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The “Uncured” Melody

By David Moe, Food Processing Consultant - I am a fan of hot dogs (franks, frankfurters, wieners, etc.) and was not surprised when another one of my favorites switched to the “perception first” agenda and jumped on the “uncured” bandwagon. The product is now called Uncured Pork & Beef Frankfurters with a side bar of “no nitrates or nitrites added” followed by an asterisk. I will explain the asterisk later. Replacing questionable ingredients is a trend right now even if the replacement ingredient is similar and serves the same function.

By David Moe, Food Processing Consultant

I never had a granny who talked about a balanced diet of eating a variety of hot dogs and other foods in moderation. In fact, I cannot remember a granny ever saying anything about food or eating a hot dog. The only thing about granny food I can remember is candy that tasted like it had been in a suitcase for a year or so. My conclusion over time is writing about food and eating food should not be taken too seriously. One can eat well despite being exposed to food “noise” daily.

I am a fan of hot dogs (franks, frankfurters, wieners, etc.) and was not surprised when another one of my favorites switched to the “perception first” agenda and jumped on the “uncured” bandwagon.  The product is now called Uncured Pork & Beef Frankfurters with a side bar of “no nitrates or nitrites added” followed by an asterisk. I will explain the asterisk later. Replacing questionable ingredients is a trend right now even if the replacement ingredient is similar and serves the same function.

Therefore, I continue my search for a “food as it used to be” hot dog.

My ideal hot dog contains both pork and beef and be stuffed into a natural casing. The second choice is a beef hot dog, preferably in a natural casing. The product may contain some of the usual plant-based products: sugar, dextrose, corn syrup, paprika and likely some spices. The label does not have to mention the words “cured” or “uncured” or refer to “guilt” in any way. Nitrite listed in the ingredient statement is fine, rather than following an asterisk: *except as naturally occurring in cultured celery powder and sea salt. A list of “no other stuff” that may or may not have ever been added or allowed in hot dogs is acceptable as that seems to be the norm today and helps make the label a good read.

Before the use of plant-based nitrate sources, the words “cured” or “uncured” were seldom, if ever, noted on hot dog labels. Hot dogs are assumed to be a cured product based on their regulatory standard of identity. Thus, curing and other ingredients are listed in the ingredient statement only. The original exception was the hot dogs that did not contain curing ingredients (nitrates/nitrites) that were labeled “uncured” and were usually kept frozen. Currently, hot dogs containing plant-based nitrate are required to be labeled “uncured” as they, too, do not contain actual purified nitrates/nitrites. Again, labeling is to distinguish them from traditionally cured products.

In marketing terms, one would be led to believe that cured must be “less good” in some real or imagined way compared to a product labeled “uncured.” Thus, “un” becomes a positive rather than a negative label feature due to the absence of traditional curing ingredients. In many cases “un” is considered negative as in unkind, unpalatable, undesirable, etc.  A more interesting qualifier following the “un” could be: *inorganic nitrate, a carbon free product, is naturally present due to including organic processed vegetables in the recipe.

According to The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, “by nature hot dogs are cured meats. This means they include some combination of salt, sugar, and/or nitrite for the purpose of safety, preservation (improving shelf life), flavor and color.”

“Meat curing is the application of salt, color fixing ingredients and seasonings in order to impart unique properties to the product.” – Frederick K. Ray

Fred’s definition of curing, from an old extension bulletin, fits for hot dogs today. It does not fit if we go by curing in Homer’s time (850 B.C.), where salt was the preservative and nitrates were an impurity in salt and color fixation just happened. It was learned that nitrates were unnecessary and that nitrite played the major role in curing meat about 100 years ago.

What do the regulations say?

CFR 317.17 (3-21-79) “Any substance mixed with another substance to cure a product must be identified in the ingredient statement on the label … For example, curing mixtures composed of such ingredients as water, salt, sugar, sodium phosphate, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite or other permitted substance … must be identified on the label. Any product … to which nitrate and nitrite is permitted or required to be added may be prepared without nitrate or nitrite … and labeled with such common and usual name … when immediately proceeded with the term uncured as part of the product name.”

“Products … which contain no nitrates or nitrites shall bear the statement ‘no nitrate or nitrite added’ … ‘not preserved – keep refrigerated below 40 degrees F at all times.’” The regulations also list other preservative options, for example, water activity, pH, controlled thermal processing.

CFR 319.2 (3-29-79) “Any product, such as frankfurters and corned beef, for which there is standard in this part to which nitrate and nitrite is permitted or required to be added may be prepared without nitrate and nitrite and labeled with such standard name when immediately preceded  with the term uncured … provided that the product … is found … to be similar in size, flavor, consistency to product prepared with nitrate and nitrite.”

Nitrite present in hot dogs and other cured meats is only a small part of nitrite ingested from foods in one’s diet. The major portion comes from bacterial conversion of nitrates naturally occurring in vegetables. The addition of celery powder or cultured celery powder has been a way to promote clean/natural/no artificial ingredient labeling.

If we forget about hot dogs and just consider meat, it can be considered as uncured or cured. Examples of uncured beef are steaks, roasts and ground beef, which are generally not labeled as either one. With the addition of purified nitrite and other ingredients, beef can become corned beef, pastrami, beef hot dogs, etc. and are considered cured, whether labeled cured or not. With the addition of specific vegetable ingredients that contain nitrates, product is labeled as uncured even though the nitrate converts to nitrite during processing and the end product tastes and looks similar to the traditional cured product. In this case the products are labeled “uncured corned beef,” “uncured pastrami” and “uncured beef hot dogs.”

Meat products with a standard of identity such as hams, Canadian bacon, bacon and specific cooked sausages (hot dogs) states they are cured. However, cured is not usually noted on the label as the products are expected to be cured. Curing ingredients are listed in the ingredient statements or for hams and bacon ingredients are listed following the “cured with” in the ingredient statement. Non-standardized cured products are labeled “cured.” Examples are cured pork roll, cured bratwurst, etc. The bottom line is using the term “uncured” can become a label feature based upon the way applicable regulations are written and the target customer.

“People don’t eat nutrients, they eat foods. And foods need to be assembled into diets that give peopleproper nutrition.” – Scott Gottlieb, former FDA Commissioner

Over the years hot dogs have been classified as unhealthy by some as they are thought to be loaded with nitrate/nitrite, as well as contain unknown meat, lots of fat, too much salt, various sugars and other questionable unpronounceable ingredients. The stigma remains even though facts do not support the negative claims (www.meatmythcrushers.com). It is hard to shift perceptions, as well as special interest agendas. Labeling hot dogs “uncured, no nitrates/nitrites added” may present the product in a better light; however, only the source of nitrate/nitrite has changed.

Much of the anti-hot dog and processed meats critics seem to focus on the assumption that “loads” of nitrates and nitrites are delivered with the hot dog as a carrier. In the industry a load is defined as a 40,000-pound truck load of hot dogs. In most cases the nitrate portion of the load is zero as there has not been a reason to add nitrate for decades. This changed when a natural source of nitrate came into use for uncured products.

The nitrite portion is more than zero but is not close to being loads. If the regulatory limit (156 PPM) is used then the amount of nitrite added is about 5.5 pounds per 40,000-pound load, or about 0.055 grams nitrite added per 14 ounce package. To put this in “cooks” terms, about 0.001 teaspoons of purified nitrite is added per hot dog package. The amount of nitrite looks more like a “micro-pinch” rather than “loaded with.” A large portion of this nitrite does not survive processing to be available for consumption.

Kale is a super-food, but I load it with dressing so I can stand to eat it.” – Anonymous food pantry client

I consider hot dogs to fit the description of a super food more closely than kale does, even though there is likely no such thing as a stand-alone super food. A hot dog contains a variety of ingredients and a variety of food groups can be piled on the hot dog to make it a balanced hot dog. Kale can be part of the stuff piled on a hot dog to make it even more super.

“Recent medical research has shown nitrite is critical for maintaining human health by controlling blood pressure, preventing memory loss, and accelerating wound healing,” according to “What’s the Deal with Nitrates and Nitrites Used in Meat Products,” a fact sheet by Jeff Sindelar, University of Wisconsin.

I have noted other recent media noting nitrates/nitrites should not be of concern. Most conclude moderation is key and processed meats, including hot dogs can be a part of a well-balanced diet.

Part of the fun of writing about hot dogs is thinking about eating them. If a vegetable source of curing ingredients makes one more comfortable eating a hot dog – go for it. Maybe the nitrate found in vegetables is closer to the original nitrate accidently present in salt of yore. What the world needs now is pickled kale relish to replace the brilliant colored relish on a Chicago-style hot dog.

“I want a hot dog just like the hot dog that was never labeled cured. There’s now a hot dog just like that hot dog, but now it’s labeled uncured. – Part of The “Uncured” Melody