The Chicken Nugget: Is That Really Chicken?

Fast food restaurants are notorious for, lack of a better term, fast food. From burgers, hotdogs, and tacos, to french fries and tator tots; it seems like the list is never-ending, but perhaps one of the most famous preferences for the fast track to health problems is the chicken nugget.

a year ago

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Fast food restaurants are notorious for, lack of a better term, fast food. From burgers, hotdogs, and tacos, to french fries and tator tots; it seems like the list is never-ending, but perhaps one of the most famous preferences for the fast track to health problems is the chicken nugget. No matter how delicious the infamous McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets may be, this does not exclude the fact that they have little to no nutritional value and ultimately pose a threat to the human body. Although it would be ideal for anyone to not consume any processed fast foods, so many people just love McDonald’s and their nuggets. Even with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations requiring that all ingredients be listed, many of the “over 1 billion served” advertised on the McDonald’s sign are not aware of what they are actually eating or the dangers they are inflicting unto their bodies. Whether or not people eat chicken nuggets is irrelevant. What is important is that people are properly informed about what they are consuming.

Think of making home-made chicken nuggets and the ingredients one might use: chicken pieces seasoned to preference, probably battered with some sort of flour and then fried, right? With a name like chicken nugget, it is hard to imagine what else would be needed to prepare them. The fact of the matter is chicken nuggets can be made in a variety of ways with different types of ingredients. They can be fried or baked – made with chicken, vegetables, or soy – and there is even such a thing called vegan chicken nuggets. These are pretty average, basic ingredients that can be found in a local grocery store. Now, imagine preparing nuggets using sodium aluminum phosphate, tertiary-butyl hydroquinone, and dimethylpolysiloxane. If curiosity has not already set in, take a moment to question what these ingredients are. Technically, they are chemicals that can be found in ordinary items such as eye drops, contact lenses, shampoos, silly putty, cosmetics, and, surprisingly, in McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets.

The process of how a chicken nugget is created begins with the chicken. Where do they come from? McDonald’s has stated, “All of our chicken is 100% real chicken and comes from our trusted USDA-inspected suppliers [KeyStone Foods] in the U.S.” (McDonald’s, 2012). When an attempt was made to contact KeyStone via email, the human resources coordinator Marilia Mancini-Strong responded that KeyStone Foods partners with a network of select, unnamed breeder farms that distribute eggs to KeyStone Foods’ hatcheries. Then an unspecified number of unnamed contract growers raise the birds and return them to a KeyStone Foods facility for processing. “This integrated process gives us complete control over the quality, consistency, and cost of our products to the benefit of our customers and their consumers” (Mancini-Strong, 2012). Though the response was vague, a link to the National Chicken Council (NCC) was provided on KeyStone Foods’s website.

The NCC represents businesses which produce, process, and market chicken. The producer/processors account for approximately 95 percent of the chickens produced in the United States (The National Chicken Council, 2012). The company mentions important factors in handling chicken flocks (broilers). In order to keep the flock productive with minimum stress, broilers are provided with professional veterinary attention. Broilers are not raised in cages, but in large open structures (grow-out houses) which are described as every chicken rose for slaughter’s dream.  These houses are mostly located in the South stretching from Delaware to Texas. Grow-out houses are furnished with heaters, ventilation, and protect the flock from predators, such as hawks and foxes.  Their feed consists primarily of corn and soybean. There is access to a plentiful supply of clean, well-drawn water pumped inside from a municipal supply on the farm. Organic matter such as peanut shells, wood chips, and rice hulls cover the floors (The National Chicken Council, 2012).

Raising the broilers indoors is supposed to keep the flock healthier and minimize the need for antibiotic treatments. In a response to discrepancies, the NCC Ag Coalition states there is no accurate data available to make claims about the percentage of antibiotics used in animals. “Most antibiotics used are for therapeutic purposes to control and prevent disease” (The National Chicken Council, 2012). Most companies inject the egg with vaccines during the incubation period. Once the eggs are hatched they are sprayed with a light mist of inoculation against other diseases. No artificial or added hormones are used and all antibiotics are FDA/USDA and veterinarian approved (The National Chicken Council, 2012).

After the birds are hatched and raised, the next step is the slaughter. Unfortunately there was no information provided on the NCC’s website about where the slaughter takes place. The only mention of how the process occurs is the birds are anesthetized with a mild electric current and then humanely slaughtered. The stunning renders the birds insensitive to pain (The National Chicken Council, 2012). In the book Food, Inc. the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) revealed six abusive practices by agribusiness in “The Dirty Six.” The NCC is able to deny several allegations founded by HSUS such as the birds being kept in wired battery cages, living spaces as small as a sheet of paper, selling bruised and defected body parts and the use of growth-promoting hormones. The NCC has also claimed that there is no “genetic engineering” or “genetic modification” in the chicken industry.  According to HSUS, however, the slaughter plants shackle birds upside down on a conveyor with their heads passing through electrified baths of water before their throats are finally slit. “Federal regulations do not require that chickens be rendered insensible to pain before they are slaughtered [and] electric stunning has been found to be ineffective in consistently inducing unconsciousness” (States, 2009)(p 64).

The final step is the actual formation of the chicken nugget.  Rumor has it that McNuggets are made from mechanically separated meat (MSM) consisting of chicken, beef, and turkey in a process where the left-over edible tissue is separated from the bone, ground together and formed into a pink, mucky paste better known as pink slime. For sterilization, the paste is soaked in ammonia before it is artificially flavored and colored. Fortunately, McDonald’s has stopped using mechanically separated meat since 2003, and currently advertises the use of only “100% white meat chicken breast.”  Unfortunately, when people order the new version of MSM-free Chicken McNuggets they are still not just receiving pure breast meat. Exactly how much of the proclaimed 100% is actually chicken? Depending on who is being asked, the percentages of actual chicken used vary from fifty percent, and decreases with at least thirty-eight extra added ingredients. According to Shilo Urban (2010), “…chicken only accounts for about fifty percent of a Chicken McNugget. The other fifty percent includes a large percentage of corn derivatives, sugars, leavening agents and other completely synthetic ingredients. Meaning that parts of the nugget do not come from a field or farm at all – they come from a petroleum plant” (Urban, 2010). The listed ingredients are:

White boneless chicken, water, food starch-modified, salt, seasoning, autolyzed yeast extract, salt, wheat starch, natural flavoring (botanical source), safflower oil, dextrose, citric acid, sodium phosphates, natural flavor (botanical source). Battered and breaded with: water, enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), yellow corn flour, bleached wheat flour, food starch-modified, salt, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, calcium lactate), spices, wheat starch, dextrose, and cornstarch. Contains: Wheat. Prepared in vegetable oil (Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness). Dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent. (“McDonald’s USA ingredients listing for popular menu items,” 2013)

That sounds like a lot more than chicken breast meat, does it not? Some of these ingredients are commonly known and used in many homes, but others are not. What exactly are these extra ingredients? What are the typically used for? What effects do they have on the human body?

The most commonly known and/or widely used ingredients are: Water, salt, (reduced) iron, vegetable (corn, canola, safflower, soybean) oil, spices, baking soda, thiamin mononitrate (Vitamin B1), riboflavin (Vitamin B2), niacin (Vitamin B3), enriched flour, citric acid, calcium lactate, and dextrose (sugar). Almost anyone can be aware of some of the obvious ingredients that can cause health problems, such as salt, sugar, and oil. Increased salt intake could cause high blood pressure. Excess amounts of sugars causes tooth decay and hyperactivity. High amounts of oils and fats could result in weight gain or skin problems. However, when the common person reads other ingredients such as food starch-modified, hydrogenated soybean oil, dimethylpolysiloxane, sodium and sodium aluminum phosphates, autolyzed yeast extract or TBHQ – not only do they not know what these ingredients are, if they’re being properly pronounced or where they come from, but they are also unaware of what these ingredients are doing to their bodies.

Modified food starch is cornstarch that has been chemically altered and added to the nugget to help glue everything together. Food companies generally use this as a thickening agent, to add flavorings and to affect the appearance of foods. Since this is an additive, there is no necessary purpose for its use (Adams, 2012). Using this as a bulking and filling agent reduces the amount of chicken used, but why would there be a need of the reduction of meat used if McDonald’s serves 100 percent chicken meat? Hydrogenated soybean oil is also chemically altered and is bleached to form into a solid which prevents the product to go rancid. The human body has difficulty digesting and using this altered oil causing weight gain as well as other degenerative diseases (The Healthy Boy, 2010). Dimethylpolysiloxane is a type of oil derived from silicon and prevents deep fryers from foaming up and boiling over. This ingredient can be found in shampoos and is used in manufacturing contact lenses. “Based on animal studies, health hazards include liver effects at very low doses, positive mutation results from in-viro tests on mammalian cells, biochemical changes at very low doses, and reproductive effects at high doses. The good news is it’s not suspected to be a persistent toxin, meaning your body is probably able to eliminate it so it doesn’t bio-accumulate” (Mercola, 2011). Keep in mind that Mercola uses the word probably which could be good news, but then again it might mean otherwise.

Sodium phosphates are used as a texturizer and emulsifier to keep oils from separating These are sometimes used in products as a laxative. The sodium aluminum phosphates are for leveling and typically used in eye drops and pesticides. Aluminum has been widely researched to cause Alzheimer’s and dementia.  Autolyzed yeast extract is a less expensive structure of MSG that is formed when yeast is broken down into separate components. MSG has been reported to cause severe allergies, cancer, and heart disease (The Healthy Boy, 2010), but since McDonald’s does not use the actual form, they can label their product as ‘No MSG’. Mono-and Diglycerides; are used to bind saturated fat. Food manufacturers typically use them to extend a product’s shelf life (Kalmus, 2011) because let’s be honest, we all wish that foods came with an extended expiration date, and with the hydrogenated soybean oil preventing anything from going rancid, our wish has seemingly been granted. As for natural and artificial flavoring? Artificial coloring and stabilizers are used to impart a certain texture, appearance, or taste to food which the companies feel are desirable to the consumers. After adding all of these chemicals and chemically altered ingredients, the flavor of the McNugget obviously does not originally taste like chicken at all. Instead, it tastes the way the corporations feel how chicken is supposed to taste.

Finally, the cleverly abbreviated TBHQ. Tertiary-butyl hydroquinone is a derivative of petroleum which prevents the oxidation of fats and oils. This is sprayed directly on the chicken nuggets or into the box to preserve freshness since the inability to rot and the extension of shelf life is not enough. Typically listed as an ‘antioxidant’, this is a synthetic chemical with antioxidant properties. TBHQ is a form of butane (lighter fluid) and is found in varnishes, lacquers, pesticide products, cosmetics, and is also in perfumes to reduce the evaporation rate and improve stability. Need more information on why lighter fluid is bad for ingestion? A single gram of TBHQ can cause nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse. If that is not frightening enough, ingesting five grams can kill. Yet the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives determined that TBHQ was safe for human consumption at levels of 0-0.5 mg/kg of body weight (The Healthy Boy, 2010).

Research reveals that although McDonald’s does use chicken breast, referring to the McNuggets as chicken is a bit of an overstatement. Certainly chicken is the chief ingredient by bulk, but once it is transformed into a nugget it is hardly identifiable as chicken because it is loaded with breading, additives, fillers, and fats. Having this information of chemicals, synthetics, and poisons exposed, it is easy to see that these nuggets are not safe for human consumption. Scratching beyond the surface of McDonald’s food labeling, people can make a proper decision about eating McNuggets. Because this is America, every individual has the freedom to create his or her own decisions about what to eat or what to feed their children. Having FDA/USDA approval with the product and the production process generally give people the idea that McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets and other fast foods or processed products are okay to eat.

Obtaining information that is not as vague as originally provided is extremely important, but what one chooses to do with this evidence is ultimately his or her decision. Sure, having a box during lunch will not immediately lead to demise, but accumulation over the years is certain to have a negative effect towards health. Personally, I feel now, if not more than ever, that people should not start nor continue to eat processed chicken nuggets. The only way to be sure that chicken nuggets will not pose any serious threats toward a person’s well-being is to stop eating them completely.  The healthier choice is home-made chicken nuggets where people do not have access to the added fillers and chemicals. However, if there can be nothing to pull people away from these synthetically delectable bites, it would be a good idea to keep the term ‘moderation’ in mind.


Adams, G. (2012). What is the Purpose of Modified Food Starch in Chicken? Retrieved November 2012, from

Kalmus, S. (2011). What Is Bad About Mono- & Diglycerides? Retrieved September 2012, from

KeyStone Foods. (2012). KeyStone Foods- Knowledge Center. Retrieved September 2012, from

Mancini-Strong, M. (2012, November 14). Human Resources Coordinator. (M. Horn, Interviewer) West Conshohocken, PA, United States.

McDonald’s. (2012). Chicken McNuggets. Retrieved September 2012, from

McDonald’s. (2012). Meats. Retrieved October 2012, from

McDonald’s USA ingredients listing for popular menu items. (2013). Retrived from

Mercola, D. (2011). What’s in Fast Food? What’s in the Non-Chicken Half of the McNugget? Retrieved September 2012, from

States, T. H. (2009). The Dirty Six. In K. (. Weber, Food, Inc. (pp. 61-64). New York: Public Affairs.

Stone, J. (2011). FDA Natural Food, Artificial Flavor & Additive Regulations. Retrieved October 2012, from

The Healthy Boy. (2010). What’s Really in a McDonald’s Chicken Nugget? Retrieved September 27, 2012, from

The National Chicken Council. (2012). Animal Welfare for Broiler Chickens. Retrieved October 2012, from

The National Chicken Council. (2012). Chickopedia: What Consumers Need to Know. Retrieved October 2012, from

The National Chicken Council. (2012). NCC, Ag Coalition Respond to Discrepancies in Consumers Union Report about Antibioitc Use in Livestock and Poultry Production. Retrieved October 2012, from

Urban, S. (2010). What’s Really in a McDonald’s Chicken Nugget? Retrieved September 2012, from

Maria Horn originally produced this research essay for Palabras's original Website. This research essay was originally published in April 2013.


Published a year ago


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