hot dogs in buns with mustard

What’s in a Hot Dog?

Are you ready to find out what’s in a hot dog? Forty-three percent of Americans are afraid to know what is in a hot dog. That doesn’t mean America’s favorite ballpark snack is going away though! Americans are projected to eat 20 billion hot dogs this year.

We dared to ask the questions many people are afraid to about this summer favorite. We got in touch with meat scientist Janeal Yancey, PhD, and blogger at Mom at the Meat Counter because not only is Dr. Yancey an expert in meat science, but she also worked at a hot dog plant and has first-hand experience of how they are made. She told us her experience did not change her love for hot dogs.

“I eat hot dogs and feed them to my family. I enjoyed working in the hot dog plant, except that I smelled like hot dogs every day!” Dr. Yancey said.

We decided to ask Dr. Yancey some of your scariest hot dog questions.

What’s in a hot dog?

Dr. Yancey: “Hot dogs can be made with different types of meat, and if you want to know what’s in a hot dog, you just need to look at the ingredient statement. Most of the time, hot dogs are made with skeletal meat, which are trimmings of the same type of meat that makes ground meat, steaks and roasts. The trimmings are ground up really fine, which is what gives them that homogenous texture. Salt is added to the meat, giving the mixture a sticky texture. The proteins within the meat stick to each other, and then water is added. The hot dog mixture also has added nitrites, which give the hot dog a pink color and specific flavor. Nitrites also help protect the hot dog from the bacteria that causes botulism. There are all sorts of flavors added to hot dogs, and each hot dog company has their own unique recipe for what makes their hot dogs taste special.”

For more information about nitrites, see What is Nitrite? and Nitrates in Processed Meats

Hot dogs made up of a bunch of different leftover animal parts, right?

Dr. Yancey: “This isn’t really true. Hot dogs are made of animal parts, but they aren’t leftovers. They’re the same stuff that you would make into ground beef or ground pork. The trimmings used to make hot dogs are pieces of the meat that don’t make good steaks and roasts because they aren’t a certain tenderness, size, shape or weight.”

What about the really cheap hot dogs?

Dr. Yancey: “Really inexpensive hot dogs are usually made with a meat source called mechanically separated chicken. It’s a process that uses mechanical means to pull the muscle off the bone in chicken. It’s a very inexpensive source of protein. It’s not an unsafe or unwholesome product, it’s just a cheaper protein source.”

How are hot dogs made?

Dr. Yancey: “In the hot dog plant, workers grind the trimmings and mix up all the ingredients and the salt, and add some water. Sometimes they’ll even add ice to the hot dog mixture because during the grinding process, the mixture can get warm, so adding ice helps keep it at the right temperature. Then, they run it through a special machine that sucks the air out of the mixture and grinds it up really fine.”

How do hot dogs get their shape?

Dr. Yancey: “The mixture is then stuffed into long tubes. most hot dogs are stuffed into a plastic casing, and machines stuff the hot dog in and twist the casing that makes the hot dogs into links. They are then cooked in those casings, and once cooked, they put them in a machine called a peeler. The peeler peels the hot dogs from the casings very fast! After they’re cooked, the mixture takes the shape of that casing. Once you pull the casing off, you have that round hot dog shape. On a hot dog, those wrinkles on the end are from where the casing was twisted.”

Are hot dogs safe to eat?

Dr. Yancey: “Hot dogs are really safe to eat. They are cooked to a safe temperature before they leave the plant. The packaging room, where the hot dogs go after they’re cooked, is treated similarly to an operating room. The workers must wear clean suits, hair nets and gloves. The rules and regulations for the sanitation are really stringent because the plant must deliver a safe product. That’s what’s great about a hot dog – it’s a safe, ready-to-eat product. You can cook it again – you can grill it, microwave it, boil it, etc., but you don’t have to. Hot dogs are super safe. As a side note, just to be extra safe, pregnant women should not eat hot dogs and deli meats, without heating them up first, because of a bacteria rarely found in those products.”

Are hot dogs healthy?

Dr. Yancey: “You can look at the nutrition label when choosing to purchase hot dogs. Hot dogs are a good inexpensive source of protein. They aren’t a lean cut and they aren’t a health food, but they are a good source of inexpensive protein.”

Hot dogs are made from meat trimmings which are ground into a fine mixture with other ingredients added for flavor. The mixture is poured into a casing to create the shape. Hot dogs are a cheap source of protein and are safe to eat with or without additional cooking.

This video from the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council shows how hot dogs are made.

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Originally posted April 7, 2015.