There’s Not Much Chicken in That Nugget

What you get: fat, nerves, bones and more

Nuggets and fries

Here’s how you turn a perfectly good source of protein into junk food: Process it.

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For example, recent research published in the American Journal of Medicine covered what’s inside the typical fast food chicken nugget. When most people think of chicken, they think of lean muscle tissue. That’s not what you get from chicken nuggets.

The researchers analyzed a randomly selected chicken nugget from two different unidentified chains. The first nugget was only around 50 percent muscle tissue. The remainder was mostly fat, with some blood vessels and nerves in the mix. The second nugget was around 40 percent muscle tissue, with the rest being primarily fat, plus some bone pieces and connective tissue.

“If the content of chicken nuggets grosses you out a little, that may be a healthy (and possibly intended) response.”

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Laura Jeffers, MEd, RD, LD

Center for Human Nutrition

For a moment, set aside the idea of eating nerves, bone and blood vessels — understandably unappetizing to many people. What may be more important is that the mix provides less protein, more fat, more sodium and more carbohydrates than you’d get from unprocessed chicken.

“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 researchers state.

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Know what you’re getting

Most people probably do not order a box of chicken nuggets thinking it’s health food. And restaurants make ingredient lists and nutrition facts available for consumers who want to know. But to me, this research underscores the importance of knowing the nutritional value of what you eat.

If the content of chicken nuggets grosses you out a little, that may be a healthy (and possibly intended) response, too.

As a registered dietitian, I frequently talk about the benefits of eating “whole foods” — meats, vegetables and other foods that are not processed. Often found on the perimeter of a grocery store, whole foods and other nutrient-dense foods are more likely to contain the essential vitamins, minerals and fatty acids your body needs. Processing can remove or reduce these and increase the sodium, fat and other potentially unhealthy elements.

Realistically, people will eat fast food meals for convenience on occasion. But try not to make mystery meat a staple of your diet.

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Laura Jeffers, MEd, RD, LD

Laura Jeffers, MEd, RD, LD

Laura Jeffers, MEd, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian and Outpatient Nutrition Manager in the Center for Human Nutrition.
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