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Decoding the Great American Hot Dog

By Jennifer McGruther | June 30, 2014

#Applegate Hot Dogs on the Grill #nourishedkitchen

I will always hold a soft spot in my heart for the humble and much-maligned hot dog.  A staple of my childhood, especially the summers spent on Long Island with my grandparents.  Occasionally, my grandmother would take us by train into the city to shop, have lunch and see a show.  As we’d pass the street food vendors, I’d beg her for a hot dog – steaming, and piled into a doughy white bun.

She’d invariably give me a curt, simple, and firm, “No.”  She didn’t trust the meat.  Instead, she’d take me by the hand, and we’d go home.  If I were lucky, she’d pick up a package of hot dogs she did trust (and they were few and far between), boiling them in water spiked with yellow mustard before serving them for dinner, a technique I still use at home.

So, thirty years later, I find myself with just as much concern as my grandmother.  I generally say no to hot dogs for my little boy because I just don’t trust the meat. Of course, now I work as an advisor to Applegate so I tend to purchase their meats as well as the meat from regional ranchers and farmers who raise their animals on pasture.

So now when he asks me for a hot dog, I sit down with him and decode the hot dog ingredients.

So What’s In Your Hot Dog?

Mechanically Separated Meat

The primary ingredient found in many hot dogs, particularly turkey dogs, is mechanically separated meat , which is meat attached to the bone and carcass that is pressed through a sieve at high pressure to separate edible tissue from the bone (see a video of the technique here).  It can be present in hot dogs in any amount, though, due to outbreaks of mad cow disease, the USDA has disallowed the use of mechanically separated beef in foods.

Antibiotics and Hormones

Antibiotics are commonly fed to livestock to promote rapid growth.  Low, subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics are mixed with water and feed with the intention of causing the animals to gain weight more rapidly, so that they can fetch a higher price when sold.  Antibiotics alter digestion, causing more rapid weight gain.  Consistent, regular and routine subtherapeutic use of antibiotics has contributed to a significant issue in the medical community: the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

That is, the more we use antibiotics, the more likely certain strains are to become resistant to antibiotics in general, creating a potential public health threat.  Keep in mind that 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on farm animals.

Similarly, hormones are also routinely used in industrial beef production to promote the unnatural growth of beef cattle so that they command higher prices at market.  These hormones include both the naturally occurring and the artificial.  Federal law does not allow the use of hormones in pork or poultry production.

Sodium Nitrate, Sodium Nitrite and Sodium Erythorbate

Sodium nitrate and nitrite are curing salts used as hot dog ingredients, and they’re responsible for both preserving meat and maintaining its color.   There  is debate as to whether or not curing salts contribute to cancer risk, and you can read more here.  Curing salts have been traditionally used to preserve meat, and to prevent contamination by botulism.  They also help to preserve the meat, and are responsible for cured meats’ pink-red color.

Similarly, sodium erythorbate is also a hot dog ingredient that is used in commercial cured meat production and, like sodium nitrate and nitrite, it’s responsible for preserving the meat and keeping its color pink. Some people who are particularly sensitive to sodium erythorbate report headaches or digestive upset when they eat it.

Autolyzed Yeast Extract and MSG

Autolyzed yeast extract and Monosodium Glutamate are flavor enhancers used as hot dog ingredients as well as ingredients in other processed foods.  Autolyzed yeast extract is created when yeast cells die, and automatically break up in a process referred to as autolysis (this also occurs when you bake).  Among the components that yeast will break out into is glutamate, and people sensitive to MSG are likely to be sensitive to autolyzed yeast extract.   Broth, tomatoes, many cheeses, walnuts and soy sauce are naturally high in glutamate.

Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup Solids, High Fructose Corn Syrup and Dextrose

Corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup and dextrose are sweeteners often added as a hot dog ingredient as well as to many other processed foods. Currently about 90% of the corn grown in the US is genetically modified, and it’s this corn that is primarily used in the production of corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup and dextrose.

Flavoring Agents, Emulsifiers, Gelling Agents and Preservatives

In addition to sweeteners and additives high in glutamates, many conventional hot dogs are positively loaded with other additives like flavoring agents, emulsifiers and preservatives.  Among those most frequently used are sodium diacetate, calcium propionate, sodium phosphate, sodium hexametaphosphate, and sodium alginate.

Hydrolyzed Soy Protein and Defatted Soy Flour

Like corn, over 90% of the soy produced in the US comes from genetically modified crops.  In addition, soy foods come with a host of problems, especially when eaten to excess.  Soy is rich in phytoestrogens, which can lead to hormonal imbalances and reproductive issues  in both mean and women.  Soy is also goitrogenic, and can contribute to thyroid trouble.  It is also rich in food phytate which can bind up minerals, preventing their full absorption.  Many of these issues are mitigated through traditional preparation methods like fermenting soy into tempeh, natto, or miso.  You can learn more about soy’s effects on systemic wellness in The Whole Soy Story.

Shouldn’t it be simpler? Meat, Salt and Spices

Better Meat Makes a Better Hot Dog

While many hot dogs that line grocery store cases contain meat from animals raised in confinement, and treated with hormones and subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics, that’s not the only way; rather, you can often find grass-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free hot dogs, sausages, and other meats by connecting directly with farmers and ranchers in your community.  Additionally, national brands like Applegate, are available at many chain supermarkets and locally owned health food stores (you can find them near you using this locator).

Sea Salt

Sea salt, particularly mineral-rich unrefined sea salt, acts as a natural seasoning and makes a smart pairing for natural meat.  When sea salt is unrefined, it retains trace minerals beyond salt itself such as calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium, and chromium.  This lends itself to a fuller flavor, and when you use sea salt as well as good quality meat and spices, you eliminate the need for artificial and questionable food additives and flavoring agents.  Sea salt also acts as a natural preservative, which makes it a better choice when it comes to hot dog ingredients.


Similarly to sea salt, spices and onion contribute simple, wholesome flavor without artificial additives.  When you read “spices” on a label, it’s wise to investigate a bit further to determine exactly which spices are used, and this is particularly important for people who suffer from food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances.  Applegate hot dogs, for example, list their spices as paprika, onion, black pepper, coriander, mace and nutmeg (see it here).

Celery Powder

Just as cured meats depend upon sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate to give them their characteristic color and to preserve them, many “uncured” or natural meats and hot dogs contain celery powder which is a naturally occurring source of sodium nitrate that performs the same function as curing salts, that is – celery powder preserves meats and gives them their characteristic pink color.

Products that do not use curing salts like sodium nitrate and nitrite cannot be marketed as “cured” meats, and rather are marketed as “uncured.”  Keep in mind that while they do not contain curing salts, the celery powder which is naturally rich in sodium nitrate, performs the very same function to preserve the meat, and give the hot dog its characteristic flavor and color.

Where to Find Natural Hot Dogs

So if you’re ready to make the switch to a simpler hot dog, you can often find them at farmers markets and sold directly by ranchers and farmers.  And, if you can’t find a rancher or farmer who sells them, you will invariably find them sold at health food stores and even supermarkets.    Applegate is a national brand available at many chain supermarkets and locally owned health food stores (you can find them near you using this locator).  And, remember, always check the label.


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