Like hot dogs and SPAM, bologna is often regarded as something of a mystery meat. Regardless of your feelings about this much-maligned cold cut, bologna is a familiar presence in supermarkets, school cafeterias, and maybe even your own fridge. But what exactly is it?
How the Bologna Gets Made
Similar to the a handful of other curious foods, the answer really depends on the deli or manufacturer. The meat can be made from cured beef, chicken, or pork—or some combination of the three. Some varieties are made from premium cuts of meat, while others are made from ground-up organs, trimmings, and other unmentionables. However, products containing the latter are usually labeled as having “byproducts” or “variety meats,” and they’re hard to find in grocery stores nowadays, according to The Takeout.
The meat is cooked and smoked, and sometimes wrapped in a casing that’s made from the gastrointestinal tracts of cows, sheep, or hogs, according to The Journal Times. This is the norm for several varieties of sausage, and it sure beats synthetic casings, which can be made from collagen and sometimes plastic. However, the casings are often removed before the product is sold commercially.
Mortadella vs. Bologna
Although it’s now one of America's favorite sandwich fillings, the lunch staple was named after the city of Bologna in northern Italy—even though Italians would turn their noses up at the stuff we’re sandwiching between two slices of white bread. (And don’t forget the processed American cheese!)
Their version of bologna—known as mortadella—has different colored spots on its surface. That's because it contains bits of fat, peppercorns, and sometimes sliced pistachios. In the U.S., on the other hand, the USDA says all cooked sausages (including bologna and hot dogs) must be comminuted, or “reduced to minute particles.” In other words, the ingredients are emulsified and churned into a homogenous pink meat paste. As The Huffington Post puts it, “Mortadella is to bologna as fresh, roasted turkey on Thanksgiving is to sliced turkey lunchmeat.”
What’s in Your Bologna
Oscar Mayer, one of the best-known bologna producers, sells one bologna variety made from “mechanically separated” chicken and pork, with a little bit of beef added in. According to the USDA, “Mechanically separated meat is a paste-like and batter-like meat product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible meat, under high pressure through a sieve or similar device to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue.”
Aside from the meat, the recipe contains a blend of spices. A few of the most common ones added to bologna include salt, pepper, celery seed, coriander, paprika, and sugar—or, more commonly, corn syrup. And myrtle berry is often the secret ingredient that gives the meat its signature taste.
Although many companies won’t reveal their preferred blend of spices, most of the ingredients in bologna are no secret. They’re listed on the package, free for all to read. As it turns out, most mass-produced varieties of bologna are a lot less gross than you may think—as long as you’re OK with corn syrup-flavored meat batter. Who’s hungry?
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A version of this story originally ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.