What are sausages really made of?

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Bulk snags: The cornerstone of athletics carnivals and election day barbies.
Bulk snags: The cornerstone of athletics carnivals and election day barbies. Photo: Karleen Minney

Sausages are the cornerstone of school athletics carnivals, church fundraisers and election day barbies. Preferably wrapped in a slice of white bread with a litre of tomato sauce and onion for 50 cents extra.  

There was a bit of hoo-hah in summer when Woolworths and Aldi slashed the price of their budget sausages. The bulk-buy snags at Coles, Woolworths and Aldi are all priced about $4 per kilogram - a low price for a kilo of meat product, especially when compared with sausages from specialty butchers. At Vic's Meats at Sydney Fish Market, for example, standard thin beef sausages cost $12.90 a kilogram and at Sydney chain Hudson Meats, you're paying $17.95 a kilo.

So what's in a sausage that contributes to its price? Are you really getting more banger for your buck?

Pork and fennel sausages from AC Butchery in Leichhardt.
Pork and fennel sausages from AC Butchery in Leichhardt. Photo: Jennifer Soo

The meat

The idea that cheap sausages are full of snouts and hooves and other offally bits is the stuff of schoolyard rumour.

The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code states that "the presence of offal in food must be declared in the statement of ingredients". That would include brain, heart, kidney, liver, tongue and tripe (also, offal can fetch a higher price overseas so no one wants to waste it in mystery bags).

Instead, cheap sausages are usually made of trimmings, the off-cuts of premium cuts.

"The [Brannans Butchery thin] sausages use a blend of beef and lamb and are made from fresh trimmings, the same meat that is used for fresh mince," a spokesperson for Aldi says.  "These trimmings can come from any part of the animal such as the rump or blade."

Woolworths sausages are also made with a mixture of beef and lamb trimmings, a spokesperson for the supermarket says. A spokesperson for Coles says only that its beef sausages are made with hormone-free Australian beef.

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Anthony Puharich, the face of Vic's Meats and brains behind the Ask the Butcher app, says he sees nothing wrong with using trimmings.

"I support using the whole beast and respecting the animal," he says. "Sausages from specialty butchers use primal cuts like topside, chuck and brisket instead of trimmings. They're more expensive but they have a better flavour."

Flour and water

"Cheaper sausages also contain filler known as sausage meal, usually made of wheat or rice flour," Puharich says.

"Water is then added to the sausage and absorbed by the meal, which contributes to the weight of the sausage. You're basically paying for water.

"You'll see a lot of sausages are made using rice flour instead of wheat flour, which means they can be labelled gluten-free."

Indeed, spokespersons for Coles, Woolworths and Aldi all confirmed their budget sausages are gluten-free.

Preservatives

"Water affects the shelf life of a sausage so you need to counteract that by adding more preservatives," Puharich says.

Mineral salts and preservative 223 are common in bulk-buy sausages.  

"All preservatives are tested by Food Standards Australia New Zealand for safety and if there is a good technological reason to include the preservative," says an accredited practising dietitian, Chloe McLeod.

"Sulphites [such as preservatives 221-225 and 228] are not tolerated well by some individuals so if you are sensitive to these preservatives, it is better to choose sausages without them."

Flavour enhancer

Adding water to a snag will lessen its natural taste, meaning flavour enhancers need to be added.

Dextrose (a refined sweetener) and hydrolysed vegetable protein made from maize are commonly used enhancers that also act as fillers to make the meat go further. Flavour enhancers are subject to the same health and safety scrutiny by the FSANZ as preservatives but McLeod advises that if you are concerned that you or a family member are sensitive to flavour enhancers it may be worthwhile seeing a dietitian who specialises in food chemical intolerance.

The casing

A sausage might as well be a rissole without casing.

Natural casings made from animal intestines are the original and tastiest type of casing and still used by most specialty butchers. When demand for sausages outgrew the amount of animal intestines available, edible collagen casings derived from cow and pig hides entered the market, mainly for cheap, bulk-buy sausages.

Puharich says the texture and taste of collagen casings is nowhere near as good as the natural ones.

The healthy choice

"Research indicates that high consumption of processed meats that contain large quantities of fat and salt can increase the risk of development of colorectal cancer," McLeod says.

That's why it's a good idea to limit your consumption of bulk-buy sausages or opt for lean sausages that are low in salt and made from quality mince, she says.

"Poultry-based sausages are often, but not always, leaner than beef or pork sausages. These sausages can be used more often as part of your diet."