What Are Chicken Nuggets Made Of?

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on July 08, 2022
4 min read

Chicken is good. It tastes good and is a good source of protein. It can do no wrong, or can it? 

To mess up all of the good things chicken has going for it, just process it! A very popular form of processed chicken is a nugget. The regular chicken nugget from fast-food restaurants is usually anything but the lean muscle tissue we imagine. 

You may be disappointed to learn what you are actually eating when it comes to this fast food favorite. 

Typically, whole foods and nutrient-rich foods are packed with minerals, essential vitamins, and fatty acids needed by the body. Processing, though, can reduce or utterly eliminate the good stuff and replace the content with fat, sodium, and other potentially unhealthy compounds. Most people eat fast food as a convenience and quick way to relieve hunger. No one considers ordering unbreaded nuggets instead and chooses to gobble down the mystery meat nugget.  

Many researchers, though, have studied randomly picked chicken nuggets from popular food chains. According to one study, the first nugget was only 50% muscle tissue. The rest was a mysterious mix of blood vessels, nerves, and a lot of fat. 

A second sample was about 40% muscle, and the remaining mystery meat was bone pieces, connective tissue, and (once again) fat. 

Your typical chicken nugget is made of white chicken meat that is supposed to come from the pectoral muscles or breast of the chicken. They usually have other parts of the chicken mixed in as well, though. Nervous tissue, connective tissue, bones, tendons, and fat are usually ground up together and then shaped into the common form of bite-sized oval meals. Many studies usually find nuggets that contain more fat than meat, along with some nerves, bones, and connective tissue. 

In addition to mixed body parts, nuggets also have added preservatives and fillers. Common ingredients include a leavening compound used in breading called pyrophosphate and other mystery ingredients. 

Food science has allowed for a great source of lean protein to be modified into many processed poultry products. They are marketed as inexpensive foods of convenience but have high levels of salt, fat, and sugar. 

Chicken nugget ingredients are usually hard to distinguish because of the way they are prepared. Broiler chickens are born and specifically raised for their meat. They are kept in sheds with thousands of other birds at one time. They live under artificial lighting and rarely get sunshine. 

In the sheds, chickens are often given antibiotics to make them grow faster. Antibiotics are also given to help stop infections that can prematurely kill them. Chickens are usually slaughtered around 47 days old. They are moved through a bath of water to make them unconscious before their throats are slit. They are then de-feathered in boiling water. The chickens are deboned, and the breast meat is cut off. 

The chickens are then dumped into huge bins and wheeled to a grinder. There, the meat is ground down to shreds and combined with chicken skin. A beige paste is used as a binding agent.  

The meat paste is then dipped into tempura batter and fried, giving it the traditional chicken nugget look. If the nugget was the true, expected nugget of chicken meat suggested by the name, it would contain dietary amounts of iron, zinc, calcium, copper, niacin, Vitamin B6 and B12. This fried meat paste nugget? Not so much.   

Some combinations and recipes of chicken nuggets are worse for you and your health than others, but even premium distributors of chicken nuggets are not considered healthy food. One reason is that chicken nuggets contain a lot of sodium. One of the top restaurant chains serving a 6 pack of chicken nuggets was found to contain a quarter of your daily recommended dietary intake.  

Nuggets are fried in hydrogenated oil and contain high amounts of sugar, fat, and preservatives. This makes them an unhealthy choice, especially if you eat them often. 

This is because the main component of the chicken nugget is not chicken. It is not lean, healthy meat, but a by-product that has less than 50% actual meat. Any given brand can have numerous chicken components in an unknown carrier suspension. 

The websites of some major fast-food chains try to claim their nuggets are “healthier” than the norm. Mcdonald's, for instance, claims their nuggets are USDA-inspected white meat. KFC says theirs are premium, 100% breast meat. Burger King says their nuggets are produced with “premium white meat,” and Chick-Fil-A says their nuggets are all breast meat. 

Some claim the term chicken nugget is false advertising and that "fat" nugget might be more accurate. At best, most samplings are 50% meat. 

Under a microscope in a study, a nugget sample was seen to only have 40% meat, and of that meat, only 19% was protein. Other studies showed similar results. 

However, not all nuggets are the same. Some are advertised as healthy or organic. Some may not be dipped in batter and fried. Some may be baked or grilled. 

Ideally, people will read food labels and choose the healthiest of all the alternatives available.  

Chicken nuggets are very popular in fast food. American food chains sell them in multipacks and by the bucket. They are easy to get, cook quickly, and taste good accompanied by the variety of different sauces available. 

However, the interior of the crispy meat concoction is the troubling product of an industry that can continue to promote itself with almost no checks and balances.