A Guide to Common Ingredients in Hot Dogs
Hot dogs are among America’s most popular foods, but consumer surveys indicate that many hot dog lovers aren’t sure how they are made and why some ingredients included on the label are used.
Hot dogs are much like cakes: different recipes create very different tastes and textures and people have strong personal preferences. Many recipes require many different ingredients, including spices, flavorings, preservatives, binders and additives that combine to give hot dogs their distinctive taste and texture. Ingredients added to meat and poultry in a hot dog recipe can add flavor, keep hot dogs moist and juicy and delay spoilage, and perhaps most importantly…provide food safety.
Any non-meat ingredient included in a meat product must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and accepted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates and inspects meat and poultry products. Approximately 2,800 food additives have been FDA-approved after a thorough review of their safety. Only a fraction of these approved ingredients are commonly used in meat products like hot dogs. Ingredients can perform important functions like “curing” meat products and preventing bacterial growth.
All hot dog ingredients must be clearly detailed on the product ingredient statements, from the greatest amount to the least added. With so many different hot dog manufacturers, flavor profiles and even nutritional goals, each uses slightly different types and amounts of ingredients. The following is a guide to the variety of ingredients that may be found in hot dogs:
- Ascorbic acid/Sodium ascorbate - Also known as Vitamin C, works in conjunction with nitrite to be a much more effective ingredient by preventing and slowing harmful bacterial growth, drastically improving food safety. It also prevents oxidation (rancidity) that causes color change and spoilage, and provides for the unique cured flavor that hot dogs have. Research has shown that including Vitamin C with sodium nitrite effectively prevents the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines.
- Autolyzed Yeast Extract - Flavor enhancer derived from yeast and used to add a savory meaty flavor.
- Beef - Most commonly pieces of meat cut away from steaks or roasts. It is then very finely ground and mixed with other spices. Variety meats or organ meats are not typically used in hot dogs or sausages and if organs are used, the specific organ will be included in the ingredients statement on the package and the front of the package will declare “with variety meats” or “with meat byproducts.”
- Beef Stock - Key ingredient in soup, most commonly made by cooking beef bones in water. May be added to achieve a “meatier” flavor.
- Celery powder - Dried, ground concentrate prepared from fresh celery, which is naturally rich in nitrite. Celery powder can be a curing ingredient in place of sodium nitrite. It is commonly found in “uncured” or organic products. It can also be added as a spice.
- Citric acid - A naturally occurring acid in citrus fruits and tomatoes commonly used to control the acidity of products.
- Collagen casing - An edible casing alternative to hog or sheep intestines. Made from beef proteins.
- Dextrose - A sugar found naturally in fruits and honey, which can also be derived from starch (this might be labeled as “cultured dextrose”). It enhances flavor and browning during cooking.
- Flavoring - Flavors to add a depth of taste. These are typically concentrated extracts derived from herbs, spices and vegetables.
- Garlic puree - Pureed cloves of garlic.
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein - A flavor enhancer produced by boiling and breaking down cereals or legumes, such as soy, corn, or wheat, in hydrochloric acid into their component amino acids.
- Lactate/diacetate - Salts (sodium or potassium) derived from organic acids that inhibit growth of bacteria and enhance safety. Lactate is made in our bodies as part of normal metabolism. As an ingredient, it is manufactured from corn by fermentation. Diacetate is a form of vinegar which is also manufactured by fermentation.
- Lauric arginate - Prevents bacterial growth. It is a derivative of lauric acid which is commonly found in coconut and palm kernel oils, the amino acid L-arginine and ethanol.
- Maltodextrin - A carbohydrate used to create even and consistent flavor. Maltodextrin evenly spreads flavors through a product so every mouthful tastes good. Most commonly made from corn. Brewers also use it in beer.
- Mechanically separated chicken/turkey - Chicken or turkey removed from the bones with specialized machines that use pressure to separate the meat. Since mechanically separated chicken or turkey is derived from poultry meat that is close to the bone, it can have slightly higher calcium content when compared to whole muscles. Because of this, USDA requires that it be included in the ingredients as “mechanically separated” when used.
- Modified food starch - A starch that has been modified so that it is a functional ingredient. Modified food starch is used as a thickener to give a consistent texture similar to how you might use corn starch at home. Most commonly made from corn, but also can be made from wheat or potatoes.
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG) - A flavor enhancer comprised simply of sodium and the amino acid glutamate, primarily made through fermentation of corn. Helpful as a way to reduce sodium in products as MSG contains only one-third the amount of sodium as table salt. Glutamate and MSG provide the savory “umami” flavor common in meats, ripe tomatoes and parmesan cheese (both of which contain naturally occurring MSG.) It must be declared as MSG on meat and poultry labels
- Natural Sheep Casing - Casing made from the cleaned intestines of a lamb.
- Oleoresin of Paprika - Technical name for paprika extract which is a natural food ingredient extracted from red peppers. Provides both flavor and natural red coloring.
- Phosphates - A naturally occurring form of the element phosphorus used in meat and poultry products for maintaining moisture in products to enhance juiciness and tenderness and prevent off flavors from developing in fat. Sodium or potassium phosphates most common in hot dogs.
- Pork - Most commonly pieces of meat cut away from larger cuts like chops or tenderloin. It is then very finely ground and mixed with other spices. “Variety meats” or organ meats are not typically used in hot dogs or sausages and if organs are used, the specific organ will be included in the ingredients statement on the package and the front of the package will declare “with variety meats” or “with meat byproducts.”
- Salt - Mined from the earth or obtained from sea water, salt is an essential ingredient in processed and cured meat products that adds flavor, texture, protects against bacteria and extends shelf life. Before refrigeration, salting of meat (done at very high concentrations) was essential in preventing spoilage.
- Smoke flavoring - A condensed form of smoke made by capturing and condensing smoke particles from burning woods, such as maple and hickory. Smoke flavoring is an alternative to smoking via the burning of wood during the cooking process. Smoke flavoring gives products a smoky taste without a grill.
- Sodium benzoate - The salt of benzoic acid, which is naturally found in some fruits and spices. Enhances food safety by inhibiting growth of harmful bacteria.
- Sodium erythorbate - Having almost the exact chemical composition as Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), erythorbate provides exactly the same function as ascorbic acid. It works in conjunction with sodium nitrite making nitrite a much more effective ingredient by preventing and slowing harmful bacterial growth, drastically improving food safety, preventing oxidation (rancidity) that causes color change and spoilage, and providing for the unique cured flavor that hot dogs have. Just as with ascorbic acid or sodium ascorbate, using sodium erythorbate with sodium nitrite effectively prevents the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines. In contrast to a popular urban legend, erythorbate is NOT made from earthworms, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports receiving many inquiries about erythorbate’s source. It is speculated that the similarity in the spelling of the words “erythorbate” and “earthworms” has led to this confusion.
- Sodium nitrite - A ingredient responsible for curing, sodium nitrite is 1)anti-oxidant which keeps hot dogs from quickly going rancid; 2) gives cured meats their characteristic pink color and their unique cured taste; and 3) inhibits many dangerous bacteria helping make the hot dogs much safer. While the closely related “sodium nitrate” was commonly used in the decades past, today, nitrite is used almost exclusively to cure meats. Nitrite used in cured meats is extremely effective in preventing the deadly disease botulism. Interestingly, although consumers commonly think cured meats are the major source of nitrite in the diet, in reality, 93 percent of daily nitrite intake comes from vegetables and from saliva. Sodium nitrite is part of the normal nitrogen cycle in humans and the body actually produces and recirculates nitrate, which is converted to nitrite in our saliva. Scientists now think that humans may make nitrite as part of its bodily defenses. In some cases, processed products labeled “uncured” contain celery juice or other ingredients high in naturally occurring nitrite as a substitute for sodium nitrite made through a purification process.
- Sorbitol - A sugar substitute naturally found in fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, and prunes and can also be made from corn syrup
- Soy protein concentrate - Made from soybean flour after the sugar portion has been removed. Can be used to enhance texture and even make low-fat hot dogs.
- Spices - A variety of plant-derived spices are commonly added to processed meat products. The most common spices used include red, white and black pepper, garlic, coriander, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, paprika and allspice.
- Sugar and corn syrup - Sweeteners that add flavor and promote browning.
- Water - Water (or sometimes ice) is mixed in with the meat and spices to help blending. USDA regulations control how much water can be added to hot dogs.
- Yeast extract - A natural flavor derived from yeast which adds a savory taste.
Want to see how hot dogs are made?
List of Terms on Hot Dog Packages:
Hot dog packages may include different terms to indicate the ingredients used or where they come from. Here are a few common ones that you may come across….
- Cured - By their nature, hot dogs are cured meats. This means they include some combination of salt, sugar and/or nitrite for the purposes of safety, preservation (improving shelf-life), flavor and color. Curing is what gives hot dogs and other meats like sausage or bacon their distinctive color and flavor. Curing originated centuries ago as a way to preserve meats before the advent of refrigeration. Today cured meats are beloved for their great taste and convenience.
- Uncured - A labeling term required by USDA to distinguish hot dogs made with a purified version of sodium nitrite from those made with forms of nitrite derived from a vegetable source such as celery. In a smaller font, the package also declares “No nitrates or nitrites added except for that which naturally occurs in celery powder.” While many believe these products should be called “cured” because they are cured by the presence of ingredients having a high concentration of naturally occurring nitrite like celery powder, USDA regulates the label and requires that the products say “Uncured.”
- Skinless - Indicates the hot dog casing has been removed as part of the manufacturing process. For skinless hot dogs, a cellulose casing is used during the cooking process but then stripped before packing
- Natural casing - A casing typically made from cleaned lamb or pig intestine which is left on the hot dog after cooking. Natural casing hot dogs have the characteristic snap when you bite into them
- Hormone Free - Indicates the meat is from an animal raised without added hormones. While some beef cattle are given hormones to promote growth, hormones are illegal to use on pigs, chickens or turkeys, so any of the meat from these animals would be considered hormone free.
- Antibiotic Free - This means the meat is from animals raised without antibiotics, though when antibiotics are used to treat animals, there is a strict withdrawal time to ensure no antibiotic residues of concern, so technically all meat is antibiotic free.
- Organic - Produced using ingredients approved as part of the USDA organic program.