Chicken myths resolved
Published: Monday, November 8, 2010
Updated: Monday, November 8, 2010 23:11
Whether from McDonald's, Chik-fil-A or the university dining hall, chicken nuggets are right up there with mac and cheese: they play an important role in the average college kid's diet.
Despite rumors of their questionable nutritional value, pink goop and mystery meat, the primary ingredient in chicken nuggets is chicken, experts and industry representatives say.
Some smaller companies may make their chicken nuggets with mechanically separated chicken, says Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council. To make mechanically separated chicken, the chicken is deboned by a machine that removes cuts of meat, such as the back, leg and thigh, that are otherwise difficult to obtain. These cuts of meat are then ground together and combined into a mixture that looks similar to toothpaste, Lobb says.
Despite the unappetizing appearance of unprepared chicken nuggets, they are perfectly safe to eat, says Dallas Hoover, professor of animal and food sciences at the university. Not only is mechanically separated chicken safe, but there are benefits to the process, says Hoover.
"These products aren't made to poison people, they're made to feed people," Hoover says. "When you look at how they are made, it's probably not as bad as you think."
Because it allows manufacturers to use parts of the chicken that would otherwise be unusable, he says mechanically separated chicken is more sustainable and cuts costs.
"You are utilizing nutritious foods that would otherwise be wasted," he says. "We have more and more people on planet earth, so the more food we can produce, the better."
While many major fast food restaurants have used mechanically separated chicken in their chicken nuggets in the past, competition and customer demand have stopped all major chicken nugget producers from using mechanically separated chicken meat, says Rolf Joerger, professor of Animal and Food Science at the university.
"Years and years ago there were advertisements where fast food places were attacking each other, saying that they weren't using real meat, so now most places use actual cuts of chicken meat," Joerger says.
Currently, mechanically separated chicken is often used in foods such as Slim Jims, lunch meat and hot dogs. The law requires that food items containing mechanically separated chicken have labels that state the product includes it.
Besides the controversial method of mechanically separating chicken, there are other ways to produce a chicken nugget. Most major chicken nugget corporations make chicken nuggets in one of two ways—using whole muscle meat or chopped and chunked meat, Lobb says.
A nugget made with whole muscle meat, such as Chick-fil-A's chicken nuggets, starts out as a whole piece of chicken meat that is then breaded and fried.
"That's why if you go to Chick-fil-A and buy a box of nuggets, they will all be different sizes," Lobb says. "Because they are real cuts of meat."
Nuggets made with chopped and chunked meat, such as McDonald's Chicken McNuggets and the Tyson chicken nuggets used in the university's dining halls, are made from whole slices of chicken meat. Typically, chicken breasts are cut up and then formed into a particular size and shape. This is why all McDonald's Chicken McNuggets are the same size and shape, Lobb says.
Neither of the two methods is better than the other, and both whole muscle meat and chopped and chunked meat nuggets are equal in quality, he says.
"At the end of the day, it's all chicken," Lobb says.