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Taking a frank look at frankfurters

Every Fourth of July, Americans celebrate with hot dogs.
Monday, July 4, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:16 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hot dogs, frankfurters, wienies or redhots — no matter their name, they have become a part of the American culture.

When Americans celebrate their nation’s birthday, they eat more hot dogs than any other day of the year — 150 million, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. “Hot dogs have been historically associated as an all-American food,” said Ayoka Blandford, public relations manager for the council.

The hot dog and bun combination is loved for its convenience, price and taste.

Elliott McClelland of Columbia said he came to the Mavericks game on Wednesday just for the $2 hot dog special. “It’s a portable dinner,” he said.

Gregg Rentfrow, meat specialist for the Commercial Agriculture program at MU, said there’s more to hot dogs than their affordability. “Adults eat hot dogs because it brings you back to childhood,” Rentfrow said. “It’s a tradition and a comfort food.”

MU meat specialist Andrew Clarke said hot dogs are also kid-friendly during outdoor events. “Children love them for their taste and texture,” Clarke said. “The idea of a hot dog, bun and condiments is close to a balanced meal.”

A nutritionist from the Wellness Resource Center at MU, however, said hot dogs are high in saturated fat because all of the fat comes from animals. “None of that is good fat; it’s bad fat,” Molly Vetter-Smith said, adding that hot dogs are loaded with sodium and contain more fat than protein.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that hot dogs contain no more than 30 percent fat or no more than 10 percent water.

“That’s how they get rid of leftover fatty scraps of meat; they put it in sausages,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director at the Center for Science in Public Interest. “It is just about the worst kind of meat.”

The typical hot dog is a mixture of meats, usually poultry, pork and beef. Once meat is cut off the bone, there are scraps left, Rentfrow said. The USDA allows for manufacturers to mechanically separate these extra scraps from the bone. While the government no longer allows mechanically separated beef in human foods, it does allow 20 percent of mechanically separated pork and unlimited amounts of mechanically separated turkey or chicken, Autumn Canaday, public affairs specialist for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service said.

“Mechanically separated is a high pressure system where you put the bone on a sieve that has really small holes, and it squeezes the meat off the bone,” Rentfrow said.

Hot dogs begin as meat trimmings and pass through a meat grinder and a bowl chopper designed to further reduce the particle size of meat, Rentfrow said. “You’ll get the particles of the meat smaller than the seasonings,” he said. “It will turn out to be like a really thick pancake batter.”

Before being sent to the smokehouse, the mixture is stuffed into casings, which create the rod shape. Skinless hot dogs use artificial casing made out of cellulose; hot dogs with skin use pork or sheep intestines as a casing, Rentfrow said. The cellulose is removed after cooking and the hot dogs are ready to be shipped.

According to the USDA, hot dogs may include meat byproducts or variety meats if they are included on the label and listed individually in the ingredient list. A package of hot dogs using byproducts or variety meats can sell for as little as 55 cents, Rentfrow said.

“Only products identified as ‘hot dogs with products’ or ‘hot dogs with variety meats’ may contain any of the edible byproducts listed in the standard: pork stomachs, pork snouts, hearts, tongues, fat, lips, (esophagus) and spleens,” said Canaday.

The federal government requires that a hot dog not contain more than 85 percent variety meat or byproduct. But the allowable does not translate into what actually occurs, Clarke said. “We can utilize everything we can possibly use to make sausage, but to manufacture top quality, one would use the same meat for ground beef, pork, turkey, and chicken,” he said.

Manufactures may include up to 3.5 percent non-meat binders and extenders such as nonfat dry milk, cereal, and dried whole milk.

Columbia Foods, a Kraft Foods manufacturing plant on Waco Road with 620 employees that operates round-the-clock, produces only Oscar Mayer hot dogs. Cathy Pernu, senior corporate affairs manager for Oscar Mayer, said the Columbia plant makes no hot dogs with variety meats or byproducts. “All Oscar Mayer hot dogs are made from high quality meat, similar to the meat you would buy in the grocery store, with no fillers,” she said.

Pernu would not disclose the number of hot dogs produced at its Columbia plant, citing competitive issues, but she said production increases in advance of the Fourth of July holiday.

For those who are watching their weight, the hot dog industry offers more nutritious — and more expensive — options, including turkey or chicken dogs. Fat-free and light-beef franks have fewer calories and less fat than their conventional counterparts, Clarke said.

But diets tend to go out the window during the summer grilling season, Rentfrow said. “Hot dogs, burgers, homemade ice cream, and corn on the cob — that’s grilling out,” he said. “No one has ever invited me over and said, ‘Hey, let’s grill some tofu.’”


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