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What is REALLY in a Hot Dog?
And How Unhealthy Are They?

Now that baseball season is wrapping up, and you've likely eaten your share of ballpark dogs (9 percent of all hot dogs purchased are bought at baseball stadiums, after all), it's the perfect time to delve into what's really in one of America's favorite foods: the hot dog.

hot dogs

Americans eat about 20 billion hot dogs a year, while the debate about what's really in them continues.

It's the subject of many urban legends, the object of many grade-schoolers' double dares: do hot dogs contain pig snouts and chicken feathers, or are they really made from high-quality meat?

The debate certainly hasn't put a damper on Americans' enthusiasm for the food. The U.S. population consumes about 20 billion hot dogs a year, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. That works out to about 70 hot dogs per person, per year. And, an estimated 95 percent of U.S. homes serve hot dogs at one meal or another.

Wondering how many hotdogs are sold each year? In 2005, retail stores sold 764 million packages of hot dogs (not including Wal-Mart), which adds up to more than $1.5 billion in retail sales.

What's in a Hotdog?

Fun Hot Dog Facts
to Impress Your Friends

    hot dogs
  • In 2006, Americans ate enough hot dogs at major league ballparks to stretch from RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. to AT&T Park in San Francisco.

  • New Yorkers eat more hot dogs than any other city population (even Chicago, also known for its hot dogs).

  • Travelers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport eat six times more hot dogs than travelers at Los Angeles International Airport and LaGuardia Airport combined.

  • Hot dog season -- during which Americans eat 7 billion hot dogs -- stretches from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

  • Americans eat 150 million hot dogs on the fourth of July, alone.

On to the million-dollar question: what are hot dogs made of? According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council:

"All hot dogs are cured and cooked sausages that consist of mainly pork, beef, chicken and turkey or a combination of meat and poultry. Meats used in hot dogs come from the muscle of the animal and looks much like what you buy in the grocer's case. Other ingredients include water, curing agents and spices, such as garlic, salt, sugar, ground mustard, nutmeg, coriander and white pepper."

However, there are a couple of caveats. "Variety meats," which include things like liver, kidneys and hearts, may be used in processed meats like hot dogs, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that they be disclosed on the ingredient label as "with variety meats" or "with meat by-products."

Further, watch out for statements like "made with mechanically separated meats (MSM)." Mechanically separated meat is "a paste-like and batter-like meat 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," according to the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

Although the FSIS maintains that MSM are safe to eat, mechanically separated beef is no longer allowed in hot dogs or other processed meats (as of 2004) because of fears of mad cow disease. Hot dogs can contain no more than 20 percent mechanically separated pork, and any amount of mechanically separated chicken or turkey.

So if you're looking for the purest franks, pick those that are labeled "all beef," "all pork," or "all chicken, turkey, etc." Franks labeled in this way must be made with meat from a single species and do not include byproducts (but check the label anyway, just to be sure. Turkey and chicken franks, for instance, can include turkey or chicken meat and turkey or chicken skin and fat in proportion to a turkey or chicken carcass).

Are Hot Dogs Unhealthy?

Eating lots of processed meats like hot dogs has been linked to an increased risk of cancer. Part of that risk is probably due to the additives used in the meats, namely sodium nitrite and MSG.

Sodium nitrite (or sodium nitrate) is used as a preservative, coloring and flavoring in hot dogs (and other processed meats), and studies have found it can lead to the formation of cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines.

MSG, a flavor enhancer used in hot dogs and many other processed foods, has been labeled as an "excitotoxin," which, according to Dr. Russell Blaylock, an author and neurosurgeon, are "a group of excitatory amino acids that can cause sensitive neurons to die."

If you love hot dogs and are looking for a healthier alternative, opt for nitrate-free, organic varieties (available in health food stores and increasingly in regular supermarkets) that contain all meat, no byproducts and no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.

Recommended Reading

12 Dangerous Food Additives: The Dirty Dozen Food Additives You Really Need to be Aware Of

6 Types of Very Common Toxic Bacteria You Need to Avoid, and Where They're Typically Found


National Hot Dog and Sausage Council

U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service

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