What’s really inside that dog?

Whether you call it a frankfurter, frank, wiener, wienerwurst, coney, foot long, red hot, pig in a blanket, or just dog — or dressed up as a chili dog, coney dog, bagel dog, Chicago dog, Puka dog, Dodger dog or slaw dog — the hot dog has long been a crowd-pleaser at ballgames and Fourth of July cookouts. The American Hot Dog and Sausage Council estimates that Americans eat over 7 billion dogs during the summer months. Not just in America: this slideshow illustrates hot dogs around the globe: in Argentina, dogs are eaten with chimichurri sauce; in Sweden they’re topped with mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam, and in Japan, they’re sliced and spread open to resemble an octopus, served with teriyaki and wasabi in bento boxes.

What are you getting in that foot long? I’ve heard people respond, with a shrug, “I’d rather not know.” There are a lot of popular misconceptions about what’s in a dog — you’re not eating ground-up chicken feathers or pig snouts, for example. A small quantity of pulverized bone? Quite possibly.

Standard hot dogs are made from a mix of pork, beef, chicken and/or turkey trimmings – consisting of pieces of raw skeletal muscle meat left over after cutting the choicer pork chops or steaks. The U.S. Department of Agriculture specifies that the meat used for hot dogs must be the same quality sold in grocery stores. If meat byproducts — such as livers, hearts, or kidneys — are used, the package must specify that it is made “with variety meats” or “with meat by-products.” Fillers, such as nonfat dry milk, cereal or soy protein are often added — they must also be listed in the ingredients. According to USDA standards, the finished product may not contain more than 30% fat. Finally, some dogs have a ‘casing’. If the casing is not the same species as the dog itself, that must be listed in the ingredients.

But it gets complicated when you consider how those meat trimmings are actually obtained. This process, called Advanced Meat Recovery, involves scraping and shaving the last races of edible meat from the bone. For beef, USDA regulations state that the bones must emerge intact from this process — they can not be pulverized or ground into the meat, due to fears of Mad Cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). That doesn’t mean there’s no ground up bone, but there is a legal upper limit to the calcium content in the processed meat.

Not so for poultry: chicken and turkey meats can be obtained by mechanical separation. This Mechanically Separated Meat (MSM) results from forcing chicken & turkey bones, with attached meat, into a high-pressure grinder and sieve to separate edible portions from bone. What comes out is a paste-like substance. According to federal regulations, hot dogs can contain no more than 20% mechanically separated pork — but any amount of mechanically separated chicken and turkey is acceptable in processed meat.

The process of manufacture begins with the cuttings ground into a hamburger-like paste, before adding processed chicken trimmings, food starch, salt, water, and flavorings such as ground mustard, with a touch of corn syrup for sweetness. In contrast, an all beef hot dog starts with lean meat, to which is added fat, a secret spice mix, and brown mustard.

The paste-like mixture is extruded into cellulose casing. Chains of linked hot dogs are then cured with liquid smoke, which contains salt and sodium nitrite. This adds flavor and increases the shelf life. The salt helps inhibit bacterial growth. The dogs are then sent to the ovens. After baking, they are chilled with salty water, and the casings stripped off, before packaging. The factory shown in the video above manufactures over 300,000 hot dogs an hour.

Sodium nitrite is used as a flavor enhancer, color enhancer and preservative — it also protects against clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism. During digestion, sodium nitrite reacts with gastric acids in the stomach to form nitrosames, which are considered carcinogens – associated with cancer of with liver, esophageal and colorectal cancer. Note that other studies dispute this correlation. You can buy nitrite-free dogs (they tend to be browner in color), but you won’t eliminate nitrites from your diet. They are also found in vegetables, including spinach, celery and pumpkin.

How unhealthy is that dog? Consumption of processed meats, such as hot dogs, bacon, and sausage, is associated with a 42% increase in the risk of heart disease and 19% higher incidence of diabetes. You’re also getting a lot of fat and salt in that dog, as well as MSG. Your average hot dog contains 5-7 grams of protein, 13 g of fat, 450 mg sodium. Yet, there are low-fat and low-sodium options, as well as vegetarian tofu-dogs. With federally-imposed standards, the quality of meat is better than most people think, at least for the more expensive brands. Pay a bit extra to get an all meat dog, with no by-products. Kosher dogs are one guarantee of superior meat.

Hot dogs are one area where you definitely get what you pay for.

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