Hot dogs, wieners, brats, franks, sausages… are they really bad for you? Any healthy ones out there? Here’s everything you need to know.
I’m sure you’ve heard how hot dogs are supposedly made from parts of an animal no sane person would normally eat, stuff like lymph nodes and salivary glands, intestines, bits of bone, blood vessels, collagen, peripheral nerve tissue, skin, and even pieces of factory workers who got distracted or fell asleep while grinding up meat.
I’m here to put your mind at ease. Hardly any of that stuff is true. Unfortunately, by “hardly,” I mean just the last one about toes and fingers ending up in hot dogs. That one isn’t true. The rest of them, unfortunately, are.
What, I didn’t put your mind at ease?
Okay, I’m making it sound worse than it is. Sort of. The rest of the unappetizing things I described aren’t contained in every brand of hot dog or sausage in your grocery store; there are reasonably healthy versions available. Some gross items, like salivary glands and lymph nodes, are only included in some types of chorizo, which is a type of Mexican sausage or hot dog (they’re supposedly used to add sweetness to the final product).
But now I need to backtrack on something else. You know how I said that it wasn’t true that pieces of factory workers have never found their way into your hot dog? Well, it turns out it may be true. Sort of. Clear Food, an independent research company, tested 345 hot dog and sausage samples and supposedly found that 2% of them tested positive for human DNA.
The researchers guessed that it was from hair, saliva, or bits of skin or fingernail that fell into the machinery during the manufacturing process rather than from human toes or fingers (although there have been an unusual number of people in the history of hot dog making who’ve fallen into meat grinders, but no parts of them were ever reported to have ended up in someone’s Dodger Dog).
This all should be taken with a grain of salt (or skin) because Clear Foods never made clear how they determined those percentages or under which conditions testing occurred. They never even attempted to publish said study/report. However, I’m pretty confident that the essence of the study is true: flakes of humans likely end up in some brands of hot dogs that have poor quality control.
Neither did Clear Foods list the allegedly tainted brands of hot dogs (probably because they didn’t want to get sued, no doubt), but there are ways to tell if you’re getting a clean, healthy product.
Here then is everything you ever wanted to know, and a lot of stuff you never wanted to know, about hot dogs and sausage ingredients.
In 2008, a group of researchers from the Cleveland Clinic did kind of a CSI on several hot dog brands, subjecting them to some of the same techniques you might use to run an autopsy on a corpse (light microscopy, hematoxylin-eosin stains, immunohistochemistry, and electron microscopy). And this one, unlike the Clear Foods study, was indeed published in a scientific journal (Annals of Diagnostic Pathology).
The top listed ingredient, thankfully, in all products was some sort of meat, with the second ingredient usually being either water or another type of meat.
The rest of the organic material found in the hot dogs included the stuff I listed in the opening paragraphs: bone fragments, blood vessels (more than 20 in one brand), skin, nerve tissue, etc.), in addition to plant material that was likely used as filler. Thankfully, they failed to find any brain tissue in any of the samples.
With all that meat at the top of the ingredient lists, you’d think that hot dogs were a veritable protein bonanza, but that’s usually not the case as they found the amount of “protein containing tissue” to range between 4 and 10 grams per dog (the amount of skeletal muscle ranged from 2.9% to 21.2% of the cross-sectional area of tested dogs).
But let’s look at what this “meat” generally consists of. Sometime in the 1960s, an unknown meat industry idea man looked at all the carcasses of animals (cattle and chickens) after all the standard cuts had been removed and noticed that there were still tiny scraps of meat left on the remains. That unknown person, someone who probably cleaned his plate at every meal, wondered if there was anything they could do to use that wasted “meat” to further enrich the company. The answer was something called “meat recovery.”
Manufacturers began to use one of two processes to completely denude carcasses of meat. In the first, machinery scraped or shaved the meat from the bone surface in the hope of not breaking or grinding off bone. Despite their best efforts, this process would lead to small amounts of bone being included in their harvest (creatively listed on labels with the more palatable term “calcium”).
The other method is called mechanical separation and involves ramrodding bone, cartilage, and meat scraps through a sieve, which leads to even greater amounts of bone to leech through. The end product was a lovely bright pink paste that was formed into hot dogs or deli meats.
Unfortunately, the second process (mechanical separation) had a higher risk of including brain tissue and possibly leading to contamination with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a brain disease that can be transmitted to humans. As such, mechanical separation was banned, at least in beef processing. It’s still widely used, though, in chicken processing, especially in the production of chicken-based hot dogs.
Aside from the unsavoriness of all this, the “meat” in hot dogs still consists of viable protein and your body or muscles likely couldn’t tell the difference.
Back in the 1920s and 30s, when Nathan Handwerker of Nathan’s Famous was selling 75,000 hot dogs every weekend at his original Coney Island location, the average hot dog (according to the USDA) was composed of 19% fat (and 19.6% protein). Today, the average dog is, like America, a lot fatter, containing 28% fat (and 11.7% protein), about 40% of which is saturated.
Like most heavily processed foods, a lot of hot dogs and sausages on the market contain added chemicals. Sodium diacetate is common, but it’s there for a good reason. Back in 2011, Arizona researchers tested meat and poultry samples from five different metropolitan areas and found that 47% were contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium that can lead to sepsis and death.
To make things worse, over half of the samples contained strains of Staphylococcus that were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics. Hence the inclusion of sodium diacetate, a fungicide and bacterioside.
Sodium nitrite is also a common ingredient, used as a preservative to keep the meat pink and to add flavor. Once ingested, though, nitrites can combine with amines in your digestive system to form nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic.
Other common ingredients, largely benign, include sodium erythorbate (another preservative), potassium lactate (a mold inhibitor), maltodextrin (a filler/sweetener), sorbitol (again for sweetness), sodium phosphate (to keep meat moist), hydrolyzed corn protein (a flavor enhancer), and a little paprika to add at least a tiny bit of pizazz.
Some hot dogs elicit a sensory “snap” when you bite into them; others don’t. Likewise, some hot dogs are curved and some are straight.
This snappiness and curvature are indicative of the hot dog or sausage being enclosed in “natural casings.” That’s a nice way of saying that the meat tubes in question have been squeezed into sheep or pig intestines.
Hog casings are usually reserved for larger-diameter sausages, while thinner sausages and hot dogs are usually made with sheep casings, which are “snappier.”
Most of the less expensive hot dogs you see in grocery stores, however, are skinless. They were stuffed and cooked in cellulose casings to maintain their tubular shape, after which the cellulose was removed prior to packaging (although sometimes they leave the collagen casings on).
These skinless hot dogs might also elicit a minor snap when bitten into, but only if the manufacturer went to great lengths to control temperature, humidity, time, and airflow over the dogs.
Whether a hot dog or sausage has an intestine casing probably matters little as far as nutritional quality is concerned, but it might matter to you from a queasiness standpoint. After all, some people might find it unappetizing to snap into animal organs through which waste flowed.
However, there’s a quick way you can tell if a hot dog or sausage has an intestine casing – look at the shape. According to Applegate research director Chad Clem, in an interview on Huffington Post:
“Cellulose casings are designed to produce a finished link that is perfectly straight, whereas natural casings have an inherent curvature from the twisting and bending of the intestines of the animal that results in links that typically curve on both ends.”
According to The New York Times, many hot dog brands offer as many as eight different recipes, among them: premium, bun length, all-natural, old-fashioned, uncured, skinless, classic, grass-fed, smoked, signature, organic, and Angus. It’s borderline ridiculous.
You probably end up saying “eff-it” and choose the first adequate choice that fits your preferences as opposed to scanning all options until you find the perfect one, a strategy Nobel Laureate Herb Simon, Ph.D., called the “satisficing” option.
However, just in case you want to know what the hell you might be buying, here’s a brief rundown of all those choices:
This one can get slightly confusing. All hot dogs and sausages, except for ones fresh out of the meat grinder and ones that require cooking, are “cured.” The term just means it was preserved in some way, usually with salt, smoke, or brine.
However, the USDA defines “cured” in a different way. To them, it means that the product was preserved using nitrites. Products that don’t use nitrites are required to label their products “uncured,” a classification that includes most organic and all-natural products.
These refer to the beef used to make the dog. Although the definitions vary, organic means raised with no antibiotics or growth hormones, no synthetic nitrate preservatives, and that the animals, which supposedly had access to pasture for at least 120 days and got to watch “Ted Lasso” in the evenings, were raised on vegetarian or organic feed.
Natural just means that the dogs can’t contain synthetic nitrates or nitrites as a curing agent. Instead, they have to use natural sources of the chemicals, like celery powder.
Lastly, grass-fed means the cattle were raised on grass instead of grain. These cattle would presumably be leaner and contain a more healthful fatty acid ratio.
These dogs, of course, can’t contain pork and are supposedly made under the supervision of a rabbi who probably prays for bigger things in life.
This just means the beef used came from the black American Angus breed of cattle. However, it doesn’t mean it’s any healthier than any other type of hot dog.
These terms, as far as anyone can tell, don’t mean anything, although I was sort of hoping the signature variety came with an autograph from Babe Ruth, or at least Nathan Handwerker.
These classifications were already described in the yucky sheep/pig intestine section above.
By now, I’ve heaped a ton of disparagement on the poor hot dog, but there are some decent brands out there that you can eat without making you feel queasy or like you’re nuking your health:
- Applegate Stadium Uncured Beef & Pork Hot Dogs (very few added chemicals)
- Fork in the Road Foods Honest Dogs
- Hebrew National Beef Franks (less fat than most, in addition to having fewer chemicals than most)
- Niman Ranch Fearless Beef Franks
- Organic Prairie Uncured Grass Fed Beef Hot Dogs
- Organic Valley Uncured Organic 100% Grass-fed Beef Hot Dogs
- Seemore Meats & Veggies Chicken Soup Sausages (filled with vegetables for extra nutrition)
- Teton Waters Ranch Bun Length Uncured Beef Hot Dogs (long suckers)
- Teton Water Ranch’s Uncured Beef Hot Dogs
- Thin ‘n Trim All Natural Gourmet Chicken Hot Dogs (no mechanically separated meat – just minced chicken breast and thigh meat with some flavoring)
- 365 Organic Uncured Beef Hot Dogs (available at Whole Foods)
The adage is that you never want to know “how the sausage gets made,” but that’s nuts, especially in this literal case when you might otherwise by scarfing up unsavory, unhealthy, and unappetizing stuff.
Brigid E. Payson, et al. Applying morphologic techniques to evaluate hotdogs: what is in the hot dogs we eat? Annals of Diagnostic Pathology, 12 (2008) 98-102.
Kanithaporn Puangsombat, et al. Heterocyclic amine content in commercial ready to eat meat products. Meat Sci. 2011 Jun;88 (2): 227-33.
“Some Hot Dogs, Sausages Studied Contain Human DNA, Says New Report.” ABC News, Oct. 27, 2015.
“What Are Hot Dog Casings Made Of? Here’s What You’re Really Eating.” Huffington Post, August 18, 2022.
“Want to Choose the Best Hot Dogs? Learn What the Labels Mean.” NY Times, June 27, 2017.