Here's the truth behind hot dog ingredients and the real health concerns.

Arielle Weg
May 25, 2018

It’s time to invite the family over for a summer barbeque. You crack open a few beers, break out a few side dishes, and start warming up the grill. It’s officially summer.

When you ask your guests for a general count of how many burgers and hot dogs to toss on the grill, your sister mentions she doesn’t eat hot dogs anymore — because she's heard they cause cancer. Wait, do hot dogs cause cancer? What even are the ingredients in a hot dog?

According to a recent survey by the hot dog supplier Applegate, 43 percent of Americans say they are scared to even know what goes into a hot dog. A third of Americans avoid eating hot dogs entirely because they consider them to be "low quality meats." The survey of more than 1,000 adults found millennials avoid hot dogs more than any other age group.

So what’s really in hot dogs, and is it okay to eat one occasionally? We’re here to clear the air once and for all.

Hot dog ingredients

Generally, hot dogs can have beef, pork, turkey, chicken, or a combination of the meats as long as the label specifies. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council provides a fairly thorough explanation of ingredients you may not recognize.

Some hot dogs contain meat from "extra" parts of the animal we typically don’t consume, which include, as Fox News puts it: "pig snouts and stomachs, cow lips and livers, goat gullets, and lamb spleens." Any additional byproducts must be named with the animal and be individually named on packaging, according to the USDA. These may include organs like the heart, kidney, or liver.

Common brands like Oscar Mayer’s classic uncured wieners contain "mechanically separated" meats like turkey, chicken, and pork. Other ingredients include sweeteners such as dextrose (made from corn) and corn syrup, as well as sodium phosphate—a salt used in processed foods to keep meat moist tasting (and sometimes used in larger quantities as a laxative).

"Mechanically separated meats are common in hot dogs. The USDA describes them as “paste-like and batter-like product[s] produced by forcing bones, with attached edible tissue, through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue.” This typically gives the meat a higher calcium content.

Other common brands like Nathan’s skinless beef franks contain beef and water, salt, spices, and a lot of ingredients you wouldn't find in your cupboard. Here are a few: Sorbitol is a sugar substitute, while sodium lactate is a salt often used with sodium diacetate to prevent the growth of bacteria like listeria. Another salt, sodium erythorbate, is used to preserve foods. In addition, there are additives to improve flavor like hydrolyzed corn protein, which is similar to MSG, and natural flavoring, which is derived from a natural source, but not terribly different from artificial flavoring.

Other common hot dog ingredients include sodium nitrite and nitrate, which are used for curing meats. Some hot dog makers, such as Oscar Mayer’s have removed nitrates and nitrites from their ingredients after indications that the ingredients caused cancer (see below for more on that).

Are kosher hot dogs healthier?

Over the years kosher hot dogs have gained a reputation for being healthier and using higher-quality cuts of meat. However, there’s not much nutritional difference between a kosher hot dog and a non-kosher hot dog.

Kosher hot dogs are indicated by the “K” symbol on the packaging, and the production is supervised by an ordained Orthodox rabbi. Based on Jewish dietary laws, the meat used in production cannot include pork, but only poultry and beef. Kosher law requires the cuts of beef to only come from the front portion of the cow.

Hebrew National hot dogs are one of the most well known kosher brands. Ingredient-wise, the beef franks include beef, water, salt and spices They also include ingredients similar to the other all-beef hot dogs. including all of the preservative salts. 

Can hot dogs give you cancer?

In 2015 the World Health Organization classified all processed meats, including hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, and some deli meats, as a probable carcinogen. A review of more than 800 studies found eating 50 grams of processed meat daily (about 4 strips of bacon or one hot dog) can increase your risk for colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

A majority of concerns regarding the health of hot dogs comes from high salt and sodium nitrate, which is added as a preservative. Sodium nitrate, found in most hot dogs is used for curing the meat and keeping it from going rancid. According to the American Cancer Society, nitrates have been linked to stomach cancer in lab animals and are considered a probable carcinogen.

Many “uncured” hot dogs use ingredients such as celery juice to substitute, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. Hot dogs have also been linked to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and higher mortality.

The American Cancer Society recommends limiting processed meat and red meat, but increasing consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Despite this, they do acknowledge that an occasional hot dog or hamburger is okay.