By Rachael Link, MS, RD
Frequently found everywhere from hot dog stands on the street corners to summertime barbecues and picnics, hot dogs are a popular food eaten around the world, but a recent hot dog recall is another reminder of why consuming this food isn’t the best idea.
While the traditional hot dog may include a mix of beef and pork enclosed in a bun and topped with your choice of ketchup, mustard or relish, there are many types of hot dogs available to fit different palates and preferences.
However, the standard hot dog is made from the trimmings of beef and pork, which are ground up and blended up into a batter along with any additional ingredients, like seasonings, curing ingredients and sodium nitrite to help boost both shelf life and color. This mixture then goes into a machine that pumps them into cellulose casings that are then cooked, doused in cold water and packaged into the individual links that you find at the grocery store.
While hot dogs may be a go-to favorite for many when it comes time to fire up the grill, they may not make the healthiest addition to your diet. Not only are they highly processed meat and filled with potentially harmful chemicals like nitrates, nitrites and MSG, but there have also been a series of hot dog recall warnings that call into question the safety of your favorite frankfurter.
Hot Dog Recall
If you regularly tune in to the news, you already know that it’s not rare to hear about a new hot dog recall making the headlines. Just this past year, the company that makes hot dogs for popular brands like Nathan’s announced a hot dog recall due to the presence of tiny shards of metal found in the packaging. (1) And only one year before that, another hot dog recall notice was issued because of listeria contamination. (2)
The most recent hot dog recall, however, may make you rethink your menu for your next summer barbecue. Recently, the maker of Sabrett hot dogs recalled more than 7 million pounds of hot dogs and sausages after finding that they contained bone fragments that caused minor injuries to at least one person. (3)
Once you understand the process of how hot dogs are made, it’s not hard to imagine how this type of contamination could easily occur. Throw a bunch of meat trimmings into a blender and you’re bound to get the occasional bone or shard of metal, along with who knows what else.
Other Hidden Dangers of Hot Dogs
The bone-chilling details of the recent hot dog recall aren’t the only reason you should probably consider cutting back on your hot dog consumption. Besides the potential risk for contamination with bones, metal shards and foodborne illness, there are also some other negative health effects and hidden dangers of hot dogs that should be considered.
1. Harmful Additives
Hot dogs contain several food additives that could be detrimental to your health. Sodium nitrite, for example, is commonly added to processed meats, such as hot dogs, bacon and ham, to act as a preservative, block bacteria growth and enhance the color.
Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is another additive frequently found in processed meats and used to enhance flavor. Some studies have found that MSG can be genotoxic, meaning it causes damage to our cells, while other studies have shown that chronic MSG consumption has caused kidney damage in animals. (6, 7)
Additionally, although there is limited scientific evidence on MSG sensitivity, there are many anecdotal reports of experiencing symptoms like headaches, hives, congestion and chest pain following MSG consumption.
2. Heart Disease
Hot dogs tend to be high in sodium, fat and cholesterol. Excessive consumption can lead to problems like high blood pressure or elevated blood lipids, which can increase your risk of heart disease.
Additionally, hot dogs are highly processed. Processed meats have repeatedly been linked to a higher heart disease risk. For example, a 2014 study found that eating more processed red meat led to a higher risk of heart failure. (8)
Another study in the journal Public Health Nutrition showed that each serving of processed meat boosted the risk of heart disease mortality by 15 percent. (9)
The World Health Organization recently made a splash by publishing a report classifying processed meats, such as hot dogs as “carcinogenic to humans,” right alongside harmful compounds like tobacco and asbestos. (10) This conclusion was based on multiple studies that have established a clear link between consumption of processed meats, like hot dogs, and an increased risk of certain types of cancer.
For example, a 2014 study grouped participants into categories based on their processed meat consumption. Those with the highest intake of processed meats had a 22 percent higher risk of colorectal cancer than those with the lowest intake, and each 100-gram increase in intake was linked to a 14 percent higher risk. (11)
4. Questionable Ingredients
As if the risk of chowing down on a hot dog and finding a piece of bone or metal isn’t bad enough, there are other possible unsavory hidden ingredients that could be lurking in your hot dog as well.
For example, if you’re browsing the hot dog aisle and see a package that reads “variety meats” or “meat by-products,” that means that it can contain other parts of the animal, including organs like the heart, liver or kidneys. To avoid these ingredients, stick to brands that contain “all meat,” such as “all turkey” or “all beef.”
Additionally, hot dogs may also contain mechanically separated meat, or MSM. This is a type of meat that has been pushed through a sieve to separate the meat from the bone, creating a type of paste. While this process was made illegal in the United States in 2004 due to its association with mad cow disease, regulations now state that hot dogs can still contain up to 20 percent MSM. (15)
How Are Hot Dogs Made?
There are a few basic steps to making hot dogs, although some of the spices and order of steps vary according to where the dogs will be sold. That’s right, according to the people at hot dog manufacturing facilities, where the dogs are sold dictates how they taste as people in different regions have different preferences when it comes to their hot dogs.
These are the 10 steps to making a hot dog, according to the Science Channel’s television show, “How It’s Made”: (16)
- Trimmings are raked into stainless steel cases. (Trimmings are what’s left over after cutting up steaks and pork chops.)
- The trimmings are next dumped into a chopper where they are chopped.
- Water, salt, corn syrup or sorbitol, food starch, and liquid smoke are added.
- All ingredients are blended in a large vat.
- Secret spices are now added. These vary based on where the hot dogs will be sold.
- Sodium nitrate is added for extending shelf life and color enhancement.
- The meat mixture is put through a funnel and comes out the other end looking a lot like what a meat smoothie would resemble.
- The dogs are stuffed into cellulose tubing and cut every 5 ¼ inches.
- The now closed hot dogs are baked.
- The cooked hot dogs are doused in cold, salty water and packaged.
Types of Hot Dogs
As the popularity of hot dogs has grown, more and more types of hot dogs have hit the shelves. In addition to the standard beef and pork franks, other types of hot dogs include turkey, chicken and cheese-filled hot dogs, as well as deep-fried corn dogs. Hot dogs are also available in reduced-fat, all meat, nitrite-free and even vegetarian varieties.
Though some of these types may be preferential over the standard fat-filled, sodium-rich hot dogs, they should all still be consumed only in moderation. Vegetarian hot dogs (also cleverly dubbed “not dogs”), for example, may be lower in cholesterol and fat than regular hot dogs, but they are still highly processed and usually contain a long list of questionable ingredients like soy and textured vegetable protein.
Hot Dog Nutrition Facts
The nutrients found in hot dogs can vary based on the brand, the type of meat used and the toppings that are added. However, most hot dogs tend to be high in sodium and cholesterol as well as saturated fat. They also are usually low in carbohydrates and provide a moderate amount of protein, with anywhere from five to eight grams of protein per serving.
- 148 calories
- 2.1 grams carbohydrates
- 5.1 grams protein
- 13 grams fat
- 513 milligrams sodium (21 percent DV)
- 0.8 micrograms vitamin B12 (13 percent DV)
- 24 milligrams cholesterol (8 percent DV)
- 72 milligrams phosphorus (7 percent DV)
- 1.1 milligrams zinc (7 percent DV)
- 1.1 milligram niacin (5 percent DV)
- 3.7 micrograms selenium (5 percent DV)
- 16.2 international units vitamin D (4 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram riboflavin (4 percent DV)
- 0.7 milligrams iron (4 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram copper (4 percent DV)
Note that this is the nutrient information for a beef hot dog with no toppings or bun. Adding a bun can increase the hot dog calories by about 120 while also considerably increasing the carbohydrate and sodium content as well. (19) Meanwhile, any additional toppings or condiments like ketchup or mustard will increase your hot dog calories even more depending on how much is used.
Healthier Hot Dog Alternatives
If you’re a big fan of hot dogs and can’t imagine sitting through a baseball game without your favorite ballpark snack, there are ways to make your hot dog a bit healthier.
Check your local grocery store’s for “all meat” and “nitrite-free” hot dog varieties. Additionally, practice label reading and look for a brand that is lower in sodium, saturated fat and calories with minimal ingredients listed.
Remember that those extra toppings can stack up fast and may even provide more calories and sodium than the actual hot dog itself. Keep toppings like cheese, pickles and sauerkraut in check, and consider swapping these for healthier choices like avocado, tomatoes, cabbage or raw onions. Then finish it off with a whole-wheat bun rather than a white bun to make sure you’re maximizing your nutrient intake.
Finally, keep in mind that even the healthiest hot dog at the grocery store is still processed. Ideally, you should avoid them completely. If you do want to enjoy the occasional hot dog from time to time, moderation should be key.
Hot Dog Precautions
Some people have reported allergic reactions or negative symptoms after eating hot dogs. Hot dogs typically contain a long list of ingredients, so it can be hard to pinpoint exactly which ingredients may be to blame for these symptoms.
While it can sometimes be an allergy to the specific kind of meat used, it is more often an allergy resulting from one of the additives or dyes found in hot dogs. Nitrates, annatto seed, carmine and tartrazine are a few of the ingredients that are often responsible for adverse reactions after eating hot dogs. Like all foods, you should stop eating hot dogs immediately and consult your doctor if you experience any negative symptoms.
You should also pay close attention to any hot dog recall notices that are issued and discard immediately or return to the store for a refund if you find that you have an affected batch. Consuming contaminated hot dogs could be dangerous and could lead to foodborne illness or injury.
Additionally, because of their less-than-stellar nutrient profile, those with heart disease or high blood pressure should also be mindful about including hot dogs in their diets. Hot dogs are high in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, all nutrients that should all be minimized on a heart-healthy diet.
Of course, even if you’re not allergic to hot dogs and you don’t have heart disease, hot dogs should still be consumed in moderation and should not be a regular part of the diet.
Final Thoughts on the Hot Dog Recall
Unsurprisingly, hot dogs are hardly considered a health food thanks to their high amount of sodium, cholesterol and saturated fat coupled with their long list of highly processed ingredients. Because of the way that hot dogs are made, they also present an increased risk of contamination and really should be avoided. If you need further proof, look no further than the long list of hot dog recall reports.
While there are plenty of healthy hot dog alternatives and ways to improve the nutrient profile of your frankfurter, they should still be enjoyed only in moderation. Chowing down on a hot dog or two at your annual Fourth of July party is one thing, but including them as a regular part of your diet could lead to some seriously negative effects on your health.
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