It’s pink, it’s long, and it comes in plenty of different sizes. That’s right, it’s the hot dog — America’s favorite sausage.
Normally, you’ll find the meat products lining supermarket shelves and concession stands everywhere, but for just a brief moment in time, you could find them splashed across a Pennsylvania highway in mush form.
About 15,000 pounds of pink hot dog meat oozed out of a massive tractor trailer that turned over on May 20, according to photos that went viral. The driver lost control of the vehicle, which was found to have brake failure, on Interstate 70 in Westmoreland County, a police report says.
Luckily, the meat spillage didn’t smell too funky, despite the stomach-churning looks of it, according to the Rostraver Central Fire Department, which responded to the accident.
“The only odor was from the product itself, which was minimal, and nothing out of the ordinary. Not what would be described as something that ‘smelled,’” the fire department told BuzzFeed News over Facebook DM. “It was definitely a unique product, but we have encountered other things on the highway before… actually a load of Twizzlers in nearly the same spot.”
The accident, which thankfully didn’t seriously injure the driver or passenger (they both declined to receive medical treatment), got us thinking: What are hot dogs even made of? Are they bad for you? (One thing to know, they are definitely not considered sandwiches, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council.)
You might be pleasantly surprised to hear that we spoke to several registered dietitians who all agreed that the hot dogs you consume on the 4th of July or any other time of the year, are perfectly fine to eat, nutritionwise. But moderation is key, of course.
“What is the summertime 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 the 4th of July, the NHDSC says, “enough to stretch from D.C. to L.A. more than five times.” What’s more, July is National Hot Dog Month.)
What are hot dogs made of?
Hot dogs have long been referred to as a mystery meat, but you can actually find a comprehensive list of ingredients online. Brands may differ slightly, but the NHDSC offers a guide on what you will generally find inside 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 generally it is mythology,” Eric Mittenthal, president of the NHDSC, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s a very simple process and what you see on the label of a package is exactly what you're getting.”
The sausages can be made of beef trimmed from steaks or roasts, pork from larger cuts like chops and tenderloins, or chicken and turkey — or a mixture of the different meats.
Certain curing agents, such as sodium nitrite and celery powder, are added to the dogs to not only give them their taste and pink color, but also prevent the growth of bacteria. Then other ingredients such as ascorbic acid, sodium erythorbate, and cherry powder (all different forms of vitamin C), are thrown in the batch to quicken the curing process.
Some other contents include corn syrup, yeast extract, and flavorings made up of herbs, spices, and vegetables.
The majority of hot dogs are enveloped in a cellulose casing during the cooking process, which is later stripped before they’re packaged. Others have what’s called “natural casing,” which comprises “cleaned lamb or pig intestine,” the NHDSC says. This kind of casing is what gives you that “snap” sensation when biting into them. The skin of the hot dog can be made of a different animal than the hot dog itself; if so, that information must be included on the label, the USDA says.
The meat used in the filler is cut and ground into small pieces and thrown into a mixer that blends all of the ingredients into a cakelike batter. The mixture is then stuffed into a machine that shapes it into links and wraps the casing around them. Next, the meat is cooked in a “smokehouse” and then showered in cool water to remove the casing until finally vacuum sealed into its packaging.
Some hot dogs may contain animal byproducts, such as the heart, kidney, or liver, also known as organ meats, but these are not common in North American hot dogs, Mittenthal said. They’re actually considered “delicacy parts” in some states. Labels will say “with variety meats” or “with meat byproducts” if they have them.
If you’re still hesitant about what exactly makes up a hot dog, Mittenthal said there are “USDA establishment numbers” found on the packaging that you can use to look up where the meat comes from and how it was 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 the shelf life or improve taste. Common methods include salting, curing, fermentation, and smoking.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies processed meat as a carcinogen, but it all comes down to how often you’re eating this kind of food.
“I know that a lot of people fear a lot of the ingredients in hot dogs, but I think we also have to take that with a grain of salt,” Gans said. “It depends on how much we're eating of something, so the occasional hot dog is not bad for anybody's health.”
“It's the idea of a diet that consists of overly processed food on a regular basis,” she said. “That's where there's 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 one hot dog — increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 18%, or an average lifetime risk of about 6%.
As long as you’re keeping up with your fruits, vegetables, and whole grains intake, you’ll be fine, Gans said: “Hot dogs have minimal nutritional value. That’s all it comes down to.”
Sodium nitrate has been linked to certain health risks like diabetes and heart disease, but none of the associations found to date are conclusive. Otherwise, hot dogs are usually high in saturated fats, salts, and sugars, which may cause some gastric issues and bloating in some people with sensitivities to those ingredients, according to Vanessa Rissetto, a registered dietitian and nutritionist.
Hot dogs are already fully cooked, but the USDA recommends you reheat them before eating “until steaming hot,” to avoid the risk of developing listeriosis — a bacterial illness 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 be found in cold cuts, soft cheeses, and unpasteurized milk as well.
There are ways to make your hot dog healthier
Experts agree you shouldn’t feel bad for eating hot dogs, but there are ways to make your meal slightly “healthier” if you’re concerned about it.
“Go into your 4th of July celebration equipped with knowledge that all foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle,” said Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Los Angeles and author of My Indian Table — Quick & Tasty Vegetarian Recipes. “Either find healthier options that serve you well or enjoy your favorite hot dog but only one and balance out your meal with lots of veggies and fruits.”
For example, switch your white flour bun with a whole wheat one, Gans suggests— that way you get some fiber from the whole grains. And try adding some sauerkraut, which will gift you with probiotics that are good for gut health.
If you want to minimize your exposure to sodium nitrates and nitrites, you can look for “uncured, nitrate free” hot dogs at the grocery store; she said the company Applegate has some good options.
And of course, there are some plant-based alternatives you can find, although Gans said “don’t fool yourself into thinking” they’ll taste as good. These options generally contain less saturated fat, more fiber, and extra protein than a regular hot dog, but may still be high in sodium, Sheth said.
“Bottom line: Enjoy a hot dog and don’t feel terrible about it,” Gans said.