We love a good hot dog. Whether cold, cooked, grilled, or eaten 10 in a row during a 5K run, there’s no better summertime food than a few delicious links wrapped in softly steamed (or grilled and buttered) buns. But do any of us really understand how these American classics get made into skinny little tubes — or what goes into them? We decided to do some digging in honor of National Hot Dog Day.

Who Let the Dogs Out? — The Need-to-Know

After some research (and downing an entire bottle of Tums), we’ve got the low-down on what really gets put together — er, mechanically separated — to make the classic American hot dog. That meant a closer look at two popular brands — Oscar Mayer Classic Beef Franks and Sara Lee Ball Park Franks — to see what’s really sandwiched between those buns. While taste and texture vary, the ingredient lists are nearly identical. Here are the parts that make up those loveable links, organized by ingredient category — or at least as close as we could come to categorizing them.

  • Meat: Pick up a package of franks, and the first few items on the ingredient list generally include some combination of mechanically separated turkey, chicken, pork, and/or beef. According to the USDA, mechanically separated poultry is actually “any product resulting from the mechanical separation and removal of most of the bone from attached skeletal muscle and other tissue
    of poultry carcasses and parts of carcasses that has a paste-like form and

    consistency.” (Yum?) This paste generally contains a higher content of bone fragments than actual meat. To cut down on the risk of foodborne illness, hot dogs can contain no more than 20 percent of pork prepared in this manner, while mechanically separated beef is completely outlawed in the U.S. Fortunately for food-paste aficionados, companies can pump as much mechanically separated poultry into their hot dogs as they like! The rest of the hot dog’s meat (usually less than 50 percent) is generally regular pork and beef.

  • Water: According to the same USDA guidelines — which, fun fact, also apply to bologna — hot dogs can contain no more than 10 percent water. So rest assured you’re getting at least 90 percent of the, uh, good stuff?
  • Fillers: To hold all that meaty goodness together, many brands use a mixture of binders and fillers including corn syrup (which has its own potential health risks for some eaters), corn starch, maltodextrin, dried milk, and cereal grains. Hot dogs can contain up to 3.5 percent by volume of these fillers.
  • Salt: A single frank can contain upwards of 20 percent of the daily recommended amount. Add to that all those favorite frank toppers and condiments, and the percentage can skyrocket.
  • Preservatives: What’s the point of all that hard work separating, pressing, mixing, casing, and cooking if the dogs won’t last? To extend shelf life and keep those wieners pink, manufacturers use a wide array of preservatives — potassium lactate, sodium phosphates, sodium diacetate, and sodium erythorbate, to name a few. Another popular preservative is sodium nitrate, a controversial compound that inhibits the growth of bacteria. Though USDA-approved as a food additive, sodium nitrate has been linked to an increased risk of colon cancer, specifically when consumed in the form of processed meats like hot dogsTotal N-nitroso compounds and their precursors in hot dogs and in the gastrointestinal tract and feces of rats and mice: possible etiologic agents for colon cancer. Mirvish, S.S., Hoarah, J., Zhou, L., et al. Eppley Institute for Research in Cancer, University of Nebraska Medical Center. The Journal of Nutrition. 2002 Nov;132(11 Suppl):3526S-3529S..
  • Casings: While all dogs are cooked in casings, many are actually de-cased before packaging. But for those that are eaten with casings, the USDA requires that the label note the species of animal the casing comes from if different than that of the meat in the actual dog. So be careful — that turkey dog may not be just turkey…
  • Flavorings: The majority of hot dog brands also include a slew of additional flavorings (many derived from paprika), though the USDA doesn’t require companies list them all on ingredient labels.

Still looking to celebrate with, perhaps, a healthier or more wholesome dog? Step number one is to check the labels. The simpler the ingredients, the higher quality (and likely healthier) the frank.

For a better beef dog, check out Applegate’s Organic Uncured Beef Dogs, which skips out on fillers and mystery meats in favor of grass-fed beef and genuine spices. Trader Joe’s also has a line of organic, nitrate-free franks — from turkey to beef — for a price similar to the more processed stuff. And to top off that dog, try one of our tasty healthier condiment recipes!

How do you feel about the contents of those classic dogs? Still lovin’ ‘em, or think it’s time to switch it up? Sound off below and tweet the author @d_tao.

Originally published on July 21, 2012. Reposted July 2013.