As it turns out, chicken nuggets may be short an essential ingredient: chicken.
Researchers from the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson performed an “autopsy” of two chicken nuggets taken from boxes ordered at two national fast food chains in the city.
Both nuggets contained 50 percent or less actual breast or thigh meat, the muscle tissue that usually makes up “chicken” eaten as meat. The first nugget was about half muscle, with the rest an assortment of nerves, blood vessels and fat. The second nugget was even worse: 40 percent muscle with the rest made of fat, cartilage and pieces of bone.
The study was published in the American Journal of Medicine.
“Our analysis conﬁrms that chicken nuggets available at national fast food chains operating in a state with an epidemic of obesity and obesity-related disease remain a poor source of protein and are high in fat,” said a press release about the research.
The study’s lead author, Richard D. deShazo, told Reuters that while white chicken meat is an excellent source of lean protein, that’s not what nugget eaters are getting.
“What has happened is that some companies have chosen to use an artificial mixture of chicken parts rather than low-fat chicken white meat, batter it up and fry it and still call it chicken,” he said.
The press release added that food science “has allowed modiﬁcation of a superb source of lean protein into a variety of processed poultry products marketed as inexpensive convenience foods that are high in salt, sugar, and fat.” The release also said information “suggests” that fat in particular makes up more than half of the average chicken nugget from both chains examined.
DeShazo said he worries that children often eat nuggets due to their low price, convenience and flavor. He told Reuters his own grandchildren crave the unhealthy concoctions, and he compromises by making his own better-for-you versions.
Ashley Peterson, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Chicken Council (NCC), a non-profit trade group representing the U.S. chicken industry, said that while chicken nuggets tend to have an “elevated” fat content due to being breaded and fried, what’s actually in them is no secret; most fast food restaurants have nutritional information posted in the store or on their website.
“And every package of chicken nuggets in the grocery store by law contains an ingredient list and a complete nutritional profile, including fat content,” she said.
Peterson argued that the study sample size is too small to draw conclusions about an entire industry.
“This study evaluates only two chicken nugget samples out of the billions of chicken nuggets that are made every year,” she said.
“Chicken nuggets are an excellent source of protein, especially for kids who might be picky eaters,” she also said.
DeShazo acknowledged the sample size is indeed small and that some chains have begun to use mostly actual white meat in their nuggets; the “autopsy” was not meant to be a take-down of the chicken industry or fast food, but rather a reminder that “not everything that tastes good is good for you,” he told Reuters.
People buying chicken nuggets aren’t necessarily being duped, he said, since nutritional information is available to see.
“We just don’t take the time to understand basic nutritional facts.”
Processed foods liked chicken foods are blamed for America’s obesity epidemic, partially because they are cheaper. Barry Popkin, a nutritionist and economist at of the University of North Carolina, said earlier this year that the big food companies not only load their products with salt and sugar, but they also change natural products so much that they’re no longer healthy.
“We have a processed package food industry which is enormously efficient,” Popkin told NPR. “It takes a little bit of wheat. It takes a little bit of artificial cheese. It uses lots of chemical flavors and it makes these magical tasty foods that are very inexpensive.”