At first, it would seem to be counter-intuitive that a fast-food chain, like McDonald’s, best known for burgers and fries (and breakfast!), would also sell little nuggets of breaded white meat chicken along with dipping sauce.
But, according to a recent article in the Carolina News and Reporter, The McNugget is one of the bestselling items on the McDonald’s menu. The chain sells 2,500 pounds of chicken every two minutes as of 2018, 35 years after the item debuted. How could that be?
It turns out that the birth of the Chicken McNugget was influenced by a world war, a clever agricultural scientist, a government report on nutrition, and a fast-food chain’s desire to diversify its menu to meet its customers’ changing food preferences.
The History of the Chicken McNugget
The story of the Chicken McNugget, according to the History Channel, starts during World War II.
As part of wartime rationing, the United States military confiscated a lot of red meat to feed the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who were fighting the Nazis in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific. The shortage of hamburgers and steaks led families on the home front to turn to chicken as a protein substitute.
Fast food was in its infancy during World War II. The first McDonald’s drive-through restaurant had just opened in San Bernadino, California. Colonel Harlan Sanders had just perfected his recipe of 11 herbs and spices for fried chicken.
Thus, American families still bought the vast majority of their food at the grocery store.
As the demand for chicken grew, the same American ingenuity that mass produced tanks, planes and ships for the war effort industrialized the processing and distribution of chicken.
However, the war ended and with it the rationing of red meat. American families went back to their old diets of steak and hamburgers, and chicken went out of favor.
One other problem was that stores sold chickens whole at the time, which proved to be too large for a single person but too small for a family.
Roasting a whole chicken or cutting it up to be fried was a time-consuming task. Clearly, something had to be done.
By the early sixties, Kentucky Fried Chicken had started spreading its franchises across the country. Its main rival, Church’s Fried Chicken, was just starting to take off.
But then, in 1963, a Cornell agricultural scientist named Robert Baker hit upon the idea of a bite-sized chicken nugget.
The idea was to grind some of the lesser-used parts of the chicken, form them into small balls, and then cover them with breading. The nuggets could then be deep-fried and eaten much like popcorn.
While Baker earned eternal fame as the “George Washington Carver” of chicken, he did not patent his invention. Even though he mailed the recipe for his “chicken sticks” to hundreds of companies, it took a health craze about 15 years later for his invention to take off in a mass market.
In 1977, at the dawn of the Carter Administration, Congress released a report called “Dietary Goals for the United States.” The report urged Americans to cut back on refined sugar, sodium, fat, especially saturated fats, and cholesterol. To translate, Congress had urged Americans to eat less red meat, among other things.
In the wake of the government report, American consumers started to change their eating habits. They started eating less red meat and more chicken, fish, and other sources of protein.
The new diet craze started to affect the bottom line of fast-food chains like McDonald’s that relied on the hamburger for revenue,
The upper management of McDonald’s started to search for ways to add a chicken dish as a menu item.
The first idea was a fried chicken breast served with sauce. Unfortunately, while the dish was tasty and well-received, it could not be produced on the kind of industrial scale that McDonald’s required. The fast-food chain considered a chicken pot pie concept, but then rejected it.
Then, the company hit an idea similar to that developed by Robert Baker over 15 years previously. McDonald’s partnered with Keystone Foods to create a chicken chopping process on an industrial scale and Gorton’s to create a batter similar to the one it used on its famous fish sticks.
After test marketing the Chicken McNugget concept in select franchises in 1981, McDonald’s rolled the menu item off nationwide in 1983.
The rollout was accompanied by a marketing campaign featuring the fast-food chain’s pitchman Ronald McDonald and a bevy of cute, animated Chicken McNuggets.
The success of the Chicken McNugget proved to be greater than anything McDonald’s executives imagined. Local news reports created free advertising that depicted long lines at McDonald’s restaurants and franchises running out of Chicken McNuggets.
Chicken McNuggets remain a favorite menu item at McDonald’s. Other fast-food chains, such as KFC, have copied the concept with a dish called the Popcorn Chicken Nugget.
Indeed, most supermarkets in the United States sell frozen chicken nuggets that cook very well in an air fryer.
What Goes in a Chicken McNugget?
Chicken McNuggets are no more made at a McDonald’s restaurant than are the burgers ground up or the buns baked (just like any other frozen processed food like Salisbury steak).
The nuggets are processed at a central facility and are delivered frozen to the restaurant where they are deep fried and then delivered to the customer when he or she orders them.
But what exactly goes in a Chicken McNugget? How much of it is actually chicken? A site called Livestrong lists over 30 ingredients that go into the favorite fast-food dish.
White Boneless Chicken, Water, Food Starch-Modified, Salt, Seasoning (Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Salt, Wheat Starch, Natural Flavoring [Botanical Source], Safflower Oil, Dextrose, Citric Acid), Sodium Phosphates, Natural Flavor (Botanical Source). Battered and Breaded with: Water, Enriched Flour (Bleached Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Yellow Corn Flour, Bleached Wheat Flour, Food Starch-Modified, Salt, Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate, Calcium Lactate), Spices, Wheat Starch, Dextrose, Corn Starch. Contains: Wheat.
What goes into the oil that the Chicken McNugget is deep-fried in is also an extensive list.
Prepared in vegetable oil (Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness). Dimethylpolysiloxane was added as an antifoaming agent.
Of course, no one goes to a fast-food joint to eat healthily. The advantage of getting lunch or dinner from a place like McDonald’s is that you can get your food quickly and relatively cheaply. A McDonald’s meal is filling and tasty enough to satisfy.
And certainly, the company makes no claims about the Chicken McNugget being healthy in its marketing, something that we shall see would invite the wrath of government regulators.
Still, the list of what goes into a Chicken McNugget is pretty sobering. For instance, the meal is about 57 percent fat, likely from some of the oil it is deep-fried in.
TBHQ, which also goes in the cooking oil, is a petroleum-based preservative that is used to help the Chicken McNuggets retain their shape.
It is also used in “varnishes, lacquers, pesticide products, cosmetics, and perfumes.” In high enough doses, TBHQ can cause a variety of health problems. The ingredient has been removed from Chicken McNuggets sold in the UK.
The British also do not allow the antifoaming agent Dimethylpolysiloxane to be added to the cooking oil. It’s a silicone-based product that is also used in shampoos, lubricants, and other products.
Autolyzed Yeast Extract is an MSG product that is meant to enhance the flavor of the Chicken McNuggets. If you have MSG sensitivity, it can cause some bad health reactions.
Sodium Aluminum Phosphate is used as part of the breading. However, consuming too much aluminum can have some bad health implications.
The conclusion is that when making the decision of whether or not to buy a bag of Chicken McNuggets, the principle of caveat emptor (buyer beware) should be followed.
If you have any regard for the health effects of the food you put into your body, it would be best to avoid Chicken McNuggets or, indeed, anything you would pick up from a fast-food joint.
What About those Dipping Sauces?
No account of the Chicken McNugget, how it’s made, and what goes into it is complete without a look at the dipping sauces. The McDonald’s site list the following that they offer:
- McDonald’s Special Sauce – “a creamy, delicious balance of sour, zesty mustard flavor, pickle relish, onion powder, and savory tastes.”
- Tangy Barbecue Sauce – “made with a tomato paste base and has a sweet hickory smoke flavor, vinegar, and savory spices.”
- Spicy Buffalo Sauce – “is a peppery salt and vinegar-flavored sauce, with a slight buttery note and developing heat.
- Creamy Ranch Sauce – “is a mildly tart ranch sauce with a savory onion and garlic flavor.”
- Honey Mustard Sauce – “blends zesty dijon mustard with sweet notes of honey.”
- Honey – Self-explanatory.
- Sweet N’ Sour Sauce – “is a sweet and sour apricot and peach-flavored sauce with savory spices and slight lingering heat.”
The fast-food chain also offers ketchup, mustard, tartar sauce, and mayonnaise which, while it usually goes on burgers or fish sandwiches, could also be used as a dipping sauce for Chicken McNuggets.
Clearly of the list, pure honey is the best from a health perspective. Healthline notes that honey is filled with nutrition, has antioxidants, and may even produce better cardiovascular health.
The Livestrong site lists the following ingredients in the Tangy Barbecue Sauce:
“High-fructose corn syrup, water, tomato paste, grape vinegar, distilled vinegar, salt, soy sauce (water, wheat, soybeans, salt), food starch-modified, spices, dextrose, soybean oil, natural smoke flavor (plant source), xanthan gum, caramel color, garlic powder, cellulose gum, dried chili peppers, malic acid, natural flavor (fruit and vegetable source), onion powder, sodium benzoate (preservative), succinic acid. Allergens: Wheat and Soy.”
High fructose corn syrup stands out as something that is bad for the body. Healthline notes that excessive consumption can cause obesity, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and a variety of other diseases. Best to avoid and maybe use a barbecue sauce that is sweetened with honey.