Are Chicken Nuggets Healthy? Here's What a Nutritionist Says
Popeyes just added chicken nuggets to its menu. Time to assess their nutritional value.
Chicken nuggets are making headlines again, especially with the news that Popeyes has added chicken nuggets to its menu. Many of my clients think of chicken nuggets as kids' food, but some wonder if the finger food can be part of a healthful adult eating routine. The truth is—it's complicated. That's because there's no one way to formulate or cook chicken nuggets, and so it's hard to give a blanket answer for all chicken nuggets since they're all so different. With that being said, there are definitely a few things you can still consider if you're a mindful eater who catches an occasional craving for nugs.
Fast food chicken nugget nutrition
Many fast food establishments offer chicken nuggets, and the way they're made can vary. While not every restaurant posts the ingredient list for its chicken nugget recipe, you will find nutrition info on each brand's website. A six-piece serving of Popeyes chicken nuggets—which are hand-battered, breaded in buttermilk, and then fried—contains 225 calories, 14 grams of fat with 6 grams from saturated fat and 1 gram from trans fat, 15 grams of carbohydrate with 2 grams as fiber, 11 grams of protein, and 345 mg of sodium.
The nutritional breakdown of chicken nuggets will be different from place to place, though. For example, a six-piece serving of chicken nuggets at McDonald's has 250 calories, 15 grams of total fat with 2.5 grams from saturated fat and 0 grams from trans fat, 15 grams of carbohydrate with 1 gram as fiber, 14 grams of protein, and 500 mg of sodium. And at Chick-fil-A, five pieces of unbreaded grilled chicken nuggets contain 80 calories, 2 grams of fat with no saturated or trans fat, 1 gram of carb, 16 grams of protein, and 270 mg of sodium.
If you have a favorite fast food chicken nugget, go to the company's website to take a few minutes to see how its nutrition facts stack up against those at other fast food joints.
In my opinion, the ingredient list of any type of chicken nugget is the most important info you can utilize to assess healthfulness. You might assume that chicken nuggets are simply made from chicken breast, but a look at an ingredient list may tell you otherwise. For example, while Chick-fil-A grilled nuggets' first ingredient is boneless skinless chicken breast, they contain over two dozen other ingredients, including modified cornstarch, sugar, soybean oil, and the preservative EDTA. Checking the ingredients is like taking a peak under the hood before you buy a car—it reveals a lot.
However, an ingredient list is not something that all fast food restaurants will display on their website. Chicken nuggets you buy at the store do offer up that information, though—right on the package. When purchasing chicken nuggets in the frozen food section at supermarkets, it's a good idea to scan ingredient lists. For instance, even USDA Certified Organic versions may contain common allergens such as wheat. So if the ease of heating up frozen chicken nuggets makes them a hectic-day staple in your house, this is my suggestion: look for products that are, what I refer to as, "homemade for you," meaning made with ingredient lists that read like a recipe you could have made yourself. One that I would recommend is Applegate Farms Gluten-Free Chicken Nuggets ($9, amazon.com); they're made with no artificial ingredients or preservatives and no GMO ingredients.
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Cooking methods matter
Most fast food chicken nuggets are fried. It's probably obvious that fried foods aren't optimal for good health, but a 2015 paper published in the journal Nutrients offers more insight. In it, researchers said there is strong evidence to suggest a connection between a higher consumption of fried foods (four or more times per week) and chronic disease risk, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and heart failure.
So if you're trying to be as health conscious as possible but still want to have chicken nuggets on occasion, consider trying ones that aren't fried. That means that if you're making chicken nuggets at home, baking is a better option than firing up a home fryer.
Consider vegan chik'n nuggets
With the growing popularity of plant-based diets, there are now meatless versions of a wide variety of foods, including nuggets. From a health perspective, these faux meat options can be a good choice. In fact, a 2020 meta-analysis from the European Journal of Epidemiology concluded that plant protein intake is inversely associated with all-causes of death, including cardiovascular disease.
One of my favorite plant-based nugget options is Dr. Praeger's Classic Chik'n Tenders ($5, amazon.com). They are vegan, soy-free, and gluten-free. Per three tenders, they provide 15 grams of plant protein, 9 grams of fat with 1.5 as saturated and no trans fat, 13 grams of carbohydrate with 5 grams as fiber (18% of the daily target), and 400 mg of sodium. The ingredients are largely simple and include texturized pea protein, a rice-based coating, avocado oil, and potato starch.
Homemade chicken nugget options
One option that gives you total control over the healthfulness of your nuggets is to make them yourself. You'll find loads of healthful recipes online, including both chicken and plant-based options. For chicken nuggets, you can start with oven-roasted organic chicken breast, coated with a nutrient-rich breading made from ingredients like herbed nut flour or seasoned ground oats, baked in the oven. Plant-based versions can start with tofu or even chickpeas as the base.
Bottom line, the answer to if chicken nuggets are healthy is: it depends. Your best bet is to look beyond calories and protein grams and zero in on ingredients and healthy cooking methods. Or, DIY it.
For some, chicken nuggets can be a common go-to in a time crunch. Whether you're on the road and need to stop in a fast food restaurant or are at home and need something quick, there are ways to try to make your chicken nuggets as healthy as possible—for nugs outside of the home, try to find options that aren't fried; for at-home nugs, look for brands with "homemade for you" ingredients.
Just don't forget, for the overall healthfulness of your meal, pair those nuggets with a generous portion of veggies to round out nutrients and up your fiber intake.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.
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