Stand-up comedians have long joked that some things, like the actual components of chicken nuggets, are better left mysterious.
Recently, Mississippi researchers found out why: two nuggets they examined consisted of 50 percent or less chicken muscle tissue, the breast or thigh meat that comes to mind when a customer thinks of chicken.
The nuggets came from two national fast food chains in Jackson. The three researchers selected one nugget from each box, preserved, dissected and stained the nuggets, then looked at them under a microscope.
The first nugget was about half muscle, with the rest a mix of fat, blood vessels and nerves. Close inspection revealed cells that line the skin and internal organs of the bird, the authors write in the American Journal of Medicine.
The second nugget was only 40 percent muscle, and the remainder was fat, cartilage and pieces of bone.
"What has happened is that some companies have chosen to use an artificial mixture of chicken parts rather than low-fat chicken white meat, batter it up and fry it and still call it chicken," said the researchers.
"It is really a chicken by-product high in calories, salt, sugar and fat that is a very unhealthy choice. Even worse, it tastes great and kids love it and it is marketed to them."
The nuggets he examined would be okay to eat occasionally, but he worries that since they are cheap, convenient and taste good, kids eat them often.
The National Chicken Council argued that a sample size of two nuggets is simply too small to generalize to an entire category of food.
Two nuggets is a small sample size, the researchers acknowledged, and some chains have begun to use primarily white meat in their nuggets - just not the particular restaurants he visited.
SOURCE: American Journal of Medicine, online September 13, 2013.
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