Because fast-food chicken nuggets were a part of many Americans’ childhoods, they can seem pretty innocent. (Why else would mom let you eat them?) But as it turns out, these bite-size snacks are complex. Here’s the low-down.
Fast-food nuggets all start with chicken, one of our 29 Best-Ever Proteins for Weight Loss, but they also contain several synthetic ingredients derived from sources far from any type of poultry. Instead, they come from a corn or soybean field (soybean oil, modified cornstarch and mono- and diglycerides), a petroleum refinery (artificial colors like Yellow #5 and Red #40), or a chemical plant (bleached wheat flour, oleoresin paprika, and carrageenan). Is this fast-food staple starting to sound less appetizing yet?
Consider this: If you’ve ever eaten a plain baked chicken breast, you know that poultry can be particularly flavorless. Thus, fast-food companies pump processed chicken nuggets with chemicals that boost our cravings. Rather than seasonings you could nab from your pantry, many restaurants use substances like MSG, autolyzed yeast extract, and hydrolyzed proteins that artificially enhance taste and desirability. That tricks your brain into thinking you’re actually eating a nutrient-dense meal. But, in reality, you’re consuming super-processed junk.
We here at Eat This, Not That! want to help you understand what fast-food restaurants are putting in your nuggets, so next time you’ll know which chicken to peck, er, we mean pick. We examined the nutritionals, then ranked each nugget by calories, fat and sodium per gram because the size of each order and the size of the chicken (nugget, strip or tender) varied greatly between restaurants. We also considered how many and what kinds of ingredients were added to each nugget, knocking off points for trans fats. (Unlike beef, chicken should be 100% trans-fat free.) Read on to discover which nugget you should be ordering on your fast-food cheat day. And if you like noshing on chicken nuggets at home, be sure to check out Every Frozen Chicken Nugget—Ranked!
Jack in the Box Crispy Chicken Strips
Nutrition (4 pc, 195 g): 563 calories, 24 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 1,581 mg sodium, 53 g carbs (3 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 33 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 2.89, 0.12, 8.11
As the third ingredient after chicken and water, isolated potato product is a binder/filler used in chicken nugget production. Even though these chicken strips are made with all-white-meat chicken, they’re nothing like full strips of chicken breast or tenderloin. That’s due to binders (i.e. meat glue). Because the chicken is pulverized, isolated potato product and isolated oat product glue it into something that looks like it should be a chicken strip (which it still isn’t). Instead of eating nuggets with this synthetic carb, check out 25 Best Carbs for Weight Loss.
Sonic Spicy Jumbo Popcorn Chicken
Nutrition (snack, 113 g): 350 calories, 17 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 860 mg sodium, 30 g carbs (2 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 21 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 3.04, 0.15, 7.61
Sonic, home to one of the saltiest restaurant desserts, doesn’t list the ingredients they use in their food online. That makes us wonder what this fried-food supplier is hiding. If they’re anything like their fellow fast-food associates, it’s probably a slew of artificially processed additives and chemicals. Because of the lack of ingredients, we docked Sonic, one of the most caloric chains in America, along with any other company that refuses to post their ingredients online, for being shady.
Jack in the Box Chicken Nuggets
Nutrition (5 pc, 77 g): 238 calories, 17 g fat (2 g saturated fat), 604 mg sodium, 13 g carbs (1 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 9 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 3.09, 0.22, 7.84
These chicken nuggets might not have the highest sodium content per serving, but when you look at sodium per gram, they’re higher than you’d expect. Sodium is added to many fast-food products to aid preservation in their long journey from production to shipping, freezing, and finally, to your stomach. Too much sodium in your diet can cause your body to retain water, making you feel bloated and puffy. In fact, a new study from Queen Mary University in London found that for every extra gram of salt you eat in a day, your risk of obesity climbs by 25 percent, so cutting down on salt might be the absolute best way to shed belly fat, fast.
Culver’s Buffalo Chicken Tenders
Nutrition (4 pc, 206 g): 460 calories, 22 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 1,820 mg sodium, 32 g carbs (2 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 34 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 2.23, 0.11, 8.83
They’re made with real chicken tenders and eschew any artificial colors to brighten up these spicy chicken tenders, but Culver’s offering is still too high in sodium for us to consider it one of the best nuggets.
Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Nuggets
Nutrition (4 pc, 60 g): 190 calories, 12 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 480 mg sodium, 11 g carbs (1 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 9 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 3.17, 0.20, 8.00
Ever heard of fast-food chicken nuggets melting? According to former fast food employee and Reddit user DFunkatron, “I accidentally left a whole bag of about 100 chicken nuggets out on a counter for way too long. They melted. Into a pool of liquid.” How might that happen, you may ask? It could be because the finely-ground chicken meat has to be combined with a water-based marinade of sodium phosphates, modified corn starches, dextrose, gum arabic, and soybean oil just to keep it bound together. No wonder pre-fry, defrosted nuggets melt—other than chicken, they’re mostly made up of chemical water.
Burger King Chicken Fries
Nutrition (9 pc, 91 g): 280 calories, 17 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 850 mg sodium, 20 carbs, 1 g fiber, 1 g sugar), 13 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 3.08, 0.19, 9.34
One of the most harmful ingredients in Burger King’s food sounds pretty innocuous at first glance. Bleached wheat flour is flour that has traditionally been bleached with harsh agents such as azodicarbonamide and benzoyl peroxide to expedite the process of protein and gluten development. This means that a lot of nutrients are lost in the process, so these nuggets end up offering little nutrition. Even worse, because of the easily accessible starches that can turn into glucose faster than anything else and increase your blood sugar, consumption of foods made with bleached wheat flour may lead to diseases such as obesity and diabetes.
Zaxby’s Chicken Fingerz
Nutrition (5 pc, 176 g): 390 calories, 18 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 1,830 mg sodium, 13 g carbs (2 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 44 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 2.22, 0.10, 10.40
Fast-food restaurants like Zaxby’s pull out all the stops when it comes to making their food look and taste great, and that’s because calibrating food to appeal to our tastebuds inspires us to keep eating. Fast-food companies make sure all our innate desires for a variety of sweet, salty, and bitter tastes are satisfied, and even without a list of ingredients, we’re pretty sure Zaxby’s has that covered on the salty front. One serving of these Fingerz brings you over half your day’s recommended intake of sodium.
Sonic Jumbo Popcorn Chicken
Nutrition (medium, 114 g): 380 calories, 22 g fat (4 g saturated fat), 1,260 mg sodium, 27 g carbs (3 g fiber, 1 g sugar), 18 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 3.33, 0.19, 11.05
We might not know anything about the ingredients, but we do know that even the medium size of these Jumbo Popcorn Chicken bites from Sonic have some of the worst nutritionals; particularly that they’re highest in sodium per gram.
KFC Popcorn Nuggets
Nutrition (Large, 170.2 g): 620 calories, 39 g fat (5 g saturated fat), 1,820 mg sodium, 39 g carbs (2 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 27 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 3.64, 0.23, 10.70
According to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Pollan, researchers have found that people presented with large portions will eat up to 30 percent more than they would otherwise—it’s just too bad the particular nutrients you’re most likely to encounter in this one-size-means-large KFC popcorn nugget order are lots of added sugar and fat. One of those added sugars is corn syrup solids, which is basically just dried glucose syrup. Sugar is one of the main reasons why you’re gaining weight, but you can cut down on the sweet stuff with these 30 Easy Ways to Stop Eating So Much Sugar.
Carl’s Jr. Chicken Stars
Nutrition (4 pc, 61 g): 170 calories, 10 g fat (2 g saturated fat), 360 mg sodium, 12 g carbs (1 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 8 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 2.79, 0.16, 5.90
Along with these 40 Daily Habits That Make You Sick and Fat, fast foods are known to be huge fat bombs, and that’s because they’re deep fried and served with high-fat dipping sauces. These Chicken Stars are particularly fatty, and that’s because Carl’s Jr. injects them with dehydrated chicken fat, chicken fat, and beef fat.
Popeyes Handcrafted Spicy Tenders
Nutrition (3 pc, 126 g): 310 calories, 15 g fat (6 g saturated fat, 1 g trans fat), 1,240 mg sodium, 16 g carbs (2 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 28 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 2.46, 0.12, 9.84
Eating a diet high in artificial colors and preservatives may play a role in influencing your mental health, we just didn’t think we’d have to tell you that in regards to a chicken nugget. Popeyes adds not one, not two, and not even three, but six artificial colorings to their spicy chicken tenders. (Why, Popeyes, why?!) A review of related research published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics indicated that many artificial colorings, like yellow #5 and red #40, increase hyperactivity in children. The main reason the chicken ranks second worst, however, is the appearance of a gram of artery-clogging, banned nutrient: trans fat.
AND THE NUMBER 1 WORST FAST FOOD CHICKEN NUGGET IS…
Popeyes Handcrafted Mild Tenders
Nutrition (3 pc, 126 g): 340 calories, 14 g fat (6 g saturated fat, 1 g trans fat), 1,350 mg sodium, 26 g carbs (1 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 27 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 2.70, 0.11, 10.7
Worse than Popeyes’ laundry list of ingredients, these nuggets contain a gram of trans fat—the man-made fat that has been banned by the FDA because of its ties to heart disease, weight gain, and stroke. (It will have to be removed from food starting in 2018, but as of 2017, it looks like it’s still in there.) Not only can the ingredient wreak havoc on your weight-loss plan, but solid trans fats can also clog arteries, including those in your brain, impairing cognitive function and memory. It’s not just in your fast food either. See which of your favorite foods contain unhealthy trans fat in our Eat This, Not That! special report Worst Foods For Your Brain.
AND NOW…THE BEST!
Nutrition (8 pc, 113 g): 260 calories, 12 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 980 mg sodium, 9 g carbs (1 g fiber, 28 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 2.30, 0.11, 8.67
You know the drill: anything you can’t pronounce on a food label probably isn’t good for you. That saying holds true with dimethylpolysiloxane—an “anti-foaming” agent added to many fast-food companies’ cooking oil to help keep the starches in the breading from binding to air molecules, which typically would produce foam during frying. According to the Handbook of Food Additives, dimethylpolysiloxane is a suspected carcinogen and an established mutagen and tumorigen. Sounds like trouble to us. Even though we’re not happy Chick-fil-A uses this chemical in their fry oil, their nuggets actually have favorable nutritionals.
Culver’s Chicken Tenders
Nutrition (4 pc, 228 g): 540 calories, 24 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 1,840 mg sodium, 42 g carbs (2 g fiber, 2 g sugar), 40 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 2.37, 0.11, 8.07
We love the fact that Culver’s uses the actual cut of tender, all-natural, whole white meat chicken, but that didn’t stop them from loading on the additives in the “predust” and batter. One of those ingredients is soybean oil. The fat in this vegetable oil is primarily omega-6 fat, which when consumed in excess compared to healthy omega-3’s, omega-6 fat can help promote chronic inflammation in your body, which is an underlying issue for virtually all chronic diseases. If you’re splurging on these tenders, bump up your omega-3 fatty acid levels with one of our favorite avocado recipes for weight loss.
Arby’s Prime-Cut Chicken Tenders
Nutrition (3 pc, 131 g): 360 calories, 17 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 950 mg sodium, 28 g carbs (2 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 23 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 2.75, 0.13, 7.25
The primary purpose of adding hydrolyzed vegetable protein (and autolyzed yeast extract, and disodium guanylate, and disodium inosinate) to these chicken nuggets is to enhance the taste and craveability of them—so it’s no wonder fast food tastes so good for what it is. These plant proteins are chemically broken down into amino acids, like glutamic acid: the amino acid also found in monosodium glutamate (MSG). In nature, glutamic acid (which occurs naturally in meats and parmesan cheese) tells your brain you’re eating an energy-dense food and activates taste bud cells that release the “happy” hormone serotonin, according to a study in BMC Neuroscience. So when food scientists add it to your chicken nuggets, they’re hacking glutamate’s brain-signalling properties that would typically tell your body you’re eating a healthy protein when, in reality, you’re really eating highly-processed junk.
Wendy’s Chicken Nuggets
Nutrition (4 pc, 60 g): 180 calories, 13 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 390 mg sodium, 10 g carbs (1 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 10 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 3.00, 0.22, 6.50
Twenty percent of the fat in Wendy’s chicken nuggets is saturated fatty acids—the fatty acids that can raise your blood cholesterol levels, leading to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. On top of that, nutritionist Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, says that “saturated fats can negatively impact the heart, but there’s also research that suggests high saturated fat intake may negatively impact brain function and memory.” Maybe that’s why you keep forgetting to skip that drive-thru! Kick your fast-food habit and stock up on these 30 Foods That Melt Love Handles!
Burger King Chicken Nuggets
Nutrition (4 pc, 58 g): 170 calories, 11 g fat (1.5 g saturated fat), 310 mg sodium, 11 g carbs (1 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 8 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 2.93, 0.19, 5.34
Any place that sells 10 nuggets for less than $1.50 isn’t selling you nutritious food. In fact, it might not be food at all. Apart from chicken and water, Burger King adds various non-food chemicals and additives in the forms of MSG derivatives (disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate), modified starches and sodium aluminum phosphate.
Sonic Super Crunch Chicken Strips
Nutrition (3 pc, 114 g): 330 calories, 16 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 670 mg sodium, 25 g carbs (2 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 22 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 2.89, 0.14, 5.88
Even if you get the 5-piece, after eating these extra crunchy chicken strips, you’ll still be starving—nutritionally speaking, that is. “Your body is temporarily full with empty foods that don’t provide nourishment, so even though you may have eaten a lot of calories, you won’t be satisfied for long,” says Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, founder of Real Nutrition NYC. Because the calories in fast food are accompanied by low nutritional content, your body will begin to lack the necessary nutrients it needs to function properly.
Hardee’s Hand-Breaded Chicken Tenders
Nutrition (3 pc, 128 g): 260 calories, 13 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 770 mg sodium, 13 g carbs (2 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 25 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 2.03, 0.10, 6.02
They may be made with “all-white meat chicken,” but these tenders aren’t made of only meat. In fact, they’re injected with a water-based solution of salt and sodium phosphates. Therein lies an issue: Even though phosphates are necessary to help our cells function, excess phosphate cannot be processed by the body, which causes high levels of the chemical to build up in the blood—and that’s bad news. Doctors have linked phosphates to higher rates of chronic kidney disease, weak bones, heart disease, and even premature death. In fact, Scottish researchers recently found that high blood-phosphate levels are connected with markers of accelerated aging, according to a study published in the journal Aging.
McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets
Nutrition (4 pc, 65 g): 180 calories, 11 g fat (2 g saturated fat), 340 mg sodium, 11 g carbs (1 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 10 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 2.77, 0.17, 5.23
These McNuggets finally received a McMakeover. In August 2016, McDonald’s announced their chicken nuggets were now “made with 100% white meat chicken and no artificial colors, flavors, and now no artificial preservatives.” In particular, no phosphates. Not only did they clean up their ingredient list, but now the nuggets are lower in calories, fat, sodium, and carbs than they were with the previous recipe. Well done, Mickey D’s.
Nutrition (3 pc, 163 g): 350 calories, 17 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 940 mg sodium, 22 g carbs (1 g fiber, 3 g sugar), 28 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 2.14, 0.10, 5.77
These “generously portioned” Chick-n-Strips are generously marinated with special seasonings like MSG, chicken fat and caramel color (an additive typically found in soda). A study by the National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says 2-methylimidazole causes cancer in lab rats, which is pretty bad considering 2-methylimidazole is an ingredient in caramel coloring. Another ingredient in this coloring agent is 4-methylimidazole, which has been found to produce carcinogenic activity in mice.
KFC Extra Crispy Tenders
Nutrition (3 pc, 154.5 g): 410 calories, 22 g fat (2.5 saturated fat), 940 mg sodium, 24 g carbs (1 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 29 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 2.65, 0.14, 6.08
These chicken nuggets might contain the most chicken out of all the nuggets in the fast-food world. Why? Because besides chicken breast tenderloins or breast strips with rib meat, they are also seasoned with the Colonel’s special blend of chicken fat and dehydrated cooked chicken… that’s just gross. All that chicken displaces a digestive system staple, dietary fiber, which only appears as less than a gram per serving. Fiber helps keep your digestive tract working properly as it ushers wastes out of the body. What does contain high fiber content? These 30 Best High-Fiber Foods for Weight Loss!
AND THE NUMBER 1 BEST FAST FOOD CHICKEN NUGGET IS…A TIE
Chick-Fil-A Grilled Nuggets
Nutrition (8 pc, 100 g): 140 calories, 3.5 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 440 mg sodium, 2 g carbs (0 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 25 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 1.40, 0.04, 4.40
We know these aren’t your traditional breaded chicken nugget, but their ingredient list sure resembles one. Although they’re the most nutritionally sound regarding calories, fat, and sodium, they still have an absurd list of ingredients. The whole breast filet is injected with a solution of salts, extra animal fat and chemicals like smoke flavoring to make up for the lack of tasty breading. One thing they do have going for them, however, is that those grill marks are real—but the same can’t be said of all “flame-grilled” fast food. Read more in these 24 Things Fast Food Chains Don’t Want You To Know.
A&W Hand-Breaded Chicken Tenders
Nutrition (3 pc, 156 g): 260 calories, 9 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 1,100 mg sodium, 5 g carbs (1 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 40 g protein
Calories, fat, sodium per gram: 1.67, 0.06, 7.05
Although we normally don’t recommend anything with more than 1,000 mg of sodium per serving, there was no denying that these tenders deserved the top spot having been made with not only the fewest ingredients, but using the fewest questionable ingredients. Per gram, their nutritionals are still pretty good, and would have ranked them second. If you’re planning on ordering fast food chicken, make these tenders your go-to—just make sure you flush them down with lots of detox water.