Here's What Actually Gives Hot Dogs Their Prominent Pink Color

A staple of American culture, hotdogs grace backyard barbecues, ball games, and block parties. They've been a favorite for decades, with their popularity never ceasing. In fact, by 2026, the hotdog market is expected to be worth over $91 billion, per Research & Markets. But while many of us adore biting into a juicy frankfurter, many have never considered what exactly goes into a hotdog and what accounts for their prominent pink color.

The first sausages probably weren't pink. Dating back to Ancient Rome, History notes that their popularity eventually spread over Europe, before immigrants brought them to America in the 1860s. Although there are many myths around how hotdogs got their name, Missouri S&T reports that it was likely the result of college humor that joked about dog meat ending up between the buns of your sandwich — yes, a hotdog is technically a sandwich!

A variation on a typical sausage, Best Food Facts describes that hot dogs are made with the trimmings of pork, beef or chicken (or a combination) that are ground extremely fine and mixed with spices, curing ingredients, and water to create the smooth texture. But, it's the addition of one unique ingredient that gives hotdogs their iconic pink color.

The secret is sodium nitrite

While meat typically turns brown as it cooks, hotdogs don't face a similar fate. This is thanks to a curing ingredient that's added during production, known as sodium nitrite.  Used in goods like spam, deli meats and bacon, the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council explains that sodium nitrate helps hotdogs from spoiling by preventing botulism-causing bacteria, but it also gives hotdogs their distinct pink hue. 

The science behind sodium nitrate is simple. Myoglobin is a pigment in muscle protein that binds to oxygen and produces a red hue, explains Inverse. With the passage of time, oxidation results in a loss of color unless sodium nitrite is added, which tricks the myoglobin into staying red.

Interestingly, because nitrates have gotten a bad rap for their cancer-causing potential, some hotdog brands have opted to use all-natural ingredients instead. McGill reports that replacing the sodium nitrite from a natural source like celery juice, allows packages of hotdogs to be labeled as "nitrate-free," despite the fact that they still contain the chemical compound — dress them up however you'd like, the hot dog owes its color to sodium nitrate and that's a fact!