Americans will eat an estimated 150 million hot dogs on July 4, according to a recent survey sponsored by Applegate, a leading producer of organic and natural meats.
While pink slime is not used in hot dogs, Applegate's survey did reveal that most Americans consider hot dogs to be something of a mystery meat. More than 75 percent of the 1,000 adults interviewed said they worry about what's in their hot dog, and about the same percentage consider it a low-quality food.
The good news: Hot dog ingredients are unsavory though not unsafe, says Sarah Klein, food safety attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"I wouldn't be eating hot dogs every day," says Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University. "But if you're eating a diet that's really healthy, and every now and then you want to have a hot dog, I wouldn't worry about it."
Klein says the main risk of eating hot dogs is listeria, which is why they should be thoroughly cooked and avoided by pregnant women and those with a weakened immune system.
A package of hot dogs generally will list a blend of meats, such as chicken, pork, and turkey, says Edward Mills, associate professor of dairy and animal science at Pennsylvania State-University Park. Mills once worked for a plant that made 1 million pounds of hot dogs per week.
The meats are combined in order to achieve desirable color, gelled texture, fat emulsification, and water binding. Most of the turkey and chicken is mechanically deboned. The fat comes from the pork and beef once the more in-demand lean cuts of meat are trimmed away for sale. The fat gives a hot dog its juiciness and just the right texture, Mills says.
The meats, fat, seasonings, and preservatives—the often maligned sodium nitrite—are blended and chopped to fine consistency that's somewhere between cake batter and cookie dough. The "batter" is then pumped into a round cellophane tube that is removed from the hot dogs after cooking.
"Most of the flavor of hot dogs comes from seasonings not the meat itself," says Mills. "So if you have a formulation that says pork and chicken, that is going to have a different feel in your mouth, a different nature of juiciness, a different snap when you bite into it than an all-beef hot dog."
But like almost all processed meats, a black cloud has hung over hot dogs since the 1970s, when studies showed an association between added chemical nitrites and nitrates with cancer in animals. (The preservatives give hot dogs their color and kill bacteria.)
Later research disputed the cancer link, though it was recommended that people consume less of the chemicals. The Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture believe that added chemical nitrites and nitrates are safe and not cancer causing at specific levels, such as the amount found in hot dogs and deli meats.
"The nitrates are the one preservative that some people are concerned might not be safe," says Robyn Flipse, a registered dietitian in Bradley Beach, N.J. "The FDA has deemed [them] safe. You can choose to accept that or not."
Still, the perceived risk has created an appetite for products with nitrites and nitrates derived from natural sources, such as those found in vegetables. Applegate claims its products are free of added chemical nitrates and nitrites, instead using naturally occurring nitrites from celery juice, and sea salt to cure its meats, according to Applegate founder Chris Ely. The ingredients are nothing more than beef (or chicken or turkey), water, sea salt, celery juice dried to a powder, and spices, he says.
Nitrates aside: Is there such a thing as a healthy hot dog? Not really, experts say. Hot dogs are processed (frequent consumption of processed meats has been linked to certain cancers); and all varieties, whether chicken, turkey, vegetarian, or uncured, are relatively high in calories, fat, sodium, or all three. Ketchup, mustard, and relish drive up the sodium—and chili and cheese will up the calories and increase the fat. Add in the potato salad, baked beans, and corn on the cob drowned in butter, and your Independence Day cookout can easily become a gluttonous extravaganza.