It’s inevitable. You start off as the parent who makes baby food from scratch, but one day, the kids beg to put a box of chicken nuggets in the grocery cart. Should you give in? Just how bad for kids are those dino frozen nuggets, anyway? With chicken nugget recalls abounding and all those preservatives lurking, how can you choose the best nuggets?
Before you just reach for the box that claims “all natural,” we’ve sifted through the ingredients and nutrients important to kids’ diets with the expertise of three registered dietitians, so you don’t have to.
What to like: They’re made from chicken breast meat, feature a simple ingredient list and have 1 gram of fiber per serving. Additionally, Bell & Evans uses organic best practices on its farms. No antibiotics are used at any point and the chickens are fed only U.S.-grown organic grain.
Our experts all agreed the number one thing to look for in chicken nuggets is the quality of the main ingredient: chicken.
“Nutrition doesn’t have to be so complicated,” said Natalie Monson, a registered dietitian and co-owner of Super Healthy Kids blog. “Focus first on the whole food. We’re assessing chicken nuggets so look at the quality of the chicken: What parts are used and is it raised without antibiotics? With kids, I don’t worry about fat content much. Kids are intuitive. ... They naturally listen to their bodies and stop eating when they feel full.”
“Fat is not only essential for growing kids, but it also makes us feel full and satisfied,” added Lara Field, a registered dietitian, pediatric nutrition expert and founder of FEED Nutrition Consulting in Chicago. “It also can yield a tastier product (who wants a dry chicken nugget?!). I advise parents not to fear fat from chicken thigh meat, but rather check out the purity of the product.”
What to like: The packaging specifies the cut of chicken, and it features a simple ingredient list heavy with spices and no sugar. “[This has a] thoughtful ingredient list including heart-healthy oils,” Field told HuffPost.
A simple ingredient list was important to all our experts. Monson stressed the reality that processed foods like chicken nuggets will most likely contain oil, salt, sugar and preservatives, so a small ingredient list with fewer preservatives and fillers is key to a better product.
“There shouldn’t be many extras. I suggest looking for a product with about 5-10 ingredients,” Field notes.
What to like: These use simple ingredients and come from chickens fed a vegetarian diet with no animal byproducts and raised without the use of antibiotics.
All three experts gave a nod to the Applegate brand. But Applegate produces “natural” and “organic” nugget varieties. What’s the difference?
Organic is a regulated term used to label any product that contains a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients with no artificial preservatives, colors, flavors or genetically modified organisms. Organic chicken must be raised with no antibiotics and organic feed containing no pesticides.
There is no regulated definition for “natural” foods. Labels with this term usually state they’re “minimally processed with no artificial ingredients,” but that means nothing.
Choosing organic meat is important to Brooke Benlifer, a registered dietitian and founder of Brooke Joanna Nutrition in California. “With organic processed nuggets the fats in the meat add nutrition,” she told HuffPost. “With conventional, nonorganic brands, leaner is better. Toxins are held in the skin and other fats.”
What to like: These are made with lean skinless chicken breast from birds raised with no antibiotics and have 1 gram of fiber per serving.
This was the first choice for gluten-free nuggets among our experts, and online reviewers love the taste. Like the Applegate nuggets, these are sold in regular and organic varieties.
Fiber is hard to come by in processed, gluten-free foods. Ian’s adds fiber by using whole-grain corn in its breading.
What to like: They’re made with chicken breast meat from “chickens raised without the use of antibiotics” and with whole wheat flour.
“These ingredients are pretty thoughtfully placed,” Field said. “Whole wheat flour and chicken breast meat make this a great choice. Though, there is cane sugar in the ingredients in the breading and in the actual chicken mixture.”
A company can add sugar to the batter, but technically the sugar content per serving can be listed as 0 due to a legislative loophole that allows companies to mark zero if a food contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. New label laws are coming, however. Earth’s Best already uses the new label, which shows that these contain 1 gram added cane sugar. Beware hidden sugars. “Words ending in ‘ose’ like dextrose are sugars,” Benlifer told HuffPost.
Trader Joe’s Chicken Breast Nuggets
What to like: They use boneless chicken breast meat that comes from chickens fed an all-vegetarian diet and no antibiotics.
Our experts trusted this brand and liked that the specific cut of meat is chicken breast.
These nuggets, like many, “contain up to 15 percent of a solution.” That means the meat in these nuggets has been plumped up to make it juicier, a process that unfortunately adds sodium to the nuggets.
Iffy: Less Than Ideal
Why it’s a mixed bag: Monson pointed out that these nuggets specify the cut as “boneless, skinless chicken breast with rib meat,” they contain fewer preservatives than other dino nuggets and flax meal adds a good daily value of omega-3s. But, they contain isolated soy, a filler, meaning less chicken is used.
Why it’s a mixed bag: Tyson faced a recent recall on some of its nuggets due to rubber found by consumers from the line in which it was produced. But these nuggets are made with 100 percent whole wheat flour breading and they’re antibiotic free.
Why care about antibiotics and meat?
The use of antibiotics is widely used in animals to promote growth or prevent disease. Benlifer reminded HuffPost that you are what you eat and the farm industry’s overuse of antibiotics leads to drug-resistant superbugs. According to Consumer Reports, “raised without antibiotics” is more meaningful if coupled with a U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label. To earn the label, antibiotics were not used at any point, and USDA inspectors confirm the claim. Without the organic seal, antibiotics may have been administered during the chick’s first few days in the hatchery.
Why it’s a mixed bag: Our experts pointed out that although this brand is better than many because of its organic ingredients, it does not specify the cut of chicken, contains palm oil, which is not heart healthy, and includes both cane sugar and dextrose.
Why you should avoid: It has a huge list of ingredients that starts with “Fully Cooked, Shaped Breaded Chicken Breasts with rib meat.” The breaded meat alone is filled with more than 25 ingredients. That does not include the ingredients for “Bacon Flavored Ranch Sauce” which adds nitrites and preservatives galore. We know it’s hard to pass up a new product with bacon, but many online reviewers call them “rubbery,” “bland” and “mushy.”
Don’t be impressed by the claim “No added hormones.” Hormone and steroid use are never allowed in chicken production. That’s why it’s always followed by “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones or steroids in chicken.”
Why you should avoid: The packaging states it’s “100 Percent Natural” but the chicken filling alone contains nine ingredients. Banquet nuggets are commonly packaged as meals. Benlifer recommended: “Avoid brands that are packaged as meals and come with mac and cheese or fries. They tend to have nuggets that are of lower quality.”
Why you should avoid: Although these are inexpensive and kids rave that they taste like McDonald’s nuggets, they are full of preservatives and fillers such as “modified food starch” and “hydrolyzed corn gluten” (MSG). The breading uses bleached wheat flour, which has been stripped of nutrients.
Follow these nutritionists’ guidelines for finding the healthiest nuggets in your frozen food aisle, and you’ll be well on your way to avoiding a filler-filled meal.