Unreal Eats is Healthy Living's original video series, where we go behind calorie counts and health claims to examine what's really in the processed foods that scream loudest in our food environment.
Nobody walks into (or drives through) a fast food restaurant expecting to order a health food. But you might, at the very least, expect that what you order is, well, what you order. Chicken is chicken and beef is beef, right? Think again: What many fast food meals feature is real-life mystery meat.
Take, for instance, the chicken nugget. A paper published online last month by The American Journal of Medicine looked at two nuggets from two different, unidentified national fast food chains: Each was comprised of just 50 percent or less muscle tissue, which is what we typically define as chicken, Reuters reported. The rest of the pair of nuggets was made up of a hodgepodge of pure fat, blood vessels, pieces of bone, nerves and cartilage.
"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," lead author Dr. Richard D. deShazo, of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, told Reuters Health. "It is really a chicken by-product high in calories, salt, sugar and fat that is a very unhealthy choice."
Beyond the obvious gross-out factor, these chicken bits probably aren't particularly harmful, explains David Katz, M.D., founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center and author of the new book Disease Proof. But they're definitely not doing the body any good, and typically have a poorer overall nutrition profile compared to plain white-meat chicken.
"It stands to reason that the enormous, high volume mass production of model-shaped chicken bits -- that are then concealed inside breading -- would not be made from the best parts of chicken because the best parts of chicken are more expensive," he tells HuffPost. "All of this is, of course, substantially less nutritious than what we typically think of as chicken."
But while a concoction of blood vessels, nerves and chipped bones might be stomach-turning for many consumers, everything else that's packed into a chicken nugget could be even more concerning.
"Things like blood vessels are usually not the problem," Richard Prayson, M.D., section head of Cleveland Clinic's Department of Anatomic Pathology, tells The Huffington Post. "Chemical additives and preservatives are potentially the issue."
And there are plenty of them. In the four fast food companies we surveyed in the video above (which were not necessarily the same companies examined for deShazo's paper), each nugget packed upwards of 20- to 30-plus ingredients, on top of the obvious one: chicken.
Among the ingredient lists we scoured were dimethylpolysiloxane, an anti-foaming agent also used in Silly Putty and propylene glycol, a chemical found in antifreeze. While Katz explains that both additives (as well as others) are classified as "generally recognized as safe" by the FDA, he says this doesn't mean they're "safe," just that they haven't been proven "unsafe."
"If something is clearly not the way it ought to be, assume potential harm until it's proven to be safe," he says. "I would invoke the precautionary principle and say that something that sounds dubious should be considered harmful... If it's not a native part of the food supply, I wouldn't eat it."
Same goes for the vague, catch-all term "artificial ingredients," which popped up on one of the lists. "'Artificial ingredients' are not really food at all, so they are inevitably a bad idea," Katz says, adding that this doesn't mean "natural ingredients" are healthy, either. "Natural doesn't mean good for us; pure lard is natural." (And sometimes "natural ingredients" aren't what most anyone would consider edible.)
One of the brands also included the additive monosodium glutamate, a.k.a. MSG, which has been linked to headaches, flushing and sweating, among other symptoms, in certain people. And they all contained sugar, or the sugar alias dextrose. If that seems confusing, since nuggets are a savory treat, you're not alone, according to Katz. "We call this stealth sugar," he says. "Everybody wrestles with a sweet tooth and thinks about dessert. What they don't realize is that sugar is added to almost everything ... You've been bathing your taste buds in sugar all day long and when it's time for dessert you need even more sugar."
And where there's sugar, sodium usually isn't far behind. A 470-calorie order of 10 McDonald's Chicken McNuggets, for instance, clocks in at 900 mg of sodium, well over one third of the daily recommended intake for an adult (that's before the fries).
A chicken nugget isn't, of course, the only dubious meat offender at fast food chains: according to Prayson, who was a co-author on 2008 research published in the Annals of Diagnostic Pathology investigating what's really in fast food hamburgers, hot dogs and burgers often contain less than 20 percent meat.
Camera: Amber Genuske
Editor: Amber Genuske
Reporter: Laura Schocker
Producers: Amber Genuske, Rachael Grannell, Meredith Melnick & Laura Schocker