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So, what is really in a hot dog?

March 24, 2023

An estimated twenty billion hot dogs are eaten in America yearly, usually without knowing what it is made of and the detrimental effect it has on the environment and health.

What is a hot dog? 

By definition, a hot dog is “a frankfurter with a mild flavor that is typically heated and usually served in a long split roll” and topped with various condiments. Americans have given this classic celebratory summer holiday food many names, including wienerwurst, sausage, footlong, frank, and dog. As a kid, you may have been entranced by the Oscar Meyers jingle or drawn to the cheese filling. A hot dog is a must-have at a baseball game or summer barbeque, and an easy pairing with macaroni and cheese. 

An estimated twenty billion hot dogs are eaten in America each year. That is roughly 60 hot dogs per person. But there’s always a lingering question about a hot dog; what is it? To answer this question, various impacts were examined, including the health and environmental impacts of a hot dog. The adverse health effects caused by production and consumption are also analyzed to determine the actual cost of this American favorite. 

What is a hot dog made of?

 The main ingredient of a hot dog is meat trimmings from chicken, beef, or pork meat. Meat trimmings are scrap pieces of meat cut from roasts or steaks, which include muscle meat, fat, and non-meat ingredients. Organ meats are not always included, but if they are, they are listed on the hot dog packaging as “variety meats” or “meat byproducts.” 

Meat trimmings are sometimes also combined with mechanically separated meats. Mechanically separated meats are meat pulled from bones by force via a sieve or similar device. The meat targeted during this process is the minimal bits that remain on the bone after consumption. In a home, this meat is commonly undesirable and discarded. 

Once collected, meat trimmings and mechanically separated meat are ground and mixed into a thick paste. Preservatives, spices, and food colorants are added to the emulsified meat and combined with chemicals to hold them together in sausages or loaves. 

Most of us passively accept that our processed food labels include preservatives, additives, and chemicals. These ingredients serve various purposes that are not necessarily ideal, let’s break them down. Potassium and sodium lactate are commonly used preservatives to extend shelf-life and prevent mold, fungus, and pathogen growth in meat. Similarly, sodium diacetate is added to serve as a barrier to pathogens. 

Why are pathogens a primary concern? Pathogens, more specifically antibacterial-resistant pathogens like Staphylococcus aureus, are found in meat due to our farming practices. Antibiotics are commonly used within the farmed animal population in our food system to promote growth and prevent disease. So much so that according to the FDA, 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the US are used on animals. Other additives like sodium erythorbate and sodium nitrate are used for aesthetic purposes. The World Health Organization has declared Sodium nitrate a ‘probable’ carcinogen. 

Once mixed, this meat batter product is then stuffed into casings. Casings are a thin-skin material made from one of four sources; animal intestines, collagen from bones, colored filament paper, or cellulose from wood or cotton processing. If the casing is from an animal intestine, it is usually from the same species as the hot dog meat. If the species differ, the label has to state that and which species it is. Typically, casings are removed once the hot dog is cooked before it is packaged, but hot dogs may be sold with the casing on.

Environmental Impacts

As previously discussed, meat from all species, ruminants and non-ruminants alike, may be ingredients in a hot dog. Therefore, the production of hot dogs uses a portion of environmental resources used in animal agriculture production. Animal agriculture is linked to 41 percent of global deforestation, and 15.4 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It takes 15,415 liters of water to produce one kilogram of beef, 5,988 liters of water to produce one kilogram of pork, and 4,325 liters of water to produce one kilogram of chicken. 

Most cows, pigs, and chickens in the U.S. are raised for slaughter in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). In CAFOs, animals are restricted to confined enclosures, unable to roam. Since the animals exist so closely together, antibiotics are regularly used to prevent disease and promote growth. These feedlots are responsible for large amounts of environmental pollution in the surrounding air, water, and soil. 

In North Carolina, the number of pigs housed in CAFOs outnumbers the human population by 30-to-1. These pork CAFOs produce 10 billion gallons of waste each year. The waste produced by CAFOs is not required to be treated. Instead, the waste is channeled to lagoons, uncovered pits, and later sprayed onto fields as fertilizer. This process is known as the lagoon and sprayfield system. The volume of waste and the frequency at which it is sprayed leads to oversaturation in the soil. Oversaturation causes the waste to leak into lakes, streams, and rivers, contaminating groundwater and surface water. Spraying animal waste also causes the fecal matter to become airborne. Toxic particles containing pathogens, chemicals, and antibiotics are created as the waste is sprayed as an aerosol. This health-hazardous material gets blown onto nearby homes and fills the air with an unbearable smell.  

Health Effects

CAFOs cause environmental damage and public health issues. The neighborhoods suffering from environmental pollution from CAFOs are disproportionately communities of color and low-income communities. The health and quality of life of these communities are continuously affected. Individuals living near CAFOs are at a higher risk of having contact with pathogens from waste contamination. The health effects of pathogens vary but can include diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea. Residents have stated that in addition to the smell from the waste limiting the ability to be outside, the odor causes headaches and skin and eye irritations. 

In addition to the health effects caused by meat production for hot dogs, hot dogs themselves have been linked to poor health outcomes. Preservatives in hot dogs contain nitrates. Chronic non-communicable health conditions like cancer, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease are found to be a result of consuming nitrates. Furthermore, a study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that 36 minutes are taken off of your life for every hot dog you eat. 


A hot dog is a compilation of scrap meat that most individuals would not choose to eat when handling the meat themselves, mixed with chemicals. The production and consumption of hot dogs causes adverse environmental and health impacts which disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income communities in the U.S. Choosing to eat plant-based sausages is a beneficial alternative that may impact not only an individual's health but also the overall health and well-being of the community, animals, and environments impacted by the meat industry.

Kelsey Simmons is a second-year graduate student at NYU School of Global Public Health. She is a college advocate at FFAC working to reduce the harmful impact of our food system.