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Is Spam healthier than hot dogs?

The Dirty Truth About What Actually Goes Into Your Processed Meat

That hot dog might taste good, but do you really know what you’re eating?

November 20th, 2015
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Most of us grew up in the public school system, condemned to the cafeteria for questionably prepared meals of soggy green beans, pizza that might as well have been cardboard, and of course, the infamous mystery meats. Even if you were among the lucky ones, and your mom sent you to school with a brown bag lunch each morning, I’m willing to bet you’ve eaten your fair share of bologna sandwiches, or maybe even spam.

I never really thought about what I was eating at the time, being a ravenous third grader with not much other than recess on my mind. Now, however, reflecting on my shamefully mindless consumption of slimy hamburgers and rubbery hot dogs, I can’t help but wonder: What was I actually eating? What I found out was enough to ensure that I’d never touch another hot dog for as long as I lived.

Hot Dogs

Warning: You may not particularly like what you’re about to read, but I feel like you’re entitled to know exactly what you’re putting in your mouth.

A hot dog essentially consists of “leftovers,” specifically the trimmings that remain after meat-processing plants have removed the steaks, chops, thighs, hams, ribs, breasts, tenderloins, and briskets. “Trimmings” is admittedly a pretty vague description, so know that they can usually be defined as “fatty tissues, head meat, animal feet, animal skin, blood, liver, and other edible slaughter by-products,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Doesn’t that sound delicious? Hashtag food porn, am I right?

Gif courtesy of

These scraps, once collected, are precooked in an attempt to eliminate festering bacteria, and then ground together into a “meat emulsion,” which can apparently be more appropriately described as a “meat batter”. How incredibly appetizing.


Photo courtesy of

Next, food starches, water, corn syrup, and other chemical binding agents are added to the mix, and the tasty little smorgasbord is pumped into those classic cellulose cases. Ah, the hot dog. What could be more American? If you’re particularly brave and you happen to have a strong stomach, you can see the process for yourself here.


Although the bologna (or baloney) you’re probably familiar with actually did originate in Bologna, Italy, the Italians know it as “mortadella,” a thick sausage speckled with bits of fat, peppercorns, and often pistachios. Sounds fancy, huh? If baloney is meant to be a kind of culinary masterpiece, why does the piece on your sandwich look like a floppy slab of meat paste? That’s because, well, pretty much any variety of commercial US baloney is literally a slab of meat paste.

Gif courtesy of

The USDA mandates that processed meat products be comminuted (reduced to minute particles), which requires that any traces of lard, spices, trimmings, etc. be unrecognizable in the bologna, ensuring a uniform hunk of “meat,” if you feel like it even deserves that title.

While bologna is still lumped into the same category as hot dogs, as it tends to disguise and shove hundreds of nauseating meat scraps between two pieces of bread, bologna is known to contain more sophisticated spices like black pepper, nutmeg, allspice, celery seed, and coriander. Hey, at least they’re trying. Oh, and apparently bologna cake is a thing. What even? I’m speechless. That is just… No.


Spam has always been, in my opinion, the ultimate mystery meat. Its own name lends to a certain quality of mysteriousness. I was actually pretty surprised to find that Spam is hardly a mystery at all, and is so confident in its own identity as the most wholesome processed meat in the game that it’s willing and completely unashamed to list each of its ingredients right there on the can. In fact, there are only six: Cooked pork (pork shoulder and ham), salt, water, potato starch, sugar, and sodium nitrite.

Gif courtesy of

Shocked? I was, too. While I’m certainly not advocating Spam as a superfood by any means, and I’m not sure I could get past that notorious, dingy pink hue myself, I’d be willing to say that its composition is significantly less sketchy than those of hot dogs or bologna. Imagine that.


Gif courtesy of

If you made it to the end of this article without gagging, I’m impressed. It kind of boggles my mind that we’re living in a society that accepts cylindrical meat batter as perfectly normal, but the people want what they want. As long as we’re buying hot dogs, companies will keep the hot dogs coming. So, decide for yourself. Personally, I think I’ll get on just fine without head meat trimmings and “other edible slaughter by-products.”

What Is Spam Made Of?

Sarra Sedghi is an Associate Editor at Allrecipes and is based in Birmingham, Alabama. In 2017 she graduated with a Master’s of Fine Arts in Narrative Media Writing from the University of Georgia. Her work has also appeared in Atlas Obscura, Eater, Polygon, Thrillist, and Paste Magazine. She is an American-Iranian hybrid and large dog enthusiast, and is very loosely working on a memoir.

Published on April 19, 2022

illustration of a can of spam on a two-tone yellow background

You either love it or you loathe it. But either way, Spam is the brand name for a canned meat product that’s widely recognized around the world. And yet, for all its enduring popularity, Spam remains something of an enigma. Today we’re taking the mystery out of the meat and answering your top questions. Read on to learn what Spam is made of, Spam’s complex history, the best ways to cook with Spam, and what «Spam» even means.

What Is Spam Made Of?

Spam contains six ingredients: a mixture of pork and ham meat, salt, water, potato starch, sugar, and sodium nitrite, a food preservative added to bacon, hot dogs, cured meats, sausage, and smoked fish. Aside from adding potato starch in the 1990s, Spam’s recipe is relatively unchanged.

What Does «Spam» Stand For?

«Spam» doesn’t really have any meaning — it’s simply a product name. «There was a Christmas party in late 1936 and the idea of holding a raffle or competition for who could come up with the name of this new product was put forward,» says Brian Lillis, group brand manager for Spam at Hormel Foods. «Kenneth Daigneau, one of the attendees’ relatives, was at the party and came up with the idea of Spam.»

Daigneau won a $100 gift, and the name stuck. Lillis says it’s unclear whether «Spam» had any deeper meaning. «No one knows what exactly went into the process of creating it, but we’re glad that they did,» he says.

The History of Spam

Spam was created in Minnesota by Hormel Foods in 1937. The early 20th century saw a surge of advancement in food preservation, with calamities such as World War I and the Great Depression heightening the need for affordable, accessible, shelf-stable food — especially protein.

«Refrigeration, conveyor lines and other industrialization practices allowed more centralized processing of livestock, and ‘meat packing’ in cities like Kansas City and Chicago,» says Lora Vogt, Curator of Education and Interpretation at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. «With efficiencies in supply, companies could more readily, and on a large-scale, canned meat — among other forms of production like curing.»

At that time, despite its quality, pork shoulder was an inexpensive cut of meat. With Spam, Hormel seized the opportunity to create a quality canned good for consumers that could be utilized on any given night.

«They were looking for a way to create a food item that was both a versatile and affordable protein option for families,» Lillis says.

It wasn’t until World War II, however, that Spam became known on a global scale. Hormel sent more than 100 million pounds of food around the world to help feed troops — that’s a lot of Spam. «As Spam was sent to those regions, there was almost an inherent indoctrination into the local cuisine and local culture,» Lillis says. This was especially true in Eastern Asia and the Pacific; the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, and, of course, Hawaii, all adapted Spam into their foodways.

Today, Spam fans can immerse themselves in the history and lore of their beloved meat product at the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota. And for serious Spam devotees, there are more than a dozen different Spam flavors for you to track down and try, including teriyaki, jalapeño, and hickory smoke.

What Does Spam Taste Like?

Classic Spam has a sweet, salty, savory flavor that lies somewhere between a hot dog and bacon. It has a spongy texture that’s similar to sausage patties or bologna. Spam is already fully cooked, but when you use it in a recipe, the sugars in the product can caramelize to make it crusty on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside.

How to Cook With Spam

We can’t ignore Spam’s additional secret to success: versatility. Spam can simply be fried and used in a sandwich, but the canned pork’s global impact means there are myriad ways to utilize it.

Get the Recipes:

  • Spam and Eggs
  • Hawaiian Fried Won Tons
  • Spam Musubi
  • Air Fryer Spam Fries with Spicy Dipping Sauce
  • Budae Jjigae (Korean Army Base Stew)
  • Spam Fries With Spicy Garlic Sriracha Dipping Sauce

Hungry for more? Check out our collection of SPAM recipes.

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