What's Really Inside a Hot Dog?

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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 is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King, Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

Some three decades after he earned his doctorate, in 1989, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article was originally published in 2013.

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