Hot dogs and hamburgers: the truth about the meat we buy

Jul 19, 2015

According to the National Sausage and Hot Dog Council, during peak hotdog season, Americans typically consume 7 billion hot dogs. But what exactly is in these hotdogs that people buy at the supermarket, and is it healthy for people to be eating so many of them?

This week on “Take Care,” we talk to Kerri-Ann Jennings about what exactly is in the meat of the hot dogs and hamburgers that we eat. Jennings is a registered dietician and nutritionist, as well as former editor for Eating Well Magazine.

There are rules and regulations for what meat producers can and cannot put in a hot dog, but that doesn’t mean these producers are always using the same ingredients in their meat.

“Hot dogs can be made from a variety of meats, first of all. There are rules about what can be in a hot dog, but it can be any type of meat from beef, from pork, and even from poultry,” says Jennings.

One way in which manufacturers are able to extract edible meats for their hot dogs is by using meat material Jennings calls “mechanically separated meats.”

“It’s basically the way for food manufacturers and meat processors to extract all of the edible meat from the carcass, and so it puts it through machines that separate the flesh from the bone, making sure it’s scraped everything, and the product is not a very appetizing looking—or sounding—meat taste that can also be added to products like hot dogs,” said Jennings.

Then there is the issue of nitrates in processed meat. Sodium nitrate is what preserves the meat products, and will be found even in organic hot dogs that might say nitrate-free.

“While nitrates have been linked to a risk of heart disease,” Jennings explains, “they also increase your risk of certain types of cancers. So the main thing to consider when you’re looking at eating any of these things is just not to eat them that frequently. So they can be a once-in-a-while food if you really like them, they just shouldn’t be a part of your daily intake.”

Despite these methods used while processing meat, the National Sausage and Hot Dog Council’s statistic shows that Americans won’t be giving up hot dogs any time soon. Jennings’ most important tip to buying hot dog meat is a simple one:  check the ingredient list.

“That’s where you actually can find what’s in the hot dog. If it has things that sound relatively like whole foods that you can actually recognize, then that would be the best hot dog to get,” said Jennings.

When it comes to hamburgers, there are fewer additives added to the meat. However, some manufacturers may use a material called “pink slime,” something that is similar to the mechanically separated meats used in making hot dog meat.

Pink slime is what is produced when meat processors take meat scraps and put them through an ammonia bath, which is meant to kill e-coli bacteria, and then ground it to a paste, which can be added to hamburger meat.

Credit stu_spivak / Flickr

“The best thing to do would be to look for a smaller meat producer, one that tells you this is sirloin, for instance, and that you can be pretty confident that it has just beef in the patties you are looking for,” Jennings says. “I think it may be more in the pre-formed patties, so you’d be better off getting your own ground meat, shaping them into patties and looking for a smaller producer.”

Jennings also feels that portion size can go a long way toward being healthy when eating any sort of processed meat.

“I think the overarching theme… is keep it small. So a hamburger should be 3 ounces, that’s 4 ounces of raw meat that cooks down to 3 ounces. For hot dogs, just have them occasionally,” said Jennings.