Look Inside a Chicken Nugget

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Biting social commentary by Banksy in an installation at the Village Petstore and Charcoal Grill in New York's East Village (Mario Tama/Getty)

The chicken nugget can conjure purity. No buns, pickles, or bones. Not many carbs, apart from the breading. This is simplicity delivered economically, flightless birds, protein for the protein-hungry America of today—or, to followers of Michael Pollan, the corn-fed-meat-wrapped-in-corn-preserved-breading-dipped-in-corn-sweetened-goo kind of purity.

Richard D. deShazo, MD, is a distinguished professor of medicine and pediatrics at University of Mississippi Medical Center. He does not see purity. At least, not anymore.

“I was floored. I was astounded,” deShazo said of the moment he looked at a chicken nugget under a microscope.

Dr. deShazo has been concerned about the American diet for a while. Recently, he says, he "got a little curious about chicken nuggets" because "it almost seemed like they were habituating—that kids were addicted to the chicken nuggets."

So he asked a colleague, pathologist Steven Bigler, MD, to see what's inside the nuggets by cutting them open "just like a human being [in an autopsy]."

Bigler and deShazo dissected two random chicken nuggets from different restaurants. They will not tell us which—because this is meant as an interesting reminder, not a Sinclarian exposé—beyond that they are "national fast-food chain restaurants near [the] academic health center in Jackson, Mississippi." (Probability is high that one of these restaurants has a clown for a mascot and professes to literally sell happiness to children, in that there are four of said restaurants within two miles of the medical center. One is within the hospital.)

DeShazo and Bigler's work is published in the American Journal of Medicine. This is what they saw:

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(University of Mississippi)

The nugget from the first restaurant (breading not included) was approximately 50 percent muscle. The other half was primarily fat, with some blood vessels and nerve, as well as "generous quantities of epithelium [from skin and visceral organs] and associated supportive tissue." That broke down overall to 56 percent fat, 25 percent carbohydrates, and 19 percent protein.

The nugget from the second restaurant was 40 percent skeletal muscle, as well as "generous quantities of fat and other tissue, including connective tissue and bone." That was 58 percent fat, 24 percent carbs, and 18 percent protein.

"We've taken a very healthy product—lean, white meat—and processed it, goo-ed it up with fat, sugar, and salt [in the breading]," he said. "Kids love that combination." So do non-kids.

DeShazo and Bigler's conclusion: "Chicken nuggets are mostly fat, and their name is a misnomer." That is, "because the predominant components aren't chicken." At least, not in the sense that chicken implies meat (not fat and skin).

"When chicken is processed, there's some chicken left on the bone," deShazo—who also hosts a wellness program on the local public radio affiliate— explained. "You can actually vibrate that stuff off, and you get these chicken leftovers, and you can put it together, mix it up with other substances, and come out with a goo that you can fry and call a chicken nugget. It's a combination of chicken, carbohydrates, and fats, and other substances that make it glue together. It's almost like super glue that we're eating. In some fast-food restaurants."

Chef Jamie Oliver made nuggets that way a few years ago on his television show Food Revolution, in front of kids, chopping and blending a remnant carcass. The feckless children screamed, but still asked to eat the nuggets. "We've brainwashed our kids so brilliantly," Oliver said, "that even though they know something is disgusting and gross, they'll still eat it if it's in that friendly little shape."

The National Chicken Council (NCC) is unimpressed by deShazo's work. "Chicken nuggets are an excellent source of protein," Dr. Ashley Peterson, NCC's vice president of science and technology, told Reuters. "Especially for kids who might be picky eaters. This study evaluates only two chicken nugget samples out of the billions of chicken nuggets that are made every year."

The NCC maintains, in an appeal to food nostalgia, "Mechanically separated chicken has been used in poultry products since 1969." What's more, emphasis theirs, "[Mechanically separated chicken] is NOT typically used in chicken nuggets or patties. Mechanically separated poultry is regulated and inspected by USDA and products containing it must declare it as an ingredient on the label. Mechanical systems prevent waste of nutritious meat and avoid the repetitive motion that would be required to perform close trimming by hand."

And to the meat-glue allegation, the NCC defends: "Transglutaminase, referred to by some as 'meat glue,' is an enzyme sold for almost two decades that is used mostly in food service to bind pieces of meat together, such as a beef tenderloin or a strip of bacon to a filet. It is not used to make chicken nuggets. It is unnecessary–protein is extracted with salt and phosphate, then breast or thigh meat is ground or chopped and then easily formed into a nugget shape. The breading helps hold the nugget together, as well."

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Dr. Richard deShazo (University of Mississippi)

DeShazo is quick to note that not all chicken nuggets are equal, and some do a better job of being meaty. Some chains are outspoken in addressing recent concerns about this, including KFC and Chick-fil-A, which advertise that their nuggets are entirely breast meat. Small studies like this are good for consumer awareness that drive demand in that direction.

The NCC reminds us that all products must include nutrition information on labels. For fast food chains, you can ask them for a pamphlet or check their website. (The NCC also contends that products whose ingredients contain "rib meat" are just as good as breast meat: "Rib meat is simply a natural extension of the breast meat.")

The takeaway from this study is a reminder to look at the numbers if you're eating a lot of nuggets. The numbers and images deShazo generated in this little project are on his side in writing: "Chicken nuggets available at national fast food chains operating in a state with an epidemic of obesity and obesity-related disease [Mississippi is the most obese state] remain a poor source of protein and are high in fat." Just, not all nuggets.

"Medical professionals should advise patients of the limited nutritional value of many processed foods," he writes, "including this product."

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.


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