What’s Really In That Chicken Nugget?

Chicken nuggets are in fact typically made of the same meat that you see in the supermarket, that is, broiler meat.

Most chicken nuggets start as a split breast of chicken.  You might read on the package that the product contains, “rib meat.”  Rib meat is simply a natural extension of the breast meat.  It is NOT an additive or a filler.

Other boneless chicken meat, from the legs and thighs, for example, or skin from the meat, could be added for flavor and texture. The meat might then be marinated to enhance the meat’s juiciness and flavor.

The meat is then ground and formed, just like you would form a meatball from a ground meat product.  It is then breaded and cooked, usually baked or fried in oil.

There are an abundant amount of choices of chicken nuggets when it comes to feeding your family, based on your budget, taste, values or dietary restrictions.  There are gluten-free nuggets, nuggets that are lightly-breaded or have whole-grain breading, all-white meat nuggets, grilled nuggets or organic nuggets.   

ALL ingredients, including nutritional information, must be stated on the product’s label.

Keep in mind, too, that all federally inspected chicken processing plants follow strict food safety standards and operate under the watch of USDA inspectors at all times.

Chicken nuggets are excellent sources of protein, especially for growing kids, which are part of a healthy, balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Chicken Nugget Myth vs. Fact

MYTH: Mechanically separated chicken is used to make chicken nuggets.

FACT:  Mechanically separated chicken has been used in poultry products since 1969.  It is used primarily as an ingredient in frankfurters, lunch meat or other processed products.  It is not typically used in the majority of chicken nuggets or patties, and it is not sold directly to consumers.

Like all meat and poultry products, however, 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.

MYTH:  “Meat glue” is used to hold chicken nuggets together.

FACT:  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.

MYTH:  “Retired Egg Layers” are used to make chicken nuggets.

FACT:  “Retired egg layers” are NOT used for chicken nuggets.  Cage layers possess little meat and many of them are not processed for meat at all.  The birds that produce the eggs that become broilers (which are not kept in cages and do not produce eggs for the table) usually become “stewing hens” or go into soup or other products that involve long cooking.

What the experts are saying

“There is no ‘pink slime’ in chicken nuggets.”

Dr. Casey Owens, Associate Professor in the Department of Food Science and member of the Center of Excellence for Poultry Science at the University of Arkansas.  Read more of what Dr. Owens has to say about chicken nuggets and mechanically separated meat in an interview with Best Food Facts.

Additional Resources/Links

National Chicken Council Response to small University of Mississippi study on chicken nuggets

Questions and Answers about Mechanically Separated Chicken

Dr. Owens answers the question, “What’s in chicken nuggets??”

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