Chicken Nuggets: How Bad Are They?

When the kids are wailing, the boss wasn’t happy with your presentation, and the kitchen is anything but pristine, what mom hasn’t thrown up her hands and given in to demands for chicken nuggets? Like, three times a week?

Maybe Mom should tell the kids: Be careful what you wish for.

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This week 17-year-old British factory worker Stacey Irvine was rushed to the hospital when she collapsed, struggling to breathe. During the exam, doctors were stunned to learn that Ms. Irvine had never in her life eaten fruit or vegetables; instead she had eaten almost nothing but fast-food chicken nuggets since she was two years old.

Her mother, Evonne Irvine, told reporters she had gone to great lengths to try to feed her daughter more nutritious food, at one point even trying to starve the girl, but it hadn’t worked. Stacey responded that, once she started eating nuggets, she “loved them so much they were all I would eat.”

Read about the best foods to eat for winter.

What’s so bad about nuggets?

They would be bad enough if they were merely chunks of chicken that had been breaded and deep-fried in oil. One 2004 documentary describes McDonald's nuggets as chickens “stripped down to the bone, and then 'ground up’ into a chicken mash, then combined with a variety of stabilizers and preservatives, pressed into familiar shapes, breaded and deep fried, freeze dried, and then shipped to a McDonald’s near you.”

Actually, McDonalds switched to all white meat McNuggets in 2003, after a federal judge called the popular poultry bites “a McFrankenstein creation of various elements not utilized by the home cook,” CNN reports. According to one report, chicken is only about 50 percent of a McNugget; the remainder is a mixture of corn-derived ingredients, sugars and synthetic substances. 

According to McDonald’s website, McNuggets’ ingredients include dimethylpolysiloxane, a form of silicone also used in cosmetics. Another additive is tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), a preservative used in vegetable oils and animal fats. Contrary to a scary claim in the book, “A Consumer’s Guide to Food Additives” that’s been widely repeated in other books, including the bestseller, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and on the Web, TBHQ is not a form of butane, a component of lighter fluid. In fact, TBHQ contains, in part, an arrangement of four carbon atoms called a “butyl,” as do many harmless foods, including butter. 

If a four-piece serving of Chicken McNuggets carried a nutrition label, at first glance it wouldn’t seem too scary: 190 calories, 12 grams of carbs and 12 grams of fat. But consider that more than half of those calories (56 percent) are from fat—and protein accounts for a mere 19 percent. Add a whopping 360 mg sodium, and its image as “the more nutritious fast-food snack” fades.

Read about 15 surprisingly healthy fast food picks.

What’s the worst that can happen?

Aside from collapsing and gasping for air, as Stacey Irvine did? Doctors also discovered that the veins in Ms. Irvine’s tongue were swollen and she was diagnosed with anemia. Further, such a high salt intake can increase a person’s blood pressure (which ultimately can put them at risk for a stroke or heart attack).

McNuggets are low in nutrients everyone needs, such as calcium, fiber, vitamins, antioxidants and healthy fats, so a steady diet of nuggets means missing out on the health benefits of those ingredients.

Find out which vitamins you really need.

So what’s a parent to do?

If your kids are hooked on nuggets, experts offer these suggestions for steering them towards healthier eating:

  • Serve a variety of healthy foods at home to prevent “picky eater” habits from forming. Taking them grocery shopping, teaching them to find and choose foods, and involving them in meal planning tells them you want to prepare meals they will enjoy. 
  • Set realistic goals. If the child bristles at eating a side portion of veggies, make a game to get him to take one bite of the new-tasting food. 
  • Make your own chicken snacks at home, using healthy dipping sauces like marinara sauce, yogurt or mustard. If you must bread the nuggets, dip them in an egg, roll them in cornflake crumbs and bake, don’t fry. 
  • If you’re eating out, cut out half of the trans and saturated fat by ordering a grilled chicken sandwich instead of nuggets. Order for your child from the adult menu, or share your sandwich with her, so the nuggets issue doesn’t come up. 
  • Be consistent and firm, but encourage and praise the child every time she tries a new, healthier food. And be a good role model—don’t expect children to eat healthy when one or both parents snack on salty chips or fatty, processed foods. 
  • Keep healthy foods in the meal, even when you give in and allow your child to order nuggets. Serve it with a side salad, fruit, or a slice of whole-grain bread. 

Learn about the 7 superfoods you should be eating.

Editor's note: This post has been updated on January 30. Thanks to comments from readers and chemists, we've learned that the post misstated the protein content of Chicken McNuggets and described one of the ingredients inaccurately. Tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) is not "a form of butane." 

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