The United States is a wiener nation. O.K., let me rephrase that: Americans consume a vast number of hot dogs. How many? According to a recent article in The New YorkTimes, almost two billion dollars of hot dogs annually. Nearly thirty million hot dogs will be eaten in one year—and that’s just in ballparks! That total doesn’t include the countless franks eaten by children, the hot dog manufacturers’ target consumers, outside of stadiums. But sales of conventional hot dogs have been declining over the past four years, while sales of a relative newcomer, the organic hot dog, have been skyrocketing. Yes, organic hot dogs. Organic hot dogs have seen an increase in sales of over 50% in the last four years, which is doubly surprising when you consider that organic hot dogs often cost significantly more than those produced conventionally. Why is this happening?
Hot dogs have been a favorite of the masses in and out of ballparks for a long time. They’re cheap and filling, they’re quick to prepare and convenient to eat as a handheld food. They can be “customized” with toppings, and a lot of people like the way they taste. You can tell they’re not a low-fat food as soon as you bite into one, and that’s part of the attraction; hot dogs can have a succulent juiciness not found in, say, water-packed tuna or a skinless chicken breast. In addition to being inexpensive, they’re readily available; you can find them in shopping mall “food courts,” convenience stores, markets, and on kids’ menus almost anywhere. To a degree, and to the dismay of producers, Americans continue to associate hot dogs with inferior cuts of meat, whether the hot dogs are made from pork, beef, poultry or some combination of the three. Given recent fears rooted in “mad cow” disease, bioterrorism, hormones and antibiotics fed to conventionally-raised livestock, and concerns both with nitrates/nitrites and the American food supply in general, people are turning to organic meat in record numbers—and that includes hot dogs.
How Hot Dogs Are Made
But a little background is in order here. What exactly goes into a hot dog? The Federal Standards of Identity tell us that a hot dog (a.k.a. frankfurter or wiener) is a link-shaped, cooked and/or smoked sausage.
A hot dog contains meat, fat, water (sometimes in the form of ice chips), and spices, including salt.
The finished hot dogs cannot contain more than 30% fat nor more than 10% added water, or a combination of 40% fat and added water. Non-meat binders or extenders (such as nonfat dry milk, cereal, or dried whole milk) or isolated soy protein may be added, but not more than 3.5% of the former or 2% of the latter; and where either is added the ingredient label on the product must indicate this.
If the hot dog has a casing (thin skin), the label must state if the casing is of a different species than the hot dog (for example, a pork casing on a poultry hot dog).
Up to 15% of a hot dog can be so-called “variety meats” such as heart, kidney, or liver; again, if a hot dog includes these, the label must say so.
There are also ingredients in very small quantities such as corn syrup, the artificial sweetener sorbitol, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and corn and wheat gluten protein (these are binders which hold water and lessen costs for manufacturers).
Then, there are the colorings, maintainers, and preservatives, such as sodium lactate (an inhibitor of pathogens), sodium diacetate (also inhibits the growth of bacteria), sodium phosphate (the salt of a phosphoric acid used to bind water to meat), sodium erythorbate (along with ascorbic acid, this increases the speed of the nitrite reaction in the curing process), nitrates (potassium and sodium), and sodium nitrite.
Although many people can bring themselves to ignore the rest of the sometimes-questionable list of ingredients in a hot dog, sodium nitrite and nitrates get everyone’s attention in a way you don’t want if you’re a hot dog manufacturer.
Nitrates and Nitrites
Nitrates and nitrites are chemicals that occur naturally in both foods from animals and food derived from plants. When nitrates break down through digestion or other means, they form nitrites. Both substances are extraordinarily useful to processed meat manufacturers, as they provide cured meats (including hot dogs) with their characteristic “cured meat” flavor and their usual pink color. These chemicals are also very important in food preservation; they’re especially good at combating botulism. They’ve been used for these purposes since the late 1800s.
So what’s the problem? It turns out that amines, substances that occur when protein is digested, combine with nitrites to form compounds that are carcinogens. This holds true for any processed product with nitrites or nitrates; it isn’t just hot dogs. The chemical reactions leading to these carcinogens are not subject to speculation, nor are the formations of the carcinogens themselves. Both are well-documented. Although these carcinogens have been demonstrated to cause cancer in laboratory animals, no one knows if they also cause cancer in humans.
Some research has suggested that individuals with heavy consumption of cured meats have higher risks of cancers such as colon and pancreatic; one study, that followed over 190,000 people of multiple ethnic backgrounds for seven years, concluded that those who consumed the greatest amount of cured meats increased their risk of pancreatic cancer by 67% in comparison to those who had the lowest consumption of such meats. Interestingly, the same study concluded that heavy consumption of pork and red meat in general increased one’s risk of the same cancer by 50%, so it could be suggested that the lion’s share of the risk resulted from heavy red meat consumption.
Again, no one can conclude anything definitively here. While this project stopped short of blaming the nitrites/nitrates in cured meats for increased risk of human cancer, not all do. Other studies have claimed that maternal consumption of hot dogs during pregnancy leads to increased risk of childhood brain tumors or brain cancer, or that heavy consumption of hot dogs during one’s childhood leads to greater likelihood of childhood leukemia. More research needs to be done in this area, and, as one might expect, there are scientists who question the validity of these, and related, studies.
The Organic Hot Dog
If you do believe that nitrates and nitrites adversely affect human health, does that mean you must eliminate hot dogs and other cured meats from your diet? Not necessarily. There’s a new breed of “dog” on the block, the organic hot dog. While it can’t solve every problem associated with hot dogs, it does negate some of the difficulties that have a lot of people concerned.
To begin with, organic hot dogs must use organic meat. Unlike its conventional counterpart, organic meat is required to come from livestock raised without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics. The animals’ feed must also be grown and produced organically (no synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, insecticides etc.).
The livestock raised for organic meat must be allowed access to fresh air and the outdoors; they must be given shelter reasonable for their species and their environment.
This system is not without flaws, and serious flaws, but at least it’s a step in what many feel is the right direction. There is a limited list of approved ingredients in organic processed foods, so nitrates and nitrites are not permitted in organic hot dogs.
Well, that should have gotten rid of the majority of objections, right? Not so fast! When organic hot dogs were first produced, about a decade ago, they were a food technologist’s nightmare. The lack of nitrates and nitrites was a very big problem. The early organic hot dogs had a brown hue, not the traditional pinkish color, and they didn’t have the beloved “cured meat” flavor; they also had a much drier texture. Consumers, especially the all-important under-eighteen set, turned up their noses in record numbers.
It’s only been more recently that food technology has caught up with the demands of the market; these days, a “cure” of celery juice or celery seed extract, lactic acid starter culture, and/or sea salt, all of which are approved for organic foods, is the usual tonic of choice for organic hot dog manufacturers. This “cure,” applied even to those hot dogs labeled as “uncured,” prevents the growth of bacteria as effectively as nitrates/nitrites, and yields a hot dog much closer in color, flavor, and texture to the American classic. Interestingly, nitrates and nitrites have become unpopular enough that this “cure” is now sometimes used in hot dogs that are not certified organic, as well.
There’s also the grass-fed versus conventionally-fed issue. Once upon a time in the U.S., all beef was produced from animals that grazed at will on pasture, because that’s what was available. Gradually, however, land in the U.S. became increasingly expensive, land was over-grazed and poorly managed, and smaller-scale ranches and farms began to give way to agribusiness. Nowadays, conventionally-raised beef and pork (as well as other animals raised for food) are confined to feedlots. Thanks in part to cheap, heavily-subsidized corn, their diets consist mostly of grain and soy, often genetically modified, as well as “byproducts” (don’t ask!). They’re given growth hormones and antibiotics. All of these measures keep producers’ costs down and get the animals ready for market far more quickly than in the old “pasture” days.
But a growing number of individuals and organizations have problems with this conventional system. Some of the problems stem from the issue of food safety, some are about humane treatment for animals.
Truly grass fed beef.
There is a minority movement afoot, one that I believe will continue to grow, involving grass-fed beef. Grass-fed proponents argue that their beef is safer than conventionally-raised beef. They claim it’s more nutritious (especially in omega fatty acids), better for the environment, more humane for the cattle, and good for the small, independent farmers who raise their cattle this way. The phrase “grass-fed beef” conjures up an idyllic mental image of cattle grazing freely and contentedly on a large, grassy prairie…but wait!
There are, as of this writing, no USDA standards for grass-fed beef. The USDA is in the process of drawing up standards, and recently asked for public comment on their proposed rules. As is too often the case with the USDA, their proposed rules include a loophole through which one could drive an 18-wheeler. True, standards put forward by the USDA would require that 99% of a grass-fed animal’s diet over its lifetime would have to come from grass and/or forage, but as currently written, they do not require that the animal be allowed to graze. Producers could still confine cattle in feedlots, feed them a 99% grass-forage diet, and label their meat as “grass-fed.” That doesn’t sound humane to me, and it wouldn’t be beneficial to the environment or independent farmers. But a final decision has yet to be made. Currently, almost all grass-fed cattle are “finished” on a grain diet before slaughter, though some grass-fed animals are allowed to graze on pasture for far longer than their conventionally-fed cousins. You can find hot dogs made in the U.S. only from grass-fed beef, though not all are organic.
Hot dogs shouldn’t be so complicated, you say? Like anything else, scratch the surface and you’ve discovered a whole little world unto itself. This column is by no means a comprehensive look into the world of wieners. Although grass-fed proponents make some good arguments for their system of livestock management, there are issues other than just the proposed USDA standards. Over time, Americans have grown used to the taste of grain-fed beef. Grass-fed beef tends to be leaner, and it doesn’t have the same flavor; even the type of fat within the beef is different. Because of this, hot dog manufacturers using grass-fed meat have had to carefully manipulate formulations and processes to obtain a product that resembles the conventional frankfurter, even when the animals are finished on a grain diet. In one or two cases, the manufacturers haven’t bothered to do this, instead leaving their product with a browner color and different texture and flavor. If and when grass-fed beef becomes more popular here, these variations could turn out to be important points of differentiation, ways to distinguish their products from hot dogs made with conventionally-produced beef.
Should Kids Eat Hot Dogs?
There has been much discussion regarding whether hot dogs’ target consumers, children, should be eating them at all. Even from the few products sampled for this article, it’s easy to see that hot dogs are high in fat; most are high in sodium, too. There remain a number of questions about the ingredients used in some hot dogs, as well. As an aside, although there are claims on some websites and labels that certain hot dogs contain no monosodium glutamate (MSG), that seems to be a much lesser issue these days than whether they contain nitrates or nitrites. Hopefully, parents will do some research of their own and make informed decisions about their kids and hot dog consumption.
All of this talk about hot dogs is making me hungry. The truth is that I haven’t eaten any hot dog in years. I’ve enjoyed hot dogs in the past, but I don’t eat much meat these days, and, given all of their bad press over the years, hot dogs seemed like something I’d be better off not eating, period.
However, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, I acquired some packages of various brands, both organic and conventionally-produced, grass-fed as well as grain-fed—but as this article does not cover poultry hot dogs, “lite” hot dogs, or those that are fat-free, they were not included. They results of my “taste test” follow.
Special thanks to Sue Moore and Larry Bain of Let’s Be Frank, and Tedd Heilmann of Organic Prairie.
Organic & Conventional Dogs: Taste Test
All hot dogs were heated in a heavy-duty nonstick sauté pan until some exterior browning had occurred and the insides were steaming hot. Since I didn’t want any distractions from a hot dog’s taste or texture, all hot dogs were tried plain, without a bun or condiments. My reactions to the hot dog are noted along with each brand. Hot dogs are listed in alphabetical order. Due to time and communication constraints, I was unable to try the grass-fed beef, certified organic hot dogs from Prather Ranch. I also found certified organic beef hot dogs Bossie’s Best, but they are not allowed to ship out of their home state of Kansas, so I couldn’t try those, either.
Summary of Results: My favorite was Let’s Be Frank, grass-fed beef hot dogs. The group of runners up includes Applegate Farms’ Organic Hot Dog, The Buffalo Guys All Natural Hot Dogs and Organic Prairie Organic Uncured Beef Hot Dogs. For those who like salt, add Nathan’s Famous Skinless Beef Franks and Niman Ranch Fearless Beef Franks to the list.
Applegate Farms Uncured Beef Hot Dogs: 1 hot dog (1.5 ounces) = 70 calories, 40 from fat, with 430 mg sodium. Label states “no antibiotics used”. Typical hot dog color and “processed” texture. Some flavor of both spice and celery. Salty.
Applegate Farms The Great Organic Uncured Hot Dog: 1 hot dog (2 ounces) = 110 calories, 80 from fat, with 330 mg sodium. No nitrates or nitrites. Slightly browner color than typical hot dog, with a somewhat rougher texture. Spicy and salty. Juicier than most. Good.
Ball Park Franks: 1 hot dog (2 ounces) = 180 calories, 150 from fat, with 580 mg sodium. Made from beef, pork, and turkey. Typical hot dog color and “processed,” smooth texture. Initial tasty blend of spices overwhelmed by salt.
The Buffalo Guys All Natural Buffalo Hot Dogs: 1 hot dog (1.5 ounces) = 70 calories, 45 from fat, with 160 mg sodium. No nitrates or nitrites, and federal regulations prohibit the use of growth hormones in buffalo. With a distinctly browner color, this hot dog resembles a sausage link more than a typical hot dog. Typical hot dog texture, with similar spice-salt taste, but flavor of meat is very different. Juicier than most, much less salty than most. Good.
Hebrew National Beef Franks: 1 hot dog (49 grams, a little under 1-3/4 ounces) = 150 calories, 130 from fat, with 420 mg sodium. Website states that hot dogs are made with “100% kosher beef, and nothing artificial,” yet they still contain sodium lactate, sodium diacetate, sodium erythorbate and sodium nitrite. Typical hot dog color and “processed” texture. Definite spicy tang to flavor. Salty.
Let’s Be Frank Hot Dogs: 1 hot dog (85 grams, a trifle under 3 ounces) = 170 calories, 110 from fat, with 430 mg sodium. No nitrates or nitrites. Grass-fed beef. Earthy, reddish-brown color inside and out. Slightly rougher texture than a typical hot dog. By far the juiciest hot dog sampled. Less overwhelmed by salt than other hot dogs sampled, with a good blend of spices. My favorite of all brands sampled.
Nathan’s Famous Skinless Beef Franks: 1 hot dog (2 ounces) = 170 calories, 140 from fat, with 470 mg sodium. Typical hot dog color, texture slightly rougher (not as processed-smooth). Quite salty, with some taste of spices. Juicier than most. Good.
Niman Ranch Fearless Beef Franks: 1 hot dog (115 grams, just over 4 ounces) = 290 calories, 210 from fat, with 830 mg sodium. Pasture-grazed beef, with a big emphasis on sustainability. Juicy. Slightly rougher texture than a typical hot dog. Quite salty. Good.
Niman Ranch Fearless Uncured Beef Franks: 1 hot dog (115 grams, just over 4 ounces) = 250 calories, 170 from fat, with 920 mg sodium. Juicy. Initial salty whack fades through good spice/garlic flavor to slightly “vegetable” taste.
Organic Prairie Organic Uncured Beef Hot Dogs: 1 hot dog (43 grams, just over 1.5 ounces) = 120 calories, 100 from fat, with 360 mg sodium. No nitrates or nitrites. Company indicates product is made of “pasture-grazed beef” that’s “humanely raised on family farms”. Label states hot dogs are “Not Preserved”. Color a little more reddish-brown than that of typical hot dog; texture just slightly rougher. Some juiciness. Hearty-tasting. Nice blend of spices that doesn’t overwhelm, a bit less salty than most others. Good.
Organic Prairie Organic Uncured Hot Dogs: 1 hot dog (43 grams, just over 1.5 ounces) = 130 calories, 110 from fat, with 390 mg sodium. Made from beef and pork. No nitrates or nitrites. Company indicates product is made of “pasture-grazed beef “and pork “humanely raised on family farms.” Label states hot dogs are “Not Preserved.” Typical hot dog color and texture. Good blend of spices. Salty.
Smart Franks Deli Style Dogs: 1 hot dog (2 ounces) = 110 calories, 40 from fat, with 470 mg sodium. This is the “ringer” in the group, but I wanted to include a soy dog and had tried another product from this company previously, with good results. A little browner in color than a typical hot dog. Texture is slightly mushy and dry, with none of the “snap” you get biting into a hot dog made of meat. Flavor is an unpleasant mix of salt and soy.
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