Chicken nuggets: A little chicken meat and a whole lot more

What’s really in this popular menu item?
Photo: TheDeliciousLife, Flickr

WASHINGTON, October 14, 2013—A research note published in the American Journal of Medicine revealed the results of a simple test conducted by a group of doctors at the University of Mississippi Medical Center to find out the contents of chicken nuggets purchased at two national fast food chains. The results were not surprising, but distressing nonetheless.

Chicken muscle meat was not the predominant ingredient in either nugget. Instead, the nuggets contained large amounts of fat, skin, blood vessels, connective tissue, ground bone and nerve tissue.

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The test was somewhat informal; members of the research team visited two fast food restaurants close to the University of Mississippi in Jacksonville and purchased an order of chicken nuggets. The researchers chose not to disclose the names of the restaurants.

“We felt that would generate negative publicity off topic,” Dr. Richard deShazo, lead author of the study and professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center told NPR’s The Salt.

DeShazo and his team then selected one nugget from each box and fixed it in formalin, cut it in sections, stained them and examined the sections under a microscope.

One of the nuggets was approximately 40 percent skeletal muscle (commonly known as “meat”), and the rest was fat, connective tissue, and ground bone. The other nugget contained 50 percent skeletal muscle, the rest being made up of fat, blood vessels, nerve tissue, skin, and viscera. 

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“The predominate component is not healthy, lean chicken meat, a great source of healthy protein,” deShazo told NPR, “but an adulterated chicken product containing 50 percent or less chicken meat, with other chicken components, in a suspension of unknown carrier material.”

The National Chicken Council, a non-profit trade association representing the chicken industry, responded to the study on their website.

“This study evaluates only two chicken nugget samples out of the billions of chicken nuggets that are made every year,” says Ashley Peterson, National Chicken Council vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs. “It is not scientifically justifiable to make inferences about an entire product category given a sample size of two.” 

DeShazo and colleagues readily admit that the test is too small to describe an entire industry. However, chicken nuggets have become a popular component of the American diet, especially for children. Many companies market especially to children and chicken nuggets are part of many school lunch programs.

Ingredient lists are not very helpful in deciphering the actual contents of a nugget. McDonald’s website lists “USDA-inspected white meat,” Burger King states its nuggets are made with “premium white meat,” KFC says it uses “premium, 100% breast meat, ” Wendy’s claims they use “all white meat.” Also available at the supermarket, Tyson’s  lists “boneless chicken breast with rib meat” as the primary ingredient for their widely popular Fun Nuggets.

To be sure, there are several healthier nuggets out there and some may indeed be made primarily of actual white breast muscle meat—just not the ones the research team looked at. However, deShazo claims the study was done to raise awareness about this highly popular, highly processed product, and to encourage people to read and understand food labels and make better dietary choices.  


READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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