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What’s in Your Wiener? Hot Dog Ingredients Explained

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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science hot dog ingredients explained for fourth of july bbqThis Fourth of July holiday, collectively Americans will eat some 150 million hot dogs, according to industry analysts. Lined up, that substantial serving of frankfurters would stretch from sea to shining sea—several times.

As of last year, franks made by industry stalwart Oscar Mayer (from Kraft) got knocked out of first place for most-consumed dogs by Sara Lee’s Ball Park brand, according to Adweek (excluding sales data from Walmart).

So just what’s in these wieners? Here’s a quick look at the ingredient list:

Ball Park Franks:
Mechanically separated turkey: As the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes it, this "paste-like and batter-like poultry product [is] produced by forcing bones, with attached edible tissue, through a sive or similar device under high pressure." Unlike mechanically separated beef or pork, it can be present in hot dogs in "any amount."

Pork: Per 1994 USDA rules, any "meat" can be taken off the bone by "advanced meat recovery (AMM) machinery" that separates the edibles from the inedibles without smashing the bone.

Water: Hot dogs must be less than 10 percent water, according to the USDA.

Corn syrup: This common food ingredient—which is made differently from high-fructose corn syrup and has not been linked to the same health concerns—is often used to add texture and sweetness.

Beef: After the outbreak of mad cow disease, the USDA stopped allowing any mechanically separated beef in food.

Salt: A necessary mineral; each of these hot dogs contain about 20 percent (480 milligrams) of the recommended daily allotment.

Potassium lactate: Made from neutralized lactic acid, it’s a common meat preservative because of its properties as an antimicrobial, capable of killing off harmful bacteria.

Sodium phosphates: Any of three sodium salt of phosphoric acids that can be used as a food preservative or to add texture.

Flavorings: Under current U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines, most combinations of flavoring agents are okay to just be listed as "flavor" rather spelled out individually.

Beef stock: Meat stocks are usually made by boiling water with pieces of muscle, bones, joints, connective tissue and other parts of the carcass.

Sodium diacetate: A combination of sodium acetate and acetic acid, it helps to fight fungus and bacterial growth and is often used as an artificial flavor for salt and vinegar chips—and in the sodium acetate form, it’s found in instant hand warmers.

Sodium erythorbate: A sodium salt of erythorbic acid, it has replaced the use of sulfites in many foods and serves as a preservative and to help keep meat-based products pink. Some people report side effects, including dizziness, gastrointestinal issues, headaches and, if consumed in large quantities, kidney stones.

Maltodextrin: A compound made from cooked starch (often corn in the U.S. and wheat in Europe) that is used as a filler or thickening agent in processed foods. Brewers also often use it in beer.

Sodium nitrate: This common preservative helps meats retain their color and also keep foodborne illnesses, such as botulism, to a minimum. Animal studies have linked sodium nitrates to an increased risk of cancer. It’s also frequently found in fertilizers and, yes, fireworks.

Extractives of paprika: An oil-based extract from the paprika plant, it can give processed food color and increase shelf life.

Served bunless on its own, one of these doggies will cost you about 180 calories and include about a quarter of your suggested daily amount of fat (15 grams of total fat, five grams of which are saturated).

Oscar Mayer Classic Wieners have a similar ingredient list: Mechanically separated turkey, mechanically separated chicken, pork, water, salt, ground mustard seed, sodium lactate, corn syrup, dextrose, sodium phosphates, sodium diacetate, sodium acorbate, sodium nitrate, and flavor.

With a fast-growing concern among consumers about processed food ingredients, hot dog-makers are introducing alternative products (while keeping the heavy hitters on the market). Last year, Kraft launched a campaign promoting its Oscar Mayer Selects line of hot dogs, which are made sans artificial preservatives. According to Advertising Age, Sara Lee fired back by promoting its Ball Park Deli Style Beef Franks that have no by-products or artificial flavors.

And the hot dog battle doesn’t show signs of slowing. The two top companies now offer at least 34 hot dog varieties between them, ranging from Ball Park’s Cheese Franks to Oscar Mayer’s XXL Premium Beef Franks. And in the fight for a slice of the processed meat pie, a lot of dough is at stake. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council industry group, U.S. supermarkets alone sold more than $1.6 billion worth of hot dogs last year. That’s a lot of beef—and pork, and turkey, and chicken.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/Camrocker

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  1. 1. toffer99 7:49 am 07/2/2011

    You mean they put some meat in among the chemicals? Yecchh, ptooey!

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  2. 2. maniac 8:07 am 07/2/2011

    I recall a study done about 35 years ago that halted my consumption of hot dogs. It asked and answered the question " how many fleas are in an average hot dog". The answer ? FIVE … from ground up skin parts.

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  3. 3. ber9441 10:27 am 07/2/2011

    As per the USDA web-site:
    [copy and paste]Due to FSIS regulations enacted in 2004 to protect consumers against Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, mechanically separated beef is considered inedible and is prohibited for use as human food. It is not permitted in hot dogs or any other processed product.[/copy and paste]

    ? but turkey is OK ?

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  4. 4. Rock LeBateau 10:31 am 07/2/2011

    As a non American I feel I can say with a smirk on my face that the hot dogs you get are the result of allowing lobbyists from the food industry to have such a large effect on the committees who draft your food laws. You claim to have the most stringent laws on the planet. Phooey! And if you think your hot dogs are bad, then take a look at your beer. Gross!

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  5. 5. Desert Navy 1:14 pm 07/2/2011

    And Balut, Casu Marzu, ikizukuri, Lutefisk & Fois Gras are all signs of superior culture, Rocky?

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  6. 6. SteveinOG 3:45 pm 07/2/2011

    This all falls into the "More than I wanted to know," category. But, what about Hebrew National "All Beef" franks. Are they any different?

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  7. 7. croghan27 3:07 am 07/3/2011

    The problem with Hebrew foods, Halal too, is that the animals are tortured a bit before killing.

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  8. 8. OBagle 3:15 am 07/3/2011

    I know health-conscious folks who never touched a hot dog in their lives, and then ended up dead of hemorrhagic E. coli on their alfalfa sprouts. Or bought a Lexus for its "safety features", and inadvertently set a local speed record. Or went in to the hospital for a physical and then died of a MRSA infection. Or refused to drink alcohol and ended up committing mass murder at his workplace.Or LOST HIS JOB and his house and his family and died of hunger and exposure. Or got into debt for any one of a thousand reasons and committed suicide. or married a divorcee and found out why they were divorcees.

    Eat hot dogs. They’re good for you because they make you think that doing what makes you happy is all that matters.

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  9. 9. sanoran 7:16 am 07/3/2011

    Eat hot dogs with unwashed hands, with lots of beer, and feel good and be American…. and become dumb and obese.

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  10. 10. Toronto Denise 3:39 pm 07/3/2011

    Not so. To be halal, the animal must be killed humanely, with one quick slice of the knife.

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  11. 11. Toronto Denise 3:41 pm 07/3/2011

    Hot dogs are described as beef or even all beef. So how can it be the USDA bans beef in them? That doesn’t make sense. And I see all beef hot dogs all the time.

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  12. 12. estermazda 10:55 am 07/4/2011

    Sure, "one quick slice of the knife" and bleeding to death, only a religious nut would believe it to be painless and without anguish. Consolation for the lucky animal: this happens facing in the direction of Mecca. However it must be pretty difficult to organize for a bunch of chicken… and since I mentionned chicken, KFC serves halal in Europe but is too chicken to advertize it in fear of losing customers who wouldn’t approve to see some of their money going to some religious organization they don’t approuve of, or of the method of killing therewith. As a result KFC is boycotted by some Muslim and non-muslim for various related reasons. And Kosher killing is no better.

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  13. 13. estermazda 11:17 am 07/4/2011

    sorry, server problems

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  14. 14. OXYMAN 8:29 pm 07/5/2011

    sTSY away. Simple. Eat real meat.

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  15. 15. sunnystrobe 1:42 pm 07/6/2011

    According to a Bavarian saying, regarding the ingredients of a hot dog, "only God knows, and the butcher".
    NO WONDER:Wurst is worst, when it comes to bowel cancer!
    I evolved from ardent sausage eater to passionate salad lover over the years, and have never looked back; life was meant to be easy, not greasy!

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  16. 16. croghan27 1:56 pm 07/6/2011

    This is the 4th time I have received this post.

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  17. 17. bspearko 10:40 pm 07/6/2011

    You don’t really know all those people. You just know that the potential exists for people who think or behave that certain way to then have those possible set of circumstances happen to them. No one has that many stupid friends. Please provide names or stop lying to the people who read about hot dogs in scientific american.

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  18. 18. Chris Miller 4:11 pm 07/7/2011

    Je weniger die Leute darüber wissen, wie Würste und Gesetze gemacht werden, desto besser schlafen sie nachts. (The less that people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep at night.)

    Prince Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1815-1898)

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  19. 19. daballa 4:22 pm 04/11/2012 is a good website that shows you the ingredients in food products, and explains what they are.

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  20. 20. bindesh 4:13 pm 07/24/2012

    Great post. I love hotdogs and they are indeed an American food icon. I did a similar post recently and would love a feedback

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  21. 21. retroarama 4:38 pm 07/3/2013

    A summer ritual at my 1960s suburban family backyard barbeques was the ritual hot dog competition, not in competitive eating but dissecting who made the best, well turned frank. There was fierce ;loyalty and intense competition between Sabretts, Grey Papaya, Nedicks and of course Nathans. But the hot dog arguments heated up when it came to all kosher Hebrew National and decidedly un kosher Stahl Meyer, causing an unforgettable rift in my Jewish family.

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