Contributed by GMM Community Health Dietitian, Laura Delfausse MS, RD, LD
I have had a lot of clients ask me lately about chicken nuggets. Do we or don’t we serve these to our children? My answer, which is the same answer to just about any question, is that everything fits into a healthy diet with moderation. Are they the worst food on the planet? Certainly not. Are they the best? Certainly not; but if this is a food you and your children refuse to forgo, I can provide some tips to help you make the most informed decisions about the nuggets you are bringing to the table.
Essentially, chicken nuggets come in two forms:
1) Press and formed: These are the type of nuggets that you may be used to getting from your favorite fast food joint. The process of making these nuggets, involves liquefying the chicken and mechanically separating it into meat, water and fat. This creates a meat paste. Then a binder, like modified corn starch, is needed to get this paste into a nugget form. Finally, because much of the fat has been removed, the chicken left behind is quite bland. Therefore, different flavor additives like salt, autolyzed yeast and artificial flavors are added to put some flavor back in.
2) Whole meat: These are your chicken tenders or chicken strips and they are called whole meat because that is exactly what they are. There is no need for binders, because there has been little mechanical manipulation of this meat. Sometimes they are pumped with flavor enhancers, like salt or rice starch, so you should look out for those.
So which kind is the best? Hands down, I would say the whole meat. As a general rule, the less processed is the always the best choice. One weakness of both forms is in the fact that they are both breaded and fried. There is no way to get around this, unless you make your own and oven bake them, such as in the following recipe: http://www.marthastewart.com/897986/baked-chicken-nuggets). I made them myself, so I assure you that they are delicious. If you are buying your nuggets, go for the least breaded variety, they will hold the least amount of fat.
One last caveat, the meanings of the term “chicken tenders” or “chicken strips” are not enforced by the USDA. Therefore, many pressed and formed varieties are sold under the term “chicken tender,” which can be very confusing. One thing you can do is read the labels. If there seems to be too many ingredients, then it is most likely pressed and formed. You can also tell by just looking at it. If it is perfectly formed, it is probably not a tender. Finally, your best defense is your mouth. You know what it tastes like to bite into a piece of whole chicken, vs. the soft pressed and formed nugget. If you have been duped by a product, thinking you were getting a tender, then oh well. You’ll just know better next time.
All in all, it is inevitable that we will sometimes make less-than desirable food choices for the sake of convenience or preference. My recommendation is to minimize the casualties by educating yourself on the lesser of two evils. If you still have questions, consider consulting a dietitian. At Good Measure Meals, we have dietitians equipped to answer your questions regarding food, weight loss and medically related dietary concerns (i.e. diabetes).
And in non-nugget, but still pretty exciting poultry news, GMM is releasing oven-”fried” chicken on our new Spring/Summer 2013 menu, set to begin rolling out April 2. No additives, no hormones, just healthy. Oh, and delicious!