While never claiming to be health food, hot dogs have been unfairly grilled, so to speak, for being the culprits linked to many health risks. Hot dogs have been referred to as junk food; have mistakenly been labeled as cancer-causing; and have been portrayed as mystery meat.

Nevertheless, hot dogs, which have been around for more than 100 years, have persevered. In fact, the hot dog has never been more popular. It even seems that some of the smack directed toward it has waned the past few years.
Ian Lavallee, senior product manager for Los Angeles-based Farmer John – a subsidiary of Hormel Foods – agrees that hot dogs have never been more popular.

“It’s a category that continues to grow and is a very important product line for Farmer John,” says Lavallee, whose company sells the beloved Dodger Dog.

Mike Weber, owner of Erie, Pa.-based Smith Provision Co., which produces premium wieners in natural casings, says business couldn’t be better.

“We just had our best year ever,” he adds.

While the hot dog is not without criticism, Lavallee and Weber both believe some of those judgments have subsided.

“I heard about mystery meat when I was younger, but I don’t hear much about it anymore,” Lavallee says. “It’s not as prevalent as it was in the past.”

Says Weber: “The mystery meat thing is a kind of a joke. We always joke about it when we give people plant tours. We joke that there are two things you don’t want to see – how hot dogs are made and how laws are made.”

Andy Milkowski, Ph.D., an adjunct professor in the department of animal sciences at the Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, says he’s optimistic that people’s views of hot dogs have improved.

“Fifteen years ago, coffee was under suspicion [for being unhealthy],” he says. “Now there have been reports that coffee has some healthy components. Eggs were once vilified, but people are fairly neutral about them now.”

Weber says he’s received questions from consumers about sodium nitrite in hot dogs. Sodium nitrite has been labeled as a cancer-causing ingredient in cured meats by some organizations, including the Cancer Project, an animal-rights group. But according to the American Meat Institute, the amount of nitrite allowed by the US Dept. of Agriculture to be added to cured meats is miniscule, at no more than 156 parts per million.

“The amount of sodium nitrite that goes into a hot dog is closely regulated,” Weber says, noting that it’s much less when compared to the nitrite amount a person would ingest if he had a green-leafy vegetable like spinach, which contains 500 to 1,000 parts per million of nitrite.

Still, Weber is concerned about the nitrite issue with hot dogs and cured meats. It bothers him when he sees other hot-dog processors promoting their products as not containing nitrite. They use celery powder or sea salt, which contain nitrate, as part of the curing process, Weber says. But the nitrate is converted to nitrite during that process.

“But because it’s a ‘naturally occurring nitrite,’ that somehow makes the product better,” Weber says. “The message to the consumer is this product doesn’t have sodium nitrite on the label, so it’s somehow superior to a product that does.
We’re working against ourselves here,” Weber continues. “We’re playing into the hands of the people who say nitrite is bad for you.”

Milkowski believes the nitrite issue is not as bad as it was 20 years ago. “If we use nitrite appropriately, intelligently and properly, then there’s no real safety hazard,” he adds.

Getting the junk out
Nowadays, it seems there are stories in the media every month that deem some food or drink product as cancer-causing. Some people believe the stories are true, but most people don’t pay attention to them, Lavallee believes.
“People have become jaded by the crying-wolf syndrome,” he adds. “It’s always interesting when you hear something is bad for you and then a few years later you hear that it isn’t bad for you.”

Weber is also bothered when hot dogs are lumped into the junk-food category.

“I don’t like to label any kind of food as junk food,” he says. “Every food has its place. Hot dogs carry enough in the way of nutrients that they certainly have some nutritional pluses with the protein they provide.”

Lower-cost hot dogs may be deemed junk by some consumers, but Milkowski says value-based hot dogs are a better product than they were 30 years ago.

“You can have low cost and high cost based on what a manufacturer wants to deliver,” he adds. “Some people want inexpensive hot dogs and others want boutique products that are only made from certain species. There’s a wider range of products than there was 30 years ago.”

Perhaps one of the best things to happen to hot-dog processors is ingredient labeling. Some processors want consumers to see what’s in their hot dogs. For instance, Farmer John prides itself on using no byproducts in its hot dogs, Lavallee says.

“We [communicate] to consumers through our packaging that we use no byproducts or fillers,” he adds.

Speaking of communication, it’s vital that the meat and poultry industry keep myth-busting and demonstrating to the general public that hot dogs aren’t as bad as some people believe, Milkowski says. Communication must also improve between public health officials and meat scientists, he points out. “We have a new generation of health professionals that we need to inform and educate about nutritional epidemiology,” he says.

Weber is doing his part to educate consumers. He offers plant tours to anyone, saying he has nothing to hide at the facility.

“We’re happy to show them how hot dogs are made, and almost without exception the people who come on our tours are truly impressed with the quality of the meat, the cleanliness of the process and the care that’s taken to make our products,” Weber says. “We have nothing to hide. We also consume the products we make, and we feed them to our families. I don’t know if there’s a better endorsement than that.”

That said, nobody in the hot-dog business is telling consumers to eat their products for breakfast, lunch and dinner. While Lavallee believes hot dogs are part of Americana – he cites the baseball, hot dogs and apple pie refrain – he says Farmer John preaches moderation when it comes to hot-dog consumption.

“The hot dog is the cornerstone to every family and friend gathering – backyard barbecues, sporting events, graduations, etc. – but we’re not endorsing hot dogs to be consumed three times a day,” he adds.

While hot dogs continue to grow in popularity, nobody expects the negativity to go away forever.

“The hot dog, like anything successful and popular, is a target,” Smith says.

Lavallee wonders why hot dogs, and not pizza and hamburgers, receive all the criticism.

“The lightning rod is hot dogs,” he says. “But I don’t know how that ever began.”

Larry Aylward is a contributing editor based in Cleveland.