I have a confession to make. I like hot dogs. I couldn't eat 62, like Matt Stonie the winner of the Nathan's hot dog eating contest on July 4, 2015. But I could pack away one. Maybe two. In these days of nutritional correctness, that makes me feel as if I’m admitting to some criminal activity. At the risk of riling people devoted to subsisting on alfalfa sprouts, algae, tofu and diverse supplements, let me assure you that it is possible to occasionally indulge in hot dogs and still have a healthy diet. It is also possible to never eat a wienie and have a diet that is a nutritional nightmare. Individual foods should not be vilified or deified; it is the overall diet that determines whether we are eating in a healthy or an unhealthy fashion. In any case, like it or not, sausages in various forms have been with us a long time and are destined to remain part of our nutritional culture for the simple reason that they taste good.
People have been stuffing ground meat along with various spices and other ingredients into casings for thousands of years. Homer sang of sausages in the Odyssey, written around 850 BC. The Romans traditionally made sausages from ground pork and pine nuts for the celebration of Lupercalia, a feast of eating, drinking and wenching. These sausages became so intricately connected to debauchery that Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, actually banned them. Sausage bootlegging became a profitable enterprise.
By the Middle Ages, hundreds of varieties of sausages had been developed. Many of these, like Bologna, were named after the city where they were first made. But the variety that plays the greatest role in our lives originated in the German city of Frankfurt. The frankfurter was made with cured meat and was cooked by smoke.
Legend has it that the frankfurter was introduced into North America in 1904 by Anton Ludwig Feuchtwanger, a Bavarian peddler who set up a booth at the St. Louis World's Fair. Since the sausages he sold were greasy and hot, he loaned his customers white gloves with which to hold them. So many people absconded with the gloves that he needed another solution. His brother-in-law, a baker, came up with one. Why not put the frankfurter in a bun?
Everyone wanted to try the new-fanged hot "Dachshund sausages," as the franks were now called because of their resemblance to these lengthy canines. Soon the name was abbreviated to "hot dog," and a North American staple was born. Today there are hundreds of manufacturers vying to satisfy the North American craving for some 60 million franks a day!
We obviously eat a lot of hot dogs, but not without trepidation. We’re never really quite sure what they contain. Otto von Bismarck, the celebrated German statesman once remarked that the two things you don't want to see made are sausages and the law. Judging by some of the parliamentary behavior I've seen, he was right about the law. But sausages are not that scary. We can actually learn a lot of science from investigating how they are made.
No matter what you may have heard there are no ears, snouts or genitals in your hot dogs. So what is there? Hot dogs can be made from the edible parts of beef, veal, lamb, pork or poultry. This can include tongue, heart, esophagus and blood. If you find that hard to stomach, I probably shouldn't tell you that they also sometimes use the stomach. Kosher hot dogs do not contain any of these delicacies; they are made from good quality lean meat mixed with “plate trimmings,” which is essentially a pseudonym for fat.
Whatever the kind of hot dog, the basic process of manufacture is the same. The ingredients are finely chopped and then blended into a smooth paste which is eventually stuffed into a casing and cooked. The taste comes from a mixture of spices including garlic, pepper, paprika, smoke flavoring and MSG. Vitamin C or its chemical cousin, sodium erythorbate are also included in the mix. Why vitamin C? Because it mitigates the action of the curing salts which are added next. The curing salt is a mixture of about 98% regular salt and 2% sodium nitrite.
Nitrites are perhaps the most controversial components of hot dogs. They add flavor, color and prevent the growth of the deadly clostridium botulinum bacteria. But they can also react with other components in meat, called amines, to form nitrosamines. These substances are carcinogenic in test animals, and probably in humans. But their actual risk is very small. The odd study has linked hot dog consumption to some rare childhood cancers, but critics have pointed out that if this is indeed the case, it is so only in vitamin deficient children. Another reason to make sure kids are taking their multivitamins.
In any case, food processors have greatly reduced their use of nitrites since the discovery that vitamin C, potentiates the action of these chemicals. This means that less nitrite can be used if vitamin C is added to the mix. Studies have also shown that the added vitamin C reduces the chance of nitrosamine formation in the body. It is also possible to make nitrite free hot dogs, but these must be kept frozen.
If the nitrite issue isn’t that significant, why should we be concerned about feasting on hot dogs? The major problem is the fat content. By law, the protein content must be at least 11% but the fat content is not regulated. The average hot dog is 23% fat by weight. That’s a lot; a T-bone steak is 12% fat by weight. An average hot dog contains about 10 to 15 grams of fat, most of it saturated, although poultry and veal franks contain somewhat less. This is quite a bit considering that our daily fat intake should not routinely exceed 60-70 grams. Unfortunately, it is the fat in the hot dog that makes it taste so darn good.
Is it possible to have a low fat hot dog? Well, Hormel in the US has come up with "97% Fat Free Franks" which only have 1.3 grams of fat in each hot dog. The replacement of some of the fat by hydrolyzed vegetable protein is certainly a giant step in the right direction, especially when one considers that a panel of tasters found the Hormel product as tasty as regular hot dogs. Incidentally, the label "100% beef" on the packaging is meaningless on nutritional grounds. It just means that all components, including the fat, are derived from cows, steers or bulls. Actually bull meat is very flavorful, but because it is so fibrous, tends to be tough. However when macerated in a blender, it makes for an ideal hot dog. And that's no bull.
Then of course there are tofu hot dogs. These are getting better, but they still seem to develop those revolting “warts” when grilled. For now, I’ll still take the occasional regular hot dog, especially if you put a good ball game in front of it. But just to be on the safe side, I’ll take it with sauerkraut. Lots of vitamin C in there to take care of any nitrite problems.