The hot dog is one of America’s most popular foods, with the average person consuming 50 of them per year. Hot dogs are one of the most nutritionally bankrupt foods.
Yet for decades, they’ve been given a free pass, granted one pardon after another thanks to their towering status in American culture. But when you look at what they are giving you in return, you will want to seriously reconsider their status.
The hot dog’s gustatory glow took a significant hit in 2009 when the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) issued its landmark report about hot dogs and cancer risk, based on more than 7,000 scientific studies.
AICR determined that every 50 gram serving of processed meat you consume daily—for example, just ONE hot dog—raises your risk for colorectal cancer by 21 percent. Despite these health warnings, frankfurters have been unstoppable.
In 2013, Americans spent $2.5 billion on hot dogs in US supermarkets, which amounts to more than one billion packages of wieners. During peak hot dog season—which is from Memorial Day to Labor Day—Americans belt down seven billion dogs.
On the Fourth of July alone, Americans consume 150 million hot dogs—enough to stretch from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles more than five times! Hot dogs pose another danger for your child that you may not be aware of—they are responsible for 17 percent of all choking cases among children, killing about 80 kids per year.
Transformation of Slaughter By-Products Into Hot Dogs
Many blame the hot dog’s carcinogenic effects on nitrates and nitrites, but I would argue that this is an overly simplistic view. When you look at what goes into hot dogs and how they are made, there is plenty of blame to go around.
Between the type and grade of “meat” used and its sources, as well as the torrent of synthetic chemicals added to make the dogs safe and palatable—of which nitrates are only one—it’s easy to understand how serious health problems could arise.
Most of the meat and meat by-products come from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where animals are tortured in crowded, unhealthy, unsanitary, and cruel conditions, as the primary goal is cheap food, not quality food.
The video above about how hot dogs are made provides a somewhat glorified view of the process, but it does succeed in portraying just how far from natural this food really is. And when you boil it down, it’s rather disgusting.
Here is the not-glorified version. They start with an animal carcass that’s been stripped of all desirable cuts, boil the heck out of it, force it through a metal sieve, add water, grind it up into a slimy carcass paste (“meat emulsion” or “meat batter”), add a bunch of synthetic chemicals to make it taste good and binders to make it stick together, then extrude it into links.
‘And ALL the Trimmings’
Once desirable meat cuts are removed from beef, pork, and poultry (steaks, chops, ribs, thighs, breasts, briskets, etc.), what remains is a carcass consisting mostly of gristle, fat, and offal. The meat industry refers to this as “trimmings.” According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO):
“The raw meat materials used for precooked-cooked products are lower-grade muscle trimmings, fatty tissues, head meat, animal feet, animal skin, blood, liver and other edible slaughter by-products.”
The butchering process imparts a considerable amount of bacteria to these carcasses, but because hot dogs are pre-cooked, manufacturers can get away with using these pieces and parts even if they are teeming with bacteria.
Cooking helps kill them, as well as separating the remaining muscle, fat, and connective tissues from the head and feet bones. The slimy paste that results from this rendering brew is what’s referred to as “mechanically-recovered” meat. The process of manufacturing hot dogs is colorfully summarized in the Daily Mail:
“In vast metal vats, tons of pork trimmings are mixed with the pink slurry formed when chicken carcasses are squeezed through metal grates and blasted with water. The mush is mixed with powdered preservatives, flavorings, red coloring and drenched in water before being squeezed into plastic tubes to be cooked and packaged.”
The Best of the Wurst
If you are going to eat hot dogs or other processed meats once in awhile, there are a few considerations that may help you reduce your risk of adverse health affects. Again, these options are not ideal as these meats are still processed, but the following guidelines will ensure you are consuming a product that is better for you than the vast majority of processed meats on the market:
- Look for “uncured” varieties that contain NO nitrates
- Choose varieties that say 100 percent beef, 100 percent chicken, etc. This is the only way to know that the meat is from a single species and does not include byproducts
- Avoid any meat that contains MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, artificial flavor, or artificial color
- Ideally, purchase sausages and other processed meats from a small, local farmer that makes those products right on the farm, whom you can ask about the ingredients
Truly Healthy Meats are a Much Better Option
In contrast to eating products that are little more than a heat-processed slurry of reassembled slaughterhouse remains, real meat is a different story altogether. Make sure the meat you consume is grass-fed, organically and humanely raised, preferably from a local farmer you know and trust. Grass-fed beef tends to be leaner and have higher levels of vitamins, minerals, and cancer-fighting CLA. It also has a healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. Organic farms tend to provide far more sanitary conditions, so the animals are less likely to harbor dangerous pathogens.
Organic, grass-fed standards do not permit non-medical use of antibiotics, and with antibiotic-resistant infections being a major public health hazard today, this is an important consideration. To counteract some of the harmful effects of cooking, add homemade spice rubs, herb-enhanced marinades, or even fresh blueberries to your meat prior to cooking. This will not only augment its nutritional value, but also reduce the harmful substances like heterocyclic amines that are formed during the cooking process. Consume plenty of fresh vegetables along with it, which will further enhance its nutritional value.