A classic for kids (and kids at heart), McDonald's Chicken McNuggets have been at the top of public scrutiny for decades. Many parents rely on them for quick and easy dinners, but are they really something we should be feeding our children — or eating ourselves?
"The Chicken McNugget has been constantly improving since its creation in the 1980s," says registered dietitian Sarah Pflugradt, RDN, CSCS. While chicken nuggets are fast food and not something anyone should be eating every day, it's not the worst thing you could eat either, she says.
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We took a deep dive into what's actually in a McDonald's chicken nugget and what that means for your health.
Chicken McNuggets Nutrition Facts
Are McDonald's Chicken Nuggets Healthy?
"Healthy" is a tricky word to define as everyone's nutritional needs and interpretation of the word can be different. McDonald's McNuggets offer quality protein in the form of chicken breast but they're also high in sodium, which the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting.
While McNuggets can fit into a nutritious eating pattern, lean protein sources with less fat and sodium are better choices.
What Are McDonald’s Chicken Nuggets Made Of?
If you've ever wondered what's actually in McDonald's chicken nuggets, we're breaking down each ingredient and how it can affect your health. The ingredients below are listed in descending order, so the ones used in the greatest amount are first and those that follow are present in fewer amounts.
1. White Boneless Chicken
The number one ingredient in chicken nuggets from McDonald's is 100 percent white boneless chicken breast meat.
Past myths have circulated that the meat is full of byproducts, but their current recipe uses only 100 percent chicken breast. As for what percentage of the nugget is white meat chicken, the chicken makes up a portion of the chicken nugget, while the other twelve ingredients make up the rest.
2. Vegetable Oil
The vegetable oil in chicken nuggets is a mixture of canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil and hydrogenated soybean oil. While most plant oils are primarily unsaturated fat (except for coconut and palm oils), the process of hydrogenation increases the amount of saturated fat in any oil, according to Consumer Reports.
"A four-piece nugget has 1.5 grams of saturated fat, which is within both the U.S. government and American Heart Association's guidelines for saturated fat intake. It's something to be aware of and limit in the diet, but not stress over in small amounts," Pflugradt says.
3. Enriched Flour
Part of the breading in chicken nuggets is made from wheat flour that's been bleached and then enriched by adding niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin and folic acid to it.
Enriching grain products has helped alleviate some common nutrient shortfalls. Enriched grains are the number one source of folic acid for people assigned female at birth in the United States, and adding folic acid to grains has helped decrease the rate of neural tube defects caused by folate deficiency during pregnancy by 35 percent, according to a May 2019 article in Advances in Nutrition.
4. Bleached Wheat Flour
Next in line is bleached flour that's not enriched with nutrients. Flour is bleached so that the texture is finer, lighter and whiter in color. All flour eventually reaches a bleached state as it ages and is exposed to oxygen, but flour that's been bleached with chemicals is labeled as "bleached," per General Mills Foods.
"Bleached flour is a food that gets a lot of attention. It's impossible to know which type of bleaching agents are used in the flour McDonald uses for their nuggets," says Pflugradt. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows and regulates nitrogen oxides, chlorine, nitrosyl chloride, chlorine dioxide, benzoyl peroxide, acetone peroxide and azodicarbonamide to all be used as bleaching agents in amounts considered safe.
5. Yellow Corn Flour
Yellow corn flour is a whole-grain flour added to the Chicken McNuggets batter. It's a source of carbohydrates but also provides a decent amount of iron, a mineral that helps oxygen travel through the blood, per the National Institute of Health (NIH).
6. Vegetable Starch
McDonald's chicken nuggets use a blend of vegetable starch from corn, wheat, rice and peas. Starch is a carbohydrate found in plants. Adding vegetable starch to batter increases the crispiness of the breading as it's deep fried, per a February 2004 paper in European Food Research and Technology.
A four-piece McDonald's chicken nugget serving has 330 milligrams of sodium. If you sit down to a 10-piece order, you'll be eating 840 milligrams of sodium in just one meal.
A high-sodium diet can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and even contribute to osteoporosis by causing calcium to leach out of your bones, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The American Heart Association recommends less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. A four- or six-piece chicken nugget meal does have some sodium, but if you consider the other foods you eat in a day, they can still fit in a sodium-controlled diet.
To help the chicken nuggets puff up during the heating process, McDonald's adds a blend of several different leavening agents, including baking soda, sodium aluminum phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, calcium lactate and monocalcium phosphate to the batter.
All of these additives are regulated by the FDA and approved for use in food.
The spices used in McDonald's chicken nuggets are not disclosed, but they're used to add flavor to the batter.
10. Yeast Extract
Yeast extract is added to enhance foods' flavor, much like the additive monosodium glutamate (MSG), as it also contains the amino acid glutamate.
Glutamate is an amino acid naturally found in the body and often added to foods for an umami taste. It's needed for neuron and brain function and also plays a role in memory and cognition, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
While eating too much MSG has been associated with symptoms such as headaches, numbness, tingling or flushing, yeast extract has much less glutamate and is unlikely to cause any type of reaction, per the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
11. Lemon Juice Solids
Dried lemon juice adds freshness to foods. A small amount is used in McDonald's chicken nuggets.
Dextrose is a simple sugar used to sweeten foods. While diets high in added sugars are associated with diabetes, heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and some cancers, per November 2016 article in Nutrients, there's very little added to McDonald's chicken nuggets.
13. Natural Flavors
According to the FDA, natural flavors on an ingredient list are flavors derived from:
- Fruits and vegetables or their juices
- Edible yeast
- Herbs, bark, buds, roots, leaves or similar plant material
- Meat, seafood, poultry, eggs or dairy products
- Fermentation products
The source of the flavors does not have to be disclosed, so it's unknown where the natural flavors in McDonald's chicken nuggets come from.
There are no real health concerns with natural flavors unless you have food allergies or dietary restrictions, which may prompt you to avoid them or inquire with the company about where the natural flavors come from.
Do McDonald’s Chicken Nuggets Contain ‘Pink Slime’?
The feared "pink slime" found in fast-food meat was sensationalized by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver in 2010 in a video showing school kids how Chicken McNuggets are made. The "slime" in question is actually a product known as lean finely textured beef.
To make this type of meat product, beef trimmings are heated and then sent through a centrifuge to separate the fat from the lean meat. The lean meat mixture is then treated with an ammonium gas to kill any E. coli or salmonella that may be present, according to an April 2012 Congressional Research Service report.
While McDonald's did use this product in the past, they removed it from all of their foods in August 2011, per a statement in ABC News. And, according to the McDonald's website, the "pink slime" is still nowhere to be found in their chicken nuggets or any other products sold at McDonald's stores.
The Bottom Line
"All in all, eating some Chicken McNuggets every once in a while is not going to break your healthy eating pattern," Pflugradt says.
McDonald's has made many changes to their chicken nugget recipe over the years to use better quality products and meet the consumer's desires for a more natural but still tasty and low-cost convenience food.
- Congressional Research Service: "Lean Finely Textured Beef: The “Pink Slime” Controversy"
- ABC News: "McDonald's Announces End to 'Pink Slime' in Burgers"
- McDonald's: "Does McDonald's use 'pink slime' in burgers or beef treated with ammonia?"
- Consumer Reports: "Is fully hydrogenated oil better for you than partially hydrogenated oil?"
- Advances in Nutrition: "Perspective: Refined Grains and Health: Genuine Risk, or Guilt by Association?"
- General Mills: "Understanding Flour Treatments"
- FDA: "CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21"
- European Food Research and Technology: "Functionality of batters containing different starch types for deep-fat frying of chicken nuggets"
- American Heart Association: "Shaking the Salt Habit to Lower High Blood Pressure"
- Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health: "Salt and Sodium"
- FDA: "Food Additive Status List"
- USDA: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025"
- USDA: "Yellow Corn Flour"
- NIH: "Iron"
- ACS Food Science and Technology Journal: "Yeast Extracts: Nutritional and Flavoring Food Ingredients"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Glutamate"
- Center for Science in the Public Interest: "Autolyzed Yeast Extract"
- Nutrients: "Relationship between Added Sugars Consumption and Chronic Disease Risk Factors: Current Understanding"