In general, my current belief is that there are really no “healthy” chicken nugget options out there.
To me, one would include fruits, vegetables, straight up chicken or other meat sources, whole-grains, and minimally processed foods in their diet as much as possible.
However, if chicken nuggets are your favorite snack or perhaps you are aiming to include them in your child’s diet there are a variety of factors that make some options healthier than others.
Chicken nuggets are an American food staple, but they are not created equal. There isn’t one specific way to make chicken nuggets, which is where the options start to differ.
What Makes Chicken Nuggets "Healthy"?
At their core, the primarily healthy part of this food is the chicken. Chicken is a popular “lean protein” option which means that most of its calories come from a protein source.
Along with being a low calorie, high-protein food, chicken also contains essential vitamins and minerals like Vitamin B, Vitamin D, Calcium, and Iron.
These aspects of chicken make it a beneficial meat to consume for weight management, immunity, digestion, bone strength, and overall wellness.
But there is a caveat here. It depends on the chicken you get.
In recent years, more and more research has come to light on the impact that current irresponsible agriculture and farming practices can have on our health.
Non-organic options or foods that are high in preservatives, hormones, and unnecessary additives can contribute to harmful toxin buildup in the body and put us at increased risk for disease and other health issues.
Typically, most fast food restaurants or frozen options will use non-organic meat sources due to the low cost and ease of storage/mass production.
Selecting a chicken option that is hormone, antibiotic, and preservative free is the best choice.
Why Does Breading Matter?
Another way to evaluate chicken nuggets is when we add the breading and “crispness” most people imagine when it comes to this food.
For the most part, fast food chicken nuggets are made with enriched and processed flour and then deep fried in oil.
This should be considered unhealthy because of the trans-fat that comes from the process of deep frying as well as the lack of whole-grains in the breading.
I’ve always said that out of all of the types of fat, trans-fat is the largest culprit of weight gain, high cholesterol levels, and risk for heart diseases or other chronic issues.
It is always best to avoid the deep-fried option and instead opt for baked or even grilled chicken nuggets if possible.
Furthermore, in more recent years, there have been a variety of chicken nuggets introduced into the market that avoid using enriched flour. Instead, these options will use whole-grain breading, cauliflower, and even plant sources to get that “crisp”.
What Are The Other Options?
Beyond just changing up the breading, there have also been more options made available for those who do not eat meat.
Plant-based “chicken nuggets” that are made with foods like soy or tofu have become increasingly popular. Similar to chicken, if these are being responsibility sourced (i.e. avoiding concentrates and produced organically) then these also make for a good choice.
You can also look at chicken nuggets in terms of what is considered the “fat-to-protein” ratio (i.e. do more of the calories consumed come from fat or protein). Well, this is actually quite simple.
The more fry oil or enriched flour that is included, the more fat content and the less protein value you will get from the actual chicken.
Think of it as the difference between air-fried chicken nuggets seasoned with just spices and cauliflower breading versus flour battered chicken nuggets deep-fried in oil.
Furthermore, the more high-sugar sauces or additions you include with your chicken nugget the more you decrease the ratio and end up consuming more fat than actual protein.
How Can I Select The Best Chicken Nugget?
That’s why I would look at a few things for a chicken nugget based meal: how is it prepared (i.e. is it grilled, baked, air-fried, or deep fried in oil?), the source of the chicken (is it all white-meat chicken or chicken byproducts? is it organic?), what is it coated with (is it enriched flour, whole-grain, cauliflower?) and what do you pair it with (are you dipping chicken nuggets with high-sugar sauce? or are you eating chicken nuggets with vegetables?).
My choice would be grilled or baked all-white meat organic chicken nuggets paired with just vegetables.
References & Disclaimers
✝✝This noted statement is based on independent research and is not necessarily the opinion of the author