How Are Chicken Nuggets Made? The Truth About the Process

How are chicken nuggets made?

There’s no doubt that crispy, breaded, boneless chicken nuggets are one of the most beloved menu items at any fast-food restaurant. Dunked in batter and cooked in the fryer, these bite-sized beauties are served to you crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.

McDonald's Chicken McNuggets arguably made these small pieces of breaded chicken famous when the fast-food chain released them to the public in the early 1980s (ah, the good ol’ days!). However, it was actually an agricultural scientist named Robert C. Baker from Cornell University who invented the fried chicken nugget in 1963 (way to go, Bob!). 

No matter when or by whom they were invented, chicken nuggets undoubtedly became a staple American food item. Many other fast-food restaurants and brands quickly hopped on the fried chicken bandwagon so that these nuggets could be enjoyed both outside and inside the home. 

They may indeed be delicious, but how exactly are chicken nuggets made? Let's find out.

How Are Chicken Nuggets Made?

If you do any digging around for information on how chicken nuggets are made, then you’ve inevitably come across the term “pink slime” or "pink goop" in your search. That’s because several years ago, there was a photo closely resembling pink slime circulating the internet that quickly became associated with McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets.

The company responded with a video from a food processing plant for McDonald’s Canada that showed just how their Chicken McNuggets are made. In the end, there was no pink slime or goop to be found (thank goodness).

Though we didn’t get to see any pink slime, we did get some good insight into the process of making chicken nuggets:

  1. Factory workers separate the meat from whole chickens.
  2. The breast meat is set aside and placed in bins to make the nuggets. 
  3. The bin of chicken breast meat then goes into a blending room where it is ground up along with seasonings and chicken skin
  4. The ground chicken meat then gets shaped by a machine into classic nugget shapes. 
  5. The chicken nuggets are then covered by a layer of breading (light batter), followed by another layer of thicker tempura batter
  6. The nuggets are par fried (which means partially cooked to be cooked fully later) and then flash frozen. 
  7. From there, they're packaged and either shipped to restaurants where they're fully cooked in a deep fryer, or cooked in the oven or microwave from frozen at home (or your own home deep fryer if that’s the way you roll).

Despite the video showing that chicken breast meat is the only meat that goes into the nuggets, there has been speculation over the years that some chicken nuggets are made with connective tissue, rib meat, and other parts of a chicken carcass you wouldn't want in your nugget (at least, we don’t think you would). 

As it turns out, that speculation was confirmed by a research note in The American Journal of Medicine written by Dr. Richard D. deShazo, MD and his colleagues. After collecting chicken nuggets from two of the leading fast-food chains in the U.S. and testing their contents, the researchers concluded that chicken meat was not the predominant component in either nugget. But rather, “fat was present in equal or greater quantities along with epithelium, bone, nerve, and connective.” Eek!

Binders, Additives, and Fillers

As mentioned, ground-up chicken breast meat is often blended with some chicken skin in the making of chicken nuggets. Why? Because the chicken skin acts as both a flavor agent as well as a binder, which is something that holds food together. 

If you think about making a muffin or a cookie, eggs are often used as binders in order to hold it all together so it doesn’t fall apart. In the case of vegan food items, binders like methylcellulose, xanthan gum, guar gum, applesauce, corn or tapioca starch, and psyllium husk are often used instead.

But there are other additives and fillers added to chicken nuggets beyond use for binding and flavor. There are also preservatives to ensure the product is shelf stable. Some of the most common additives, fillers, and preservatives you’ll find in many frozen chicken nuggets on the market include:

  1. Vegetable oil
  2. Sodium aluminum phosphate
  3. Sodium acid pyrophosphate
  4. Calcium lactate
  5. Monocalcium phosphate
  6. Lemon juice solids
  7. Dextrose
  8. Natural flavors
  9. Wheat flour
  10. Rice flour
  11. Other food starches

The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Chicken Nugget Nutritional Value

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, followed closely by cancer. Though both of those diseases can be hereditary, research has continuously shown that what we eat can contribute to heart disease, cancer, and many other health conditions.

Let’s dive into some hard nutrition facts, shall we?

In general, most chicken nuggets in your grocery store contain anywhere between 9-17 grams of fat per 85-90 gram serving (approximately 6-10 nuggets). Some of this fat comes from saturated fat which we know — depending on the source — can have a negative impact on heart health

Aside from fat, most chicken nuggets contain approximately 40 milligrams of cholesterol per 85-90 gram serving and anywhere between 350-470 milligrams of sodium. While the body needs both cholesterol and sodium to function, it's well known that too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure. Meanwhile, too much bad cholesterol (LDL) and not enough good cholesterol (HDL) contributes to heart disease. 

As for protein, most chicken nuggets contain somewhere around 12-14 grams per serving. And in general, many of the chicken nuggets in the grocery store contain anywhere from 15 to upwards of 23 ingredients. This is neither good nor bad, unless you find yourself not being able to pronounce or recognize some of the ingredients, which probably isn’t the best sign.

Want a Healthier Option? Try Plant-Based Nuggets Made from Simple Ingredients

By comparison, Nowadays plant-based nuggets contain just seven ingredients:

  1. Filtered water
  2. Organic yellow pea protein
  3. Whole wheat flour
  4. Organic sunflower oil (cold pressed)
  5. Yeast extract
  6. Maple fiber
  7. Mushroom extract

See? You (and your kids!) can pronounce all of them, and you probably recognize all of them too. This list of seven simple ingredients is also soy-free and GMO-free. 

When it comes to nutrition — and by extension, heart health — Nowadays nuggets pack a punch that Popeye himself would be proud of:

  • 13 grams of protein per 85-gram serving (5 nuggets)
  • 140 milligrams of sodium (which is less than half of the sodium content of traditional chicken nuggets!)
  • Only 3.5 grams of fat per serving, none of which is saturated fat
  • Only 7 grams of net carbohydrates
  • No cholesterol

We don’t want to brag but … that’s the best nugget on earth!

Good for the Planet

Ok, we’ve got nutrition covered. But wouldn’t it be great to know that choosing a plant-based nugget like Nowadays could also help save the planet?

It’s hard not to watch movies like Food, Inc. and Forks Over Knives and read statistics about industrial-raised chickens without seeing the way food impacts the planet. 

Did you know that farming broiler chickens for meat uses 1.3 times more land, 3.6 times more water, and emits 10.2 times more CO2 than it does to farm peas for plant-based meat like we do for our nuggets?

According to this report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, factory farming chickens has led to the pollution of water and soil, which then has led to a decrease in the diversity of species in the areas where the farms are located, increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and so much more. 

We could go on, but you get the point.

After reading this and more, we decided that we must create the most delicious plant-based nugget on the market. And by gosh, we’ve done it! They are perfect for busy parents looking for a quick yet tasty and healthier version of the ever-convenient and beloved frozen chicken nugget. Aside from saving dinner and stopping hangry meltdowns in their tracks (you’re welcome), Nowadays nuggets can be easily packed into kids' lunch boxes, dipped into any family favorite condiment, and even crafted into wonderful meals like this recipe for crispy nugget sliders or this recipe for crispy tacos with fresh pico de gallo

The Choice Is Yours

The next time someone asks you, “Hey, how are chicken nuggets made?” you can tell them all of this nifty information you learned. 

And if they see your kids chomping down on their Nowadays nuggets and begging for more, you can tell them that they are a delicious, healthier alternative to chicken nuggets, are good for the planet, and are made with only a few simple ingredients — all of which they can pronounce.

Cheers to better choices for yourself, for your family, and for our planet.

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