Nathan's Fourth of July Hot Dog-Eating Contest: The Wildest Rules Competitors Have to Follow

·7 min read
Hot-dog eating contest in New York
Hot-dog eating contest in New York

Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Red, white and chew!

If there's one thing synonymous with Independence Day, it's the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog-Eating Contest — the famed competition that takes place on July 4 in Coney Island, New York, each year.

For those competing in the annual frankfurter frenzy, dozens of hot dogs are inhaled within 10 minutes in an attempt to claim the coveted, "bejeweled" Mustard Belt — in addition to a $10,000 grand prize and (most importantly) the champion title.

While approximately 35,000 fans are expected to gather at Nathan's Famous flagship restaurant in Brooklyn to watch it all go down (and hopefully not come up), millions will tune in on ESPN to feast their eyes on the highly anticipated competition.

RELATED: Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4th: See the Faces of Competition Through the Years

Returning to the sizzling scene in the men's division is 14-time champ Joey Chestnut, the competitive eater whose only competition appears to be himself. Last year, he beat his own personal record from 2020, consuming 76 hot dogs in 10 minutes!

As for the women's division, Michelle Lesco takes to the table once again to defend her 2021 victory — where she not only made her Nathan's Famous Hot Dog debut, but devoured 30.75 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes.

PEOPLE chatted with Sam Barclay, Director of Operations at Major League Eating (MLE), who divulged the official rules the Nathan's Famous competitors have to follow — from the beverages permitted to the breakdown on buns. (And no, mustard is not allowed.)

Competitors must qualify to participate.

Nathan's Hotdog Eating Contest
Nathan's Hotdog Eating Contest

John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock

Nathan's Famous International Competition is the ultimate championship event for competitive hot-dog eaters, and not just anyone can participate. Eaters must be over 18 years of age to enter an MLE qualifying event. Furthermore, eaters then must rank and be invited to take part in the Fourth of July showdown.

"In pre-COVID times, [MLE] would do a larger series of qualifying events all around the country — in which the men's winner and the women's winner at those qualifying events go on to compete at the Fourth of July," Barclay tells PEOPLE exclusively.

He says the "MLE invited 10 top-ranked men's contestants and 10 top-ranked women's contestants" this year.

"On top of that, we had two qualifying events: one on June 18th in Pleasanton, California, and one on June 25th in Washington, DC.," he adds, sharing that the top three men and top three women from those events will get to compete in Coney Island.

Men and women eaters must compete separately.

Joey Chesnut, Michelle Lesco
Joey Chesnut, Michelle Lesco

Steven Ferdman/WireImage; Albert L. Ortega/Getty

While Chesnut's perched atop the MLE food chain, Lesco is ranked No. 9 for both men and women combined — but regardless of the co-ed standings, the contest is divided by gender.

"On the Fourth of July, we have the Men's Championship and the Women's Championship. Both contests have the same rules, same mechanics, same metrics and are both judged the same," Barclay explains.

"This year, Joey Chestnut and Michelle Lesco are automatically granted entry as defending champions," Barclay notes.

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Hot dogs must be consumed within a specific amount of time.

Hot-dog eating contest in New York
Hot-dog eating contest in New York

Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Eating 30-plus hot dogs at one's leisure may sounds easy (actually, maybe it doesn't), but for those competing in the Nathan's Famous contest, there's a time limit.

"The winner is the man or woman who eats the most Nathan's Famous hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes," says Barclay.

Hot dogs must be consumed in a certain order.

Atmosphere at the 2015 Nathan's Famous 4th Of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island on July 4, 2015 in New York City.
Atmosphere at the 2015 Nathan's Famous 4th Of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island on July 4, 2015 in New York City.

Bobby Bank/WireImage

The fists of franks being shoved into the competitors' mouths may seem like mayhem, but there's actually an order that people must follow before devouring.

"The hot dogs are plated, five hot dogs and buns to a plate," explains Barclay. "The eaters finish one plate and move on to their next plate."

Competitors are not allowed to use utensils.

Miki Sudo
Miki Sudo

John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock

There may be plates, but leave the forks and knives at home because utensils are prohibited! (But, does anyone really eat a hot dog with cutlery anyway?)

RELATED: Joey Chestnut Still Dines on Hot Dogs Year-Round: 'It's Rare for Them Not to Be in My Fridge'

Hot dogs don't have to be consumed whole.

Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, New York, USA - 04 Jul 2018
Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, New York, USA - 04 Jul 2018

Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock

If there's one speed at which most competitors eat in the competition, it is fast — and while shoving the hot dog into their mouths whole may seem like the best strategy, it's not the only way!

"The eaters are allowed to separate the dog from the bun," notes Barclay. "The eaters are allowed to take, for example, the dog and put it into two pieces. They can snap the dog in half. They can snap the bun in half."

Hot dog buns can be dunked in water, but only for a limited time.

Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas wins the 2012 Women's Competition with 45 hot dogs at the 2012 Nathan's Famous Fourth Of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island on July 4, 2012 in New York City.
Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas wins the 2012 Women's Competition with 45 hot dogs at the 2012 Nathan's Famous Fourth Of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island on July 4, 2012 in New York City.

Bobby Bank/WireImage

Another strategy often used by competitors is to submerge the bun in water to help it go down easier, but there's a guideline to the dunk! Eaters are only allowed to soak the bread for a maximum of five seconds.

Competitors must eat the commensurate amount of hot dog and bun for their total to count.

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1FF06BE1

Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock

While eaters are allowed to deconstruct the hot dog, or eat the bun and meat separately, the corresponding parts have to be consumed in order for the number to count toward the totals.

"So, if you eat a bun, but none of the dog, that counts for zero. If you eat half a bun and all of the dog, that counts for half," says Barclay.

RELATED: Joey Chestnut Wins Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest for 13th Time, Sets New World Record with 75

Alcoholic beverages are not permitted during the competition.

Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut
Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut

ESPN Films Takeru “Tsunami” Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut

In addition to water being used for dunking purposes, it also serves as a necessary beverage for eaters to wash the hot dogs down. While Nathan's Famous provides water during the contest, the contestants are allowed to bring their own preferred beverages, but they must be non-alcoholic.

"The eaters are provided with cups and water. Most of the eaters prefer some empty cups and some cups with water," Barclay explains. "Some of them will bring their own beverage and mix water with that beverage. We permit a maximum of 13 cups total per eater."

Competitors must swallow the hot dog in order for it to count.

Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest
Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest

Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty

At the end of the 10 minutes, what is in the eater's mouth counts — but they have to finish that consumed food within 30 seconds.

Oh, and don't forget about the crumbs!

"If there are any portions of dog and bun in the eaters' table area, or on the floor in front of them, that goes missing during the contest and it's not consumed, that is deducted from their final total," says Barclay.

If competitors throw up, they are disqualified.

Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest
Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest

Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty

This one is self-explanatory. If the eater can't keep the hot dogs down, they are disqualified from the competition.

Condiments are prohibited.

Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest
Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest

Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Sorry mustard and ketchup, you're not invited to this Fourth of July barbecue! While other MLE contests might allow condiments (only to be utilized if provided by the event sponsor), Nathan's Famous does not permit them.

As Barclay says, "You don't add food that doesn't count to your total."

Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest takes place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on July 4 in Coney Island, New York. It will also be telecast live on ESPN3 and ESPNEWS, in addition to being streamed here.

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