It’s pink, it’s long, and it comes in plenty of different sizes. That’s right, it’s the hot dog — America’s favorite sausage.
Normally, you’ll find the meat products lining supermarket shelves and concession stands everywhere, but splash for just a brief moment in time, you could find themed across a Pennsylvania highway in mush form.
About 15,000 pounds of pink hot dog meat oozed out of a massive tractor trailer that turned over on May 20, according to photos that went viral. The driver lost control of the vehicle, which was found to have brake failure, on Interstate 70 in Westmoreland County, a police report says.
Luckily, the meat spillage didn’t smell too funky, despite the stomach-churning looks of it, according to the Rostraver Central Fire Department, which responded to the accident.
“The only odor was from the product itself, which was minimal, and nothing out of the ordinary. Not what would be described as something that ‘smelled,’” the fire department told BuzzFeed News over Facebook DM. “It was definitely a unique product, but we have encountered other things on the highway before… actually a load of Twizzlers in nearly the same spot.”
The accident, which thankfully didn’t seriously injure the driver or passenger (they both declined to receive medical treatment), got us thinking: What are hot dogs even made of? Are they bad for you? (One thing to know, they are definitely not considered sandwiches, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council.)
You might be pleasantly surprised to hear that we spoke to several registered dietitians who all agreed that the hot dogs you consume on the 4th of July or any other time of the year, are perfectly fine to eat, nutritionwise. But moderation is key, of course.
“What is the summertime without grilled franks on the grill with some sauerkraut?” said Keri Gans, a registered dietitian nutritionist in New York. “Let’s be real.”
(Fun fact: Americans will eat 150 million hot dogs on the 4th of July, the NHDSC says, “enough to stretch from DC to LA more than five times.” What’s more, July is National Hot Dog Month.)
What are hot dogs made of?
Hot dogs have long been referred to as a mystery meat, but you can actually find a comprehensive list of ingredients online. Brands may differ slightly, but the NHDSC offers a guide on what you will generally find inside your hot dogs, which are regulated by the USDA.
“People have all kinds of ideas about the mythology of what goes into a hot dog, but generally it is mythology,” Eric Mittenthal, president of the NHDSC, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s a very simple process and what you see on the label of a package is exactly what you’re getting.”
The sausages can be made of beef trimmed from steaks or roasts, pork from larger cuts like chops and tenderloins, or chicken and turkey — or a mixture of the different meats.
Certain curing agents, such as sodium nitrite and celery powder, are added to the dogs to not only give them their taste and pink color, but also prevent the growth of bacteria. Then other ingredients such as ascorbic acid, sodium erythorbate, and cherry powder (all different forms of vitamin C), are thrown in the batch to quicken the curing process.
Some other contents include corn syrup, yeast extract, and flavorings made up of herbs, spices, and vegetables.
The majority of hot dogs are enveloped in a cellulose casing during the cooking process, which is later stripped before they’re packaged. Others have what’s called “natural casing,” which comprises “cleaned lamb or pig intestine,” the NHDSC says. This kind of casing is what gives you that “snap” sensation when biting into them. The skin of the hot dog can be made of a different animal than the hot dog itself; if so, that information must be included on the label, the USDA says.
The meat used in the filler is cut and ground into small pieces and thrown into a mixer that blends all of the ingredients into a cakelike batter. The mixture is then stuffed into a machine that shapes it into links and wraps the casing around them. Next, the meat is cooked in a “smokehouse” and then showered in cool water to remove the casing until finally vacuum sealed into its packaging.
Some hot dogs may contain animal byproducts, such as the heart, kidney, or liver, also known as organ meats, but these are not common in North American hot dogs, Mittenthal said. They’re actually considered “delicacy parts” in some states. Labels will say “with variety meats” or “with meat byproducts” if they have them.
If you’re still hesitant about what exactly makes up a hot dog, Mittenthal said there are “USDA establishment numbers” found on the packaging that you can use to look up where the meat comes from and how it was produced.