Hot Dogs: What You Should Know about Them

hot dogDoug Sohn owned a Chicago restaurant named Hot Doug's, a popular spot celebrated for its sausage sandwiches. (Unfortunately, it closed permanently a few years ago.) When a Chicago Tribune reporter asked Doug to defend sausage as the perfect food, he had no trouble doing so: "It's salt, fat, and meat in one very easy-to-eat, hard-to-screw-up vessel.  It tastes good, it's happy, it's the food of the masses and it's available everywhere."  And don't forget that hot dogs are inexpensive, quick and easy to prepare, tolerant of whatever toppings the diner wants to throw on them, and beloved by all age groups from post-infancy to pre-demise. 



On the other hand, nutritionists point out that hot dogs are far from nutritious. Yet, says the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, Americans purchase some 9 billion hot dogs a year in grocery stores and many more from street and ballpark vendors. Altogether, Americans consume about 20 billion wieners annually or 70 per person. 


The Chicago Tribune also tells us that 25% of Americans eat hot dogs only in the summer.  Among those who eat hot dogs or other sausages, 88% grill them.  The Chicago-style hot dog (a celebrity in a city known for its superior wieners) is steamed.  Whatever way you prepare them (perhaps even broiled, fried, or baked in a casserole), chances are they were consumed as part of your Labor Day festivities.  They're also generally on the menu at tailgating parties on college campuses during the football season. Therefore, this seems a good time to find out what's actually in a hot dog, whether they contain ingredients you should be concerned about, what health tips experts have to offer, and what shelf life advice you should follow.


What's in a hot dog?


Food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein, a member of the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board, discussed the following hot dog ingredients, and we've expanded upon some of his comments with information from additional sources:


1.     The meat used in hot dogs is the same meat you would use on your table. What is put in them is controlled by the USDA.  [Quoted on the site, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council agrees: "All hot dogs are cured and cooked sausages that consist mainly of pork, beef, chicken and turkey or a combination of meat and poultry.  Meats used in hot dogs come from the muscle of the animal and look much like what you buy in the grocer's case."   Hot dogs use the same formula as bologna.]


2.     Hot dogs may also contain sodium erythorbate, a slightly different form of sodium ascorbate or vitamin C.  [The website The Straight Dope explains that sodium erythorbate is an antioxidant made from sugar.  "It's added to hot dogs, cured meats, and a few other foods to preserve their flavor and color when exposed to air.  It's been around for thirty years."  The wild rumor that hot dogs are made with earthworms is absolutely false.]


3.     Hot dogs that are labeled “beef and pork” or “pork and beef” are the same. They must contain at least 30% of one of these two ingredients and no more than 70% of the other.


4.     The amount of fat and added water (usually ice) in a hot dog must add up to 40%.


5.     What's called "natural" casing of a hot dog is generally the lining of a sheep’s intestine that has been VERY WELL cleaned.  [Wikipedia says, "These hot dogs have firmer texture and a 'snap' that releases juices and flavor when the hot dog is bitten into."  So-called "skinless" hot dogs must also have casing during the cooking process; it's generally a thin tube of cellulose, which is removed before the dogs are packaged." Skinless hot dogs are more uniform in size and shape and less expensive.]


6.     The small line (knife cut) on most hot dogs is where the plastic casings were cut so they could be removed.


7.     Most hot dogs contain sodium nitrite to prevent botulism, a very toxic toxin. [The nitrites also give the hot dog its reddish color.]


8.     Many natural hot dogs contain celery juice or other vegetable juices. These are a source of sodium nitrate, which is quickly converted to sodium nitrite by saliva in the mouth or by bacteria in the meat product.  Celery juice has about 1,800 parts per million of nitrate while conventional hot dogs are regulated to have approximately 120 parts per million. 


[Note: The typical hot dog also contains curing agents and spices such as garlic, sugar, ground mustard, nutmeg, coriander, and white pepper.]


Are hot dogs good or bad food?


Although eating healthy is trendy these days, when it comes to hot dogs, (especially on summer holidays and at the ballpark) most people gobble them up with nary a concern about nutrition or health risks.  Here's an example:  When my niece was planning the menu for her annual 4th of July party at her summer home, her mother advised her to skip the hot dogs.  "No one eats them anymore," my sister said. From past experience, my niece knew better.  Sure enough, at her lunchtime barbecue, most guests were devouring the gigantic hot dogs and ignoring the veggie-loaded cheese sandwiches on whole wheat bread. We're not finding fault with that decision.  Many nutritionists agree that an occasional hot dog can be a part of a balanced, healthful diet, and so do the American Cancer Society guidelines:  "It is not necessary to eliminate consumption of red or processed meat; rather, the message is that these foods should not be the mainstay of your diet."


That being said, let's consider some of the common concerns about hot dogs:

  • ŸAccording to The Globe and Mail website [The Globe is Canada's national newspaper.], the average hot dog contains 110 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat, and 350 milligrams of sodium. High-fat and high-sodium content is of concern in terms of both cancer risk and circulatory problems.  A high-fat diet can also lead to obesity and a host of medical problems that follow. A high-salt diet can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease for those sensitive to salt.  In addition, a diet heavy in sausage, bacon, and cold cuts has been linked to colorectal cancer. 
    • Reading nutrition labels can help you make healthier (though probably less tasty) choices.
    • The nutrition facts on a package of hot dogs vary according to both size and type of wiener. For example, most brands of chicken or turkey wieners contain just 2 grams of saturated fat.
    • My package of Vienna beef franks says that each wiener has 120 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat (20% of DV), and 390 milligrams of sodium (16% of DV).  (The DV indicates what percent of the recommended daily amount of each nutrient listed is in one serving of this product.)  To find nutrition statistics on various types of hot dogs with and without buns and with various condiments, go to "Sodium in Hot Dogs."
  • ŸCooking meat to a high temperature (for example, grilling hot dogs) leads to the formation of compounds that have been shown to cause colon tumors in animals.  It may be safer to boil those red hots.

Moderation is the key.  What's a moderate number of hot dogs per month? Some nutritionists quoted in our sources say they allow themselves 1 or 2.


What safety tips do government and medical websites recommend? 

  • ŸHot dogs can be a choking hazard for children under age 4.  Therefore, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises cutting hot dogs either lengthwise or into very small pieces before giving them to young children. 
  • ŸListeria monocytogenes, the bacteria that can cause listeriosis, is most likely to grow in cured meat products. It is quite dangerous for pregnant women. It can grow slowly even in refrigerated food and can cause miscarriages or stillbirth.   Pregnant women  and people with weakened immune systems  (such as older adults or those receiving chemotherapy) should be sure that the hot dogs they consume have been cooked until steaming hot to avoid the risk of foodborne illness and perhaps even more serious medical complications.  For more information about listeria, go to "What foods are likely to be contaminated by listeria?"
  • ŸNever leave hot dogs at room temperature for more than 2 hours or more than 1 hour when the temperature is above 90°F. 
  • ŸAfter cooking hot dogs on the grill, keep their temperature at 140°F or higher until served.  This can be done by pushing them to the side of the grill so that they stay hot but  are not overcooked by the coals.  At home, hot dogs (as well as many other perishable foods served warm) can be kept hot in a 200°F oven, in a chafing dish or slow cooker, or on a warming tray.


What's the shelf life of a hot dog?


Product dating to indicate shelf life is not required on most products. If packaged hot dogs have a use-by date, and the USDA advise consumers to obey it.  (A sell-by date is not a guide for consumers.)  These government sources say that, if there is no date on hot dogs, an unopened package can be stored in the fridge for 2 weeks, but, once the package is opened, the remaining dogs should be kept only 1 week. 


However, Dr. Regenstein considers the above shelf life advice very conservative.  He explains, "Because they are cured, hot dogs can last longer if properly refrigerated."  He advises consumers to first smell, then cook, and then taste a little to find out if the dogs are okay or spoiled. If they are cooked, tasting a small piece is not a health risk.  


Leftover hot dogs that have been heated can be saved if refrigerated within 2 hours of being out at room temperature (or 1 hour if exposed to an ambbient temperature above 90°F.).  However, places a 4-day limit on using these leftovers. 


For best quality, keep wieners frozen no longer than 1-2 months.  Though they will be safe to eat if kept frozen longer, they may deteriorate due to freezer burn and become dried out.  If they have any off-odor before or after cooking and an off-flavor after cooking, discard them.




Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science


Chicago Tribune "Dough Sohn on ketchup, bugs, odd tattoos" June 13, 2013.


Chicago Tribune "The Number" July 10, 2013. "Is the ingredient erythorbate in hot dogs really earthworms?" "A Hot Dog Primer for Inquiring Minds" (A hot dog primer) "Why hot dogs are not exactly man's best friend" "Hot Dogs and Food Safety" "Tips for Tailgating: Hot Dog Safety Basics" "Doctors group says hot dogs as dangerous as cigarettes" "Sodium in Hot Dogs" "Hot dog"


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