The Best Frozen Chicken Nuggets You Can Buy, According to Nutritionists
It doesn't matter how old you are, few people can resist the temptation of a plate full of chicken nuggets. The best frozen chicken nuggets are tender-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside, and pair perfectly with honey mustard and ketchup. Maybe it's the nostalgia from when you stood in line at your school cafeteria, but chicken nuggets scream "comfort food," whether it's from your local fast food joint or the freezer section of the supermarket.
Unfortunately, they usually also scream "junk food." Packed with high amounts of fat and calories, plus all kinds of unnecessary ingredients and fillers, breaded frozen chicken nuggets are a far cry from their lean protein counterpart. Like most other comfort foods, frozen chicken nuggets typically aren't healthy or good for you—but that doesn't mean you can never eat them! You just have to know what to look for when cruising the frozen food aisle.
How to shop for healthier chicken nuggets
When shopping for better-for-you frozen chicken nuggets, Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a plant-forward registered dietitian nutritionist in the New York City area, says there are a few key things to pay attention to:
- Quality of meat: Gorin prefers nuggets made with all white meat chicken instead of chicken byproducts and encourages consumers to buy ones made with humanely-raised chickens.
- Breading: "Ideally the breading should be made with whole-grain ingredients such as whole-wheat flour or corn—or a starchy vegetable like potatoes," says Gorin. "I also recommend looking for baked nuggets, versus fried ones, to cut down on the fat content."
- Sodium and protein: Prepared packaged foods are often laden with sodium to preserve their shelf-life, and frozen chicken nuggets are no different. Gorin recommends looking for a brand that contains less than 20 percent of the daily value per serving of sodium and, for extra nutritional value, 20 or more percent of the daily value per serving of protein.
We asked Gorin to apply her nutrition recommendations to 20 popular brands of frozen chicken nuggets, ranking them from best to worst. Wondering how your favorite brand stacks up? Here's her breakdown.
1. Best: Applegate Naturals Chicken Nuggets
Applegate only uses select cuts of antibiotic-free thigh and breast meat, but still no promises on biting into an unpulverized piece of chicken. Even though our best frozen chicken nuggets don't nab any of the top spots for being low in calories, fat, or sodium, when considering them all together, Applegate's relatively light breading and simple ingredients make their nuggets our top pick because they help you keep belly fat to a minimum.
The only bones we have to pick with Applegate Naturals is that these nuggets have the undescriptive "chicken" ingredient. Alas, since they're sugar-free and contain no artificial additives, these gluten-free bites are good for everyone.
Rather than wheat or white flour, Earth's Best Gluten-Free nuggets are tossed with dried potatoes, rice flour, and yellow corn flour to make that signature crunchy breading. Plus, they beat out every other nugget in terms of having the lowest amount of sodium by a long shot.
Even with Bell & Evans line of fully-cooked, all natural chicken products—one of our best proteins for weight loss—these nuggets remain their top seller, and one of our favorite picks. These nuggets are hand-cut, contain whole breast meat pieces and have one of the shortest ingredient lists of the bunch, making them the perfect meal for both kids and adults.
For being allergy friendly, gluten free and having next to no questionable ingredients, we expected these nuggets to rank higher on our list. However, with sea salt appearing in two different applications in the cooking process, it ups the sodium levels a bit, which can slow your metabolism.
Along with no artificial ingredients or preservatives, these baked chicken nuggets are super low in fat, with only 0.05 g fat per gram of food. Even better, they're battered and breaded with whole wheat flour, one of our best carbs for weight loss, providing 8 grams of whole grains per 4-piece serving.
Even though there's a lot to admire here on the ingredient list, this pick isn't one of our best chicken nuggets because of the high sodium content and MSG, which is a chemo-inducer of obesity, type-2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. But there are fewer calories and higher protein in a serving of these nuggets than many other brands, keeping them in the top half of the ranking.
These bite-sized nuggets are made from chicken meat that has been injected, or "plumped," with a combination of water, seasoning, and loads of salts and phosphates to make juicier meat. Because of the excess water, companies have to add extra binding agents in the solution to prevent the added salt and water from leaching out of the meat, which is why added binders like modified corn starch and modified potato starch have to be added, along with their MSG derivatives that make you forget you're full, leading to a fat belly.
Available at Trader Joe's.
There's a big difference between "organic," a regulated term, and "natural," which means next to nothing. Even though Tyson's Chicken Breast nuggets are "natural" this only means they're "minimally processed with no artificial ingredients." But, hey, at least we know the chicken is boneless breast meat and not just "chicken." Sold.
We've come to the middle of the road here at number 10, with this gluten free offering from Nature Raised Farms. Are these the worst nuggets you could buy? No—they're organic and made from chickens raised on a clean, vegetarian diet. But are they the best nuggets? Again, no—not with a whopping 600 milligrams of sodium per serving and two grams of saturated fat.
A lesson in processed foods: just because it doesn't say it on the nutrition label, doesn't mean it doesn't have it. Although Perdue touts these nuggets as having zero grams of sugar, both brown sugar and sugar are included in the list of ingredients, due to a legislative loophole that allows companies to mark zero if a food contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. Instead, satisfy your sweet tooth with our no-sugar-added smoothie recipes for weight loss.
While we commend Perdue's use of boneless, skinless white chicken breast, we have to dock them for using soybean oil, a fat that has been linked to weight gain. According to a study in the journal Nutrients, soybean oil's high omega-6 fatty acid content can increase your risk of atherosclerosis, obesity, and diabetes.
These nuggets should have gone extinct with the dinosaurs. They contain bleached wheat flour, which 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 also means that a lot, and we mean a lot of nutrients are lost in the process, so these nuggets end up offering little nutrition and will spike your insulin levels because of the easily accessible starches, causing you to crave more. Instead of gaining weight by eating foods with bleached flour, try those with resistant starches to help you burn fat instead.
Parents look out for their kids' health, which is why companies like Tyson have smartened up and started using naturally occurring sources to color their foods instead of coal-derived, synthetic food coloring which has been shown to promote Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in children. Instead, they use "extractives of paprika." Although these are botanically derived, an FAO report found that the thermally-intense extraction process causes certain compounds in paprika to produce toxic byproducts such as xylene.
Don't throw these nuggets on your plate at your next banquet. The little chicken patties contain three forms of MSG and sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP), a chemical that is used to preserve foods as well as to keep pigments in paint evenly dispersed and as a tanning agent for leather. And even though the FDA considers it generally recognized as safe, STPP is a registered pesticide and listed as an air contaminant under California's Occupational and Safety Healthy act because STPP is toxic to the lungs with prolonged exposure. Yum?
Beyond the exorbitant (and absorbent) amount of sodium in these nuggets, they also contain phosphates, food additives that doctors are linking to higher rates of chronic kidney disease, weak bones, and premature death. Even though phosphates are necessary for our diets, excess phosphate—especially the inorganic phosphate that is added to food—is more easily absorbed by the body, leading to high levels of phosphate in the blood and putting you at risk for heart disease.
The only thing we've learned about dinosaurs is that they must have been full of fat and sodium. With a slurry of questionable ingredients, these fun nuggets fall low on our rankings. They also are made with an ingredient that contains MSG, but goes by a different name to cover it up: textured soy protein. MSG is a flavoring agent that increases appetite causing you to gain belly fat and can go by many names.
We know you're busy and it makes your life way easier if you can pick up something for dinner when you stop at Target for toilet paper, lip gloss, and dry shampoo. But Target's Archer Farm brand of chicken nuggets is loaded with 14 grams of fat per 3-ounce serving (including four grams of the saturated stuff) and also lists soy protein isolate and soybean oil on its ingredients, both no-no's when it comes to health.
You'd think that having "chicken" listed as the first ingredient of your frozen chicken nuggets is a good thing, but you'd be wrong. When your nuggets contain unspecified chicken, it likely means your meat isn't a tender, full piece chicken breast. Rather, it can come from anywhere on the bird—yes, anywhere. For more on nasty additives or products that can end up on your plate, check out the most horrifying things found in food.
20. The worst chicken nugget brand: Fast Fixin' Chicken Nuggets
Don't be fooled by the "100% Natural Chicken Breasts" claim. It simply means the chicken is actually chicken; it does not mean that the chicken nuggets are made with 100% chicken. In fact, the third ingredient is a common filler: soy protein concentrate. With added fat, three kinds of sugar, along with caramel coloring, this is one nugget you should just fuggetabout.
How to cook with frozen chicken nuggets
Yes, you can definitely just heat these up in the oven and serve as-is. However, because the serving sizes are typically pretty small, you need to incorporate frozen chicken nuggets into a larger meal.
These types of convenience foods usually work in your favor the most when you use them as a shortcut: buffalo chicken wraps, for example, come together a lot quicker when you're not cooking the breaded chicken bites from scratch.
While frozen chicken nuggets aren't as healthy as what you bake at home, buying them is often a better choice than stopping at McDonald's for dinner. Why? Because you can boost the nutrition content of your meal. Pair chicken nuggets with fresh veggies or a salad and a healthy whole grain, like brown rice or quinoa, instead of opting for fries and a milkshake at the drive-thru window.