Fast Food Felonies, Part I: the Anatomy of a Chicken Nugget

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Let’s suppose, hypothetically speaking, that you were going to prepare a home-cooked dinner for you and your family. I say “hypothetically” because current research proves that the family sit-down dinner around the table is slowly becoming a thing of the past, as convenience food becomes standard fare in today’s “gotta have it now” society.  But let’s instead imagine a scenario where all the fast food restaurants have temporarily closed their doors to the public, and here you are left to fend for yourself and your family with nothing but a frying pan, four stove burners and a few bags of groceries still sitting on the kitchen counter waiting to be unpacked.

Not wanting to intimidate your children by cooking up something unfamiliar or too “crunchy granola,” you decide that tonight’s menu will include chicken nuggets, french-fried potatoes, and fruit on the side. Here are the typical recipe ingredients for golden chicken nuggets, as featured on

  • 1 cup dry bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 3/4 cup butter, melted
  • 2 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes

Looks good, right?

But wait! What’s that they’re saying on the television news? Leading fast food chain Donald McRonald has settled in court, agreeing to incorporate apple slices dipped in caramel into their kid’s menu as a healthy alternative to French fries?  Yippee! You drop your spatula like a hot potato (no pun intended).

Here are some of the ingredients your family will be getting as they gratefully chomp on their fried chicken tidbits, breathing a collective sigh of relief between sips of cola:

  • Dimethylpolysiloxane, silicon-based anti-foaming agent
  • Tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ)- poisonous, but only if you consume 5 grams.
  • Approximately 13 corn derivatives, including modified cornstarch, yellow corn flour, partially hydrogenated corn oil and dextrose
  • Mono-, tri-, and diglycerides
  • citric acid
  • “leavening agents”: sodium aluminum phosphate, mono-calcium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and calcium lactate
  • chicken

Only half of the ingredients in a fast food chicken nugget consist of actual chicken; the rest is made up of a combination of corn-like substances, leavening agents, preservatives and synthetic poisons. Yum.

Surely, if customers had some idea how badly they were clogging up their arteries they would order something healthier, right?

Nope. Consider Taco Time, a fast food eatery in Seattle, Washington. When compulsory nutritional labeling came into effect several years ago Taco Time complied, as did all restaurants of that district; for the first time customers were able to glance at a menu and quickly assess the caloric content of a burrito or a grilled chicken salad from the “light” menu.

Later, Duke University and Seattle-King County Public Health ran a study to see if the new labeling law had any effect, encouraged by health experts who predicted a sharp decline in sales. The results were underwhelming; the new menus had zero effect on Taco Time’s revenue, nobody ordered from the salad menu that ordinarily wouldn’t have and people who customarily ordered high-fat sugar-laden entrees went right on ordering the same meals everyday. Many confessed to not even looking at the label.

Scientists might be baffled by these results, but anybody who’s ever seen the website This Is Why You’re Fat knows one indisputable truth: you can lead a fast food junkie to the nutritional data, but you can’t make him read it.