What’s Inside Chicken Nuggets? Far Less Chicken Than You’d Think

Getty Images Ever since McDonald’s unveiled their chicken nuggets in the mid-1980s, the tasty little morsels have been popular — both when eating out and at home. Cheap, easy-to-prepare, and popular with children, nuggets seem almost perfect for harried parents. There’s only one problem: Nobody really knows what’s inside them.

When it comes to unlocking the mysteries of the nugget, government-mandated ingredient lists aren’t all that useful. In the case of McDonald’s McNuggets, the main ingredient is listed as “white boneless chicken,” a description that seems clear until you consider the fact that “white boneless chicken” isn’t the same as “white meat chicken” — and the distance between the two ingredients can hide a host of sins.

One way of figuring out your nuggets is looking inside. The trouble is, the mishmash of meat is hard to decipher and seems pretty much designed to make you swear off nuggets for life. Recently, however, a paper published in the American Journal of Medicine answered the riddle of the ages — and listed the ingredients of two brands of fast food chicken nuggets. The results weren’t all that surprising, but they were a little disturbing.

To uncover the great secret of the nugget, authors Drs. Richard D. deShazo and Steven Bigler, and Leigh Baldwin Skipworth, B.A., bought nuggets from two rival fast food restaurants, broke them down, and tested the ingredients. One nugget was 50 percent chicken muscle — the part of the chicken that we generally refer to as “meat.” The other one was just 40 percent meat.

What was the rest? Well, on the bright side, it was chicken, even if it wasn’t really what we would broadly define as “edible.” The 50 percent nugget also contained a lot of fat, blood vessels and nerves, as well as “generous quantities of epithelium and associated supportive tissue, including squamous epithelium from skin or viscera.” In other words, there was a lot of added fat, blood vessels, nerves, glands and skin. As for the 40 percent nugget, it also contained “fat and other tissue, including connective tissue,” as well as “bone spicules.” Translated, this means that there was a lot of bone, tendon, and fat.

While this definition of the ingredients in a nugget may make us a little queasy, there’s nothing in there that’s actually inedible. The trouble, though, is that all of that added fat and fatty tissue isn’t especially good for you. As Tom Philpott noted in Mother Jones, “one reason people eat chicken meat is because they think it’s lean.” By adding lots of extra fat, food manufacturers also add a lot of calories, contributing to the obesity epidemic. Factor in the fact that chicken nuggets are fried, and it’s not hard to see why a 6-piece Chicken McNugget order has almost as much fat as a McDouble burger. Or, for that matter, why a 5-piece home-style chicken strips order at Burger King packs almost as much fat as a Whopper.

So if you’re watching what you’re eating, don’t expect fast food fried chicken to do you any favors. If you need to eat at McDonald’s, try a salad with roast chicken, which at least lets you see the meat you’re eating. Better yet, pick up a roasted chicken at your local supermarket and call it a day.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance’s Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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