What's Really Inside a Hot Dog?

iStock
iStock

At baseball stadiums, holiday cookouts, and in the dorm rooms of broke college students everywhere, hot dogs have become a staple meal. Each time we wield a wiener, however, rumors and innuendo over the food’s manufacturing integrity come flooding to the surface. Is this tubed meat made from monkey brains? Is there an underground network of hot dog companies that slip in cows’ feet as a filler? Why are hot dogs so nutritionally suspect?

Fortunately, most of your worst fears may be unfounded. Except for the feet. More on that in a moment.

Ever since Upton Sinclair uncovered the misdeeds of the meat industry in the early 1900s, the government has kept a close eye on animal product manufacturing methods. Gone were the sawdust and dog and horse parts that previously made up hot dogs and other highly-processed meats. Companies had to obey strict preparation guidelines that significantly reduced the chances of foodborne illness and forced them into using transparent food labels.

Hot dogs are no exception, though you might have to decipher some of the language to understand what you’re really biting into. Beef, pork, turkey, or chicken dogs originate with “trimmings,” a fanciful word for the discards of meat cuts that are left on the slaughterhouse table. That usually means fatty tissue, sinewy muscle, meat from an animal’s head—not typically a choice cut at Morton’s—and the occasional liver.

This heap of unappetizing gristle is pre-cooked to kill bacteria and transformed into an even more unappetizing meat paste via emulsion, then ground up and pushed through a sieve so it takes on a hamburger-like texture. A number of things could be added at this point, including ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to aid in curing, water, corn syrup, and various spices for taste. Less appetizing ingredients can also include sodium erythorbate, which the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council swears is not actually ground-up earthworms:

"In contrast to a popular urban legend, erythorbate is NOT made from earthworms, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports receiving many inquiries about erythorbate’s source. It is speculated that the similarity in the spelling of the words 'erythorbate' and 'earthworms' has led to this confusion."

Got that? No worms. After another puree, the meat paste is pumped into casings to get that familiar tubular shape and fully cooked. After a water rinse, the hot dog has the cellulose casing removed and is packaged for consumption. While not exactly fine dining, it’s all USDA-approved.

More skittish consumers should pay attention to packaging labels. If you see “variety meats” or “meat by-products,” that means the hot dog probably has heart or other organ material in the meat batter. Additives like MSG and nitrates are also common, though all-natural dogs usually skip any objectionable ingredients. If it’s labeled “all beef or “all pork,” you can be assured it's coming from muscle tissue of that animal, not organs.

But those “trimmings”? By definition, they can contain a lot of things that come off an animal, including blood, skin, and even feet. It’s all edible, though some might object to the very idea of eating random cow or pig parts. At least none of it is actual human meat, as some people feared when a Clear Lab food advocacy test in 2015 showed 2 percent of hot dog samples contained human DNA. That was more likely due to human error and trace amounts of hair or fingernails making their way into the batch, not a worker falling into the vat. Enjoy!

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What's the Difference Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

iStock/flySnow
iStock/flySnow

It may not be easy for some people to admit, but certain national holidays often get a little muddled—namely, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sees the confusion often enough that they spelled out the distinction on their website. The two days are held six months apart: Veterans Day is celebrated every November 11, and Memorial Day takes place on the last Monday of May as part of a three-day weekend with parades and plenty of retail sales promotions. You probably realize both are intended to acknowledge the contributions of those who have served in the United States military, but you may not recall the important distinction between the two. So what's the difference?

Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day. It was first observed on November 11, 1919, the one-year anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution making it an annual observance in 1926. It became a national holiday in 1938. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day to recognize veterans of the two world wars. The intention is to celebrate all military veterans, living or dead, who have served the country, with an emphasis on thanking those in our lives who have spent time in uniform.

We also celebrate military veterans on Memorial Day, but the mood is more somber. The occasion is reserved for those who died while serving their country. The day was first observed in the wake of the Civil War, where local communities organized tributes around the gravesites of fallen soldiers. The observation was originally called Decoration Day because the graves were adorned with flowers. It was held May 30 because that date wasn't the anniversary for any battle in particular and all soldiers could be honored. (The date was recognized by northern states, with southern states choosing different days.) After World War I, the day shifted from remembering the fallen in the Civil War to those who had perished in all of America's conflicts. It gradually became known as Memorial Day and was declared a federal holiday and moved to the last Monday in May to organize a three-day weekend beginning in 1971.

The easiest way to think of the two holidays is to consider Veterans Day a time to shake the hand of a veteran who stood up for our freedoms. Memorial Day is a time to remember and honor those who are no longer around to receive your gratitude personally.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Is the Kitchen Like on the International Space Station?

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iStock/Elen11

Clayton C. Anderson:

The International Space Station (ISS) does not really have a "kitchen" as many of us here on Earth might relate to. But, there is an area called the "galley" which serves the purpose of allowing for food preparation and consumption. I believe the term "galley" comes from the military, and it was used specifically in the space shuttle program. I guess it carried over to the ISS.

The Russian segment had the ONLY galley when I flew in 2007. There was a table for three, and the galley consisted of a water system—allowing us to hydrate our food packages (as needed) with warm (tepid) or hot (extremely) water—and a food warmer. The food warmer designed by the Russians was strictly used for their cans of food (about the size of a can of cat food in America). The U.S. developed a second food warmer (shaped like a briefcase) that we could use to heat the more "flexibly packaged" foodstuffs (packets) sent from America.

Later in the ISS lifetime, a second galley area was provided in the U.S. segment. It is positioned in Node 1 (Unity) and a table is also available there for the astronauts' dining pleasures. Apparently, it was added because of the increasing crew size experienced these days (6), to have more options. During my brief visit to ISS in 2010 (12 days or so) as a Discovery crewmember, I found the mealtimes to be much more segregated than when I spent five months on board. The Russians ate in the Russian segment. The shuttle astronauts ate in the shuttle. The U.S. ISS astronauts ate in Node 1, but often at totally different times. While we did have a combined dinner in Node 1 during STS-131 (with the Expedition 23 crew), this is one of the perceived negatives of the "multiple-galley" scenario. My long duration stint on ISS was highlighted by the fact that Fyodor Yurchikhin, Oleg Kotov, and I had every single meal together. The fellowship we—or at least I—experienced during those meals is something I will never, ever forget. We laughed, we argued, we celebrated, we mourned …, all around our zero-gravity "dinner table." Awesome stuff!

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Clayton "Astro Clay" Anderson is an astronaut, motivational speaker, author, and STEAM education advocate.

His award-winning book The Ordinary Spaceman, Astronaut Edition Fisher Space Pen, and new children's books A is for Astronaut; Blasting Through the Alphabet and It's a Question of Space: An Ordinary Astronaut's Answers to Sometimes Extraordinary Questions are available at www.AstroClay.com. For speaking events www.AstronautClayAnderson.com. Follow @Astro_Clay #WeBelieveInAstronauts

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