A Staff Report from academicpursuits.us Science Advisory Board

Is the ingredient erythorbate in hot dogs really earthworms?

December 15, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

Is the ingredient earthobate in hotdogs really earthworms?

SDStaff Jillgat replies:

First off, it's erythorbate, not earthobate.  I think half your problem here stems from poor spelling.

Next let me ask a question: Is this a health-related concern or simply the gross out factor you're worried about? As a Straight Dope reader you already know about agave worms in mezcal, chocolate covered ants, and beetle juice used as glazes in some candies. In the last column Cecil mentions a couple of other bug pseudonyms in label ingredients: carmine, which gives fruit cocktail cherries their red color, is derived from dried cochineal insects, and confectioners glaze, which is used as a coating on Junior Mints candy, is a secretion of the lac beetle.)

So yeah, some food ingredients are made from bugs and such.  But erythorbate isn't one of them.  The rumor about erythorbate being a euphemism for earthworms has been around for awhile, and it isn't true.  The Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Illinois suggests that the rumor might have come about from the Middle English word erthe, which means "earth." Maybe, but how many rumormongers do you know with a detailed knowledge of Middle English?  More likely it's a case of simple mispronunciation or misspelling (see above).

At any rate, there are 4,400 species of worms in the world, and 2,700 kinds of earthworms. The ones most of us are familiar with are the night crawler Lumbricus terrestis and the common field worm Allolobophora caliginosa. "Erthe" doesn't appear in their names.

Sodium erythorbate, an antioxidant similar to Vitamin C, is made from sugar.  It's added to hot dogs, cured meats and a few other foods to preserve their flavor and color when exposed to air.  It's been around for thirty years.

I'm sure there's an FDA "acceptable level of insect parts" for hot dogs, but your question was more about whether it's actually part of the recipe. It's not, so you can rest assured that your hotdogs are made from 100% pure pig noses, cow lips, intestines, and that kind of thing.

No need to turn up your nose at earthworms, though.  Many cultures around the world are scolecophagous (worm-eaters), and it's probably some of the more nutritious, uh, meat you could eat, as long as it's fresh. Worms are over 70% protein and they're low fat, as long as you don't fry 'em in grease. Earthworm soup is popular in China, and in the old days among the Maori tribe in New Zealand, earthworms were reserved for consumption by royalty. At various times in history, the Vietnamese, French, and various tribes in Latin America have eaten earth worms. I've seen grubs on the grill in southern Mexico, but they weren't earthworms. (The wigglers are hard to keep on the grate, I'm guessing.)

This rumor also has come up in connection with McDonalds' hamburgers — that is, whether they contained ground up earthworms. When asked about this, Ray Kroc, owner of McDonalds, responded, "We couldn't afford to grind worms into our meat. Hamburger costs a dollar and a half a pound, and night crawlers are six dollars."

But notice he knew the price. You'd better hope the cost of worms doesn't go down.

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Staff Reports are written by academicpursuits.us Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

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