Processed meat is not good for us. Aside from cutting a hunk of meat off an animal, slapping it with spices, and throwing it over a fire, there’s not much you can do to meat that makes your body say, “Hell yeah, give me more of that!” The abundance of salts, chemicals and preservatives wreak havoc on us.
I get it, though. I’m a big fan of the occasional hot dog, sausage, or deli meat. Chorizo in a skillet? Hell yes. Brats and Italian sausage on the grill? All summer long. A good ham steak? Smoked sausage in a spicy jambalaya? A finger of mozzarella wrapped in fine prosciutto? Some of mankind’s finest culinary discoveries, if you ask me. They may not be good for me, per se, but they’re not going to do much damage in moderation.
That all said, why eat the bullshit meats? I’m talking the lowest of the low. The ones that lie to you when you’re browsing the shelves, hoping you won’t take a closer look at the ingredients list. The ones that should say “sausage*” on the front, complete with the asterisk.
Sadly, they’re the ones that fill the majority of the meat section at your local supermarket.
I’ve covered supermarket chorizo in the past, so I’m going to focus on hot dogs and smoked sausage instead. The running gag for these things is they’re all composed of snouts and lips, but let’s look past the rumors and check the ingredients.
Ever taken a bite of a hot dog and wonder what the hell you were eating? I did that with Bar S hot dogs.
These were purchased because they were the cheapest on the rack. A relative grilled them. I took one bite and thought I was eating something that had spoiled, so I went and fished the label out of the garbage can. As the print gets smaller and smaller, it gets scarier and scarier. What’s a good hot dog made of? Beef. What’s this crap made of? Chicken and pork. No, correction, “mechanically separated chicken” is the first ingredient. Second? Water. Then pork. There is even more dextrose (sugar), corn starch, and salt than there is beef.
Now we know where the snouts and lips rumors come from.
I should note Bar S is not the only culprit, here. Oscar Mayer doesn’t get a free pass. Nor does Ball Park. They may have their high-end hot dogs that are mostly beef (sometimes with their new favorite beef marketing term, “Angus”), but they’re happy to sell you the bullshit at a far cheaper price because they know most of us just don’t care.
In contrast, let’s take a look at two of my favorites, Nathan’s and Hebrew National. The first ingredient on their labels? Beef. Even better? Hebrew National carries the kosher designation. The ingredients are pretty much beef, spices, and yes, a couple of those scary nitrates. But Jesus, at least you’re getting the real thing!
Even better, look for Vienna Beef. They’re hard to find at supermarkets, but a hot dog stand isn’t a hot dog stand without Vienna Beef signs hanging around the joint. Red Hot Chicago? Okay, fine. But if the place is buying no-name garbage to keep costs down and margins up, walk your ass out. All beef or nothing, people.
Yes, I can absolutely taste the difference, and so will you. Buy a package of Hebrew Nationals and a package of some cheap crap, grill ’em side-by-side, refrain from smothering them in condiments, and take a bite. There’s no way you can tell me they taste the same.
On to sausage. The problem with sausages is they’re so loaded up with spices and other flavorings, they conceal whatever the meat filler is. This is how people learned to choke down things like haggis back in the dark ages where they had to eat every piece of the animal to survive. Got something that isn’t very appetizing? Smother it in potent herbs and spices. All the fat and protein the body needs with enough flavoring to help a medieval man keep it in his stomach.
And this, my friends, is how they get away with lying to you. Even the major labels. The consumer in me is comfortable buying Eckrich because I see the commercials and ads all the time. I’ve been throwing their smoked sausage in jambalaya for a while, but then I took a look at the label.
I’ve been seeing their ads since Saturday Morning Cartoons were a thing. Pork, turkey, and beef!? If I want turkey sausage, I’ll talk up some local hunters. But hey, let’s take a look at what didn’t make the picture, the actual ingredients:
Meat ingredients (pork, beef), mechanically separated turkey, water, corn syrup. Contains 2% or less of dextrose, flavorings, autolyzed yeast, modified food starch, mechanically separated chicken, monosodium glutamate, potassium and sodium lactate, salt, sodium diacetate, sodium nitrite, sodium phosphate, vitamin c (ascorbic acid).
You sons of bitches. Corn syrup? Dextrose? Chicken? Why? Why!?
They want it to be cheap, that’s why. They want it to survive on the shelf, and they don’t give a shit what we cram down our gullets because we don’t give a shit what we cram down our gullets. They have all those leftover bits of meat they can’t sell as steak or pork chops, so they grind it up, put it in sausage, and fill it with bullshit to make it palatable. It’s haggis by marketing rather than necessity.
As an alternative, I tried Aidells all natural sausage. I tasted samples at my local Kroger, thought it tasted great. The difference in flavor was not quite as obvious as in the different hot dog brands, and the Aidells had a texture I’ll describe as “dry.” Not bad, just different. Okay, fair enough, but let’s look at the label.
Most of us know “all natural” has been adopted as marketing speak, so let’s just ignore that for now and concentrate on the ingredients:
Pork, water, salt, garlic, spices (including white pepper, red pepper and black pepper), sugar, paprika, celery powder and dehydrated onion.
No corn syrup, no mechanically-separated anything, and no chemical additives my browser’s spellcheck insists isn’t a word. Hallelujah, bitches. Sold. They cost a little more (even after the sample lady handed me a coupon), but they tasted great in our jambalaya and I felt a lot better about inflicting them on my kids.
That’s the great thing about today’s supermarkets and corporate foods: they know some of us are getting educated. There’s a demand for the good stuff, so there’s an incentive for them to produce it. Does it cost a little more? Yes. Does it take a little more effort? Yes. For now. But isn’t it worth it? Between the better flavor (in most cases) and not turning my body into a food lab, I say it’s totally worth it.
The big corporate food conglomerates today are no different from RJ Reynolds back in the day. Sure, they know some of this shit is bad for us, but nobody’s stopping them yet. I wasn’t thrilled to see a ConAgra Foods logo at the bottom of the Hebrew National page, but that’s the way things are going; big corporations are buying out locals and organics in an effort to pad out their portfolios with the good stuff.
You can still do one better by hitting your local butcher. We’ve got an IGA store nearby with a butcher, and they make fresh-ground Italian sausage and chorizo. Both are terrific. I can also go to Peoria’s Alwan & Sons and get some killer cuts of beef, pork, and chicken. This costs more, too, so I can’t do it all the time, but the taste and quality are there.
I’m no health nut, I’m just a dad who spent too much time on the Internet and started reading the labels. I’m not necessarily anti-big corporation, and I’m not going to call you an idiot for not shopping exclusively at farmers markets. I buy the good—okay, better—stuff because it makes sense, and I’m willing to sweat a bump in the grocery bill.
If enough of us do the same, maybe those costs will come down.