Why the ordinary wiener is really not so hot
What do grilling season, baseball season, Riverbend, Father’s Day and the Internet have in common? They all have an unnatural relationship with America’s favorite questionable meat product in tube form: the hot dog.
While the truth of the syllogism “all hot dogs are sausages but not all sausages are hot dogs” should be glaringly obvious, teasing out a clear, definitive difference between hot dogs and sausages is tricky and quickly devolves into a food-wonky discussion of ingredients, origins, myths and legends.
Hot dogs are pink, cylindrical capsules of something we hope is mostly meat, usually served on a bread “bun” and typically eaten during baseball games, from street carts during alcohol-induced moments of questionable judgment, or cut into bite-sized chunks and mixed into generic, instant mac & cheese.
Sausages, on the other hand, usually look like what they claim to be made from, are almost always made from higher-quality meats and can be served sans-bun without raising an eyebrow. Sausages also have the added advantage of not making you feel as though you’ve done something wrong the minute you put it in your mouth.
The ingredients on an average package of American-made hot dogs are surprisingly similar to the ingredients in Guy Fieri’s Donkey Sauce Hair Gel, such as sodium erythorbate, sodium phosphates and mechanically separated pork.
But let’s be fair. Although hot dogs are an easy target for food shaming, what is REALLY in a hot dog? Are there actually chicken lips and pork rectums in your Ball Park frank? Can you serve hot dogs to your dad for Father’s Day without fear of becoming an entry on the Wikipedia patricide page?
What’s actually in a hot dog?
The ingredient list on a package of America’s best-selling hot dogs, original Ball Park Franks, starts with that dinner table classic, mechanically separated turkey. The USDA defines mechanically separated poultry (MSP) as “a paste-like and batter-like poultry product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible tissue, through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue.” Mmmm…just like mama used to make.
You may have heard that “pink slime” (mechanically separated beef) was banned in 2004 over fears related to food borne illnesses—and you would be correct. But food-paste aficionados can rejoice because companies can pump as much mechanically separated poultry into their hot dogs as they like!
Next up on our ingredient tour is good old pork. According to 1994 USDA rules, any meat labeled as such can be taken off the bone by advanced meat recovery (AMR) machinery that “separates meat from bone by scraping, shaving, or pressing the meat from the bone without breaking or grinding the bone.”
But the beef in these wieners may be the closest thing to recognizable meat you’re going to get since it comes as scraps and trimmings from other cuts. Of course, no American classic would be complete without corn syrup. It’s used here as a thickener and sweetener, because this is ’Merica and even our meat has to be sweet.
Then we get into the stuff that keeps Michael Pollan up at night: flavor enhancers, pathogen inhibitors and preservatives, as well as salt. Lots and lots of salt. A single one of these dogs has about 480 milligrams, the rough equivalent of 20 percent of your recommended daily allowance.
Finally, the good folks at Sara Lee throw in some flavorings, paprika, water and beef stock to make this puréed protein batter taste like meat again, because what could make more sense than taking meat, processing all of the flavor out of it, then adding artificial flavors to make it palatable?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying all hot dogs are bad. Main Street Meats and Good Dog, for example, offer delicious sausages made from unprocessed, quality, recognizable meats that are perfect substitutes for those packaged, pink, nitrate-laden torpedoes that line the supermarket cold aisle. Are they a little more expensive? Of course. Quality meat, just like anything else, costs a little more (about $1 more per dog), but take a peek at the hot-dog episode of the Science Channel show “How It’s Made” and tell me if you think the extra dollar is worth it. (Find the link at chattanoogapulse.com/food-drink/sushi-biscuits)
Get out, enjoy the grill, baseball, Riverbend, and Father’s Day, but for the love of all that is meaty, please consider the source of that wiener before it ever gets close to your mouth. “Good sausages make better hot dogs.” (A public service announcement from your friendly, local food guy.)