hot dog?

Baseball games, state fairs, all-you can-eat contests, and wieners on a stick charring over a campfire. Frankfurters may be the ultimate summer food. On the 4 th of July alone, Americans devour at least 150 million dogs. They are meaty and juicy and pair perfectly with a frosty mug of beer. But what exactly is in a hot dog? Turns out, some of the ingredients aren't quite so savory.

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According to Ad Week, the most popular hot dog in the United States is the Ball Park brand by Sara Lee. Here's the ingredients list for their Original Classic Frank: Mechanically separated turkey, pork, water, corn syrup, salt, potassium lactate, sodium phosphates, flavorings, beef stock, sodium diacetate, sodium erythorbate, maltodextrin, sodium nitrate, extractives of paprika.

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Mechanically separated meat and poultry (MSM and MSP). The USDA describes these meat products as "a paste-like and batter-like meat [or poultry] product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible meat, under high pressure through a sieve or similar device to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue." In other words, chicken and pork carcasses and scraps are turned into pink mush to be squeezed or molded into hot dogs after all the other more meaty cuts are removed. Beef cannot be treated this way in order to protect consumers against Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease).

Corn syrup. Used for flavor and as a thickening agent and filler, this sweetener has little nutritive value and adds calories. Maltodextrin, made from starch, is also a filler.

Salt and other forms of sodium. While salt is a necessary element of any diet, too much can lead to high blood pressure and ultimately, contribute to heart disease and stroke. One hot dog can contain as much as one-third of your daily allowance of sodium. Add condiments, pickles, and chips and you are probably maxed out for the day.

Preservatives: Potassium lactate, sodium phosphates, sodium diacetate, and sodium erythorbate discourage the formation of bacteria and fungi.

Sodium nitrate. This preservative gives processed meats a spicy, cured flavor and improves color. It has been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer and pancreatic cancer. The most recent USDA My Plate guide recommends eating processed meat "sparingly" while the American Institute for Cancer Research is more blunt and says avoid it all together.

Casings. Most of the casings used on commercial hot dogs are made of synthetic collagen. "Natural casings," which give some franks their snappy bite, are lamb or pork intestines. If you are a "nose to tail" type eater, this shouldn't bother you.

Other ingredients: Some brands contain MSG (monosodium glutamate), which can cause headaches, flushing, and other allergic reactions. Pork and beef hot dogs are also high in saturated fat-calorie heavy and linked to heart disease.

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How to choose a better frank? Look for uncured, organic hot dogs. They don't contain nitrates and are generally lower in fat and sodium. If you are choosing beef, the organic label also means you will be avoiding antibiotics and hormones fed to conventionally raised cattle. Reading the label, opt for franks that contain less than 150 calories 370 mg of sodium each.

And if you are feeding franks to kids, another issue is choking. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that about 17% of childhood asphyxiation deaths are caused by hot dogs. When serving hot dogs to children under four, slice down the middle and chop into small pieces.

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