Do you know what’s in a hot dog? More mysterious than crop circles or the Bermuda Triangle–what the heck is in a freaking frank?! And does the “organic” badge make it any better?
Hot dogs have been dodging disparagement for decades–in fact, some food historians suggest that the American term “hot dog” came from the popular belief that dog meat was used in making the sausages. Alas, all of that mystery must hold some allure; Americans consume more than 20 billion weenies annually. That’s 20,000,000,000 franks a year.
Fortunately, the USDA has set federal labeling standards which work to shed some light on the hot dog quandary. Along with a litany of other troublesome ingredients, here’s what may be lurking in a traditional dog.
If the label lists “with byproducts” or “with variety meats,” this means the product consists of more than 15 percent of one or more kinds of raw skeletal muscle meat with raw meat byproducts, such as heart, kidney, or liver.
Meanwhile, “mechanically separated pork” or “mechanically separated chicken or turkey” designates a “paste-like or 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.” If the meat was produced by advanced meat/bone separation machinery but has a calcium content (from bones, yum, wait, should we be eating bones?) exceeding 150 milligrams (mg) of calcium per 100 grams product, it must be also labeled “mechanically separated.”
And needless to say, the meat that ends up undergoing such a radical makeover for mass-market franks doesn’t come from frolicking-in-the-fields farm animals. (Read my post about Factory Farming here.)
Well alrighty then. Along with those nuggets, or slurry as the case may be, you will be greeted with assorted spices and flavorings, sugar, corn syrup, water, salt, and other ingredients. In addition, a standard hot dog usually includes binders, starter cultures, phosphates, erythorbate, dextrose, refined cornstarch, citric acid, MSG and those naughty, naughty nitrites.
MSG & Nitrites
Aside from the horror-movie methods of meat production, MSG and nitrites are the most controversial components of conventional dogs. Research on the role of glutamate (a group of chemicals that includes MSG) in the nervous system has raised questions about the chemical’s safety, and it has also been studied in relation to migraine headaches, diabetes, asthma, atrial fibrillation and depression.
Nitrites are the most irksome ingredient, and are used in hot dogs not only to preserve the meat for a longer shelf life, but also to create that plump and rosy hot dog je nais se quoi. A National Academy of Sciences study on the toxic effects of sodium nitrate, a lethal dose was estimated to be 1 gram (less than ¼ of a teaspoon). The amount of nitrates found in conventional hot dogs is well below anything that could be immediately toxic, but a study performed by the University of Hawaii (presented at the American Association for Cancer Research ) showed that consumption of foods such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs and other processed meats with nitrites increased the risk of cancer by 67 percent.
Organic hot dogs
A number of companies have developed natural and organic hot dogs that use grass-fed beef; and either all-natural methods of curing the meat, or come un-cured, alleviating the need for nitrites. In addition, natural hot dogs eschew MSG and other artificial ingredients for a more simple ingredient panel replete with ingredients that we might easily find in our own pantries.
So here’s what I’m wondering. How many of you don’t eat conventional hot dogs, but have hopped aboard the natural/organic frankfurter wagon? Are you happy that natural-minded meat producers have created more palatable products? Or is a hot dog by any other name, still a hot dog? Leave your comments below…