Chicken-Nugget Boom Leads
To Worries About Kids' Health
Originally published in the Wall Street Journal (C) Dow Jones, Inc. Reproduced here solely for discussion purposes of search and retrieval bugs.
Like many parents, Grace Beam of Oshkosh, Wis., is thrilled when her two sons gobble down chicken nuggets , thinking they're far healthier than the burgers, fries and other junk food kids love.
"It's just breaded chicken," says the 38-year-old Web-site editor. "How bad could it be?"
Very. When it comes to childhood nutrition, few foods are as unhealthy and insidious as the chicken nugget , one of the most popular foods of the two- to six-year-old set. While other junk foods such as hot dogs and potato chips are obviously full of fat and calories, many well-meaning parents think they are doing right by their child's health when they feed them a nugget. After all, it's chicken.
But calling it chicken is a bit of an overstatement. Sure, chicken is the largest ingredient by weight, but once it's turned into a nugget, it's so laden with breading, fillers and fats, it's hardly recognizable as chicken anymore. Some 50% to 60% of the calories in most nuggets come from fat.
The chicken nugget is "somewhat analogous to cake with a little added protein," says Susan B. Roberts, chief of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts University School of Nutrition and author of "Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health."
Even so, the chicken nugget is one of the fastest-growing foods in the American diet, particularly among very young children, according to Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group, which tracks consumer eating habits. In restaurants alone, the nugget now accounts for about 5% of all orders -- more than double what it was in 1990.
What's particularly troubling about the growing consumption of nuggets is that they've become a dinner-time staple in households where parents think they're feeding their kids healthier alternatives to junk food. In fact, the popularity of high-fat, highly processed foods like chicken nuggets is one reason the percentage of overweight kids has tripled in the past 20 years to 15%. And experts now know that heart disease, which is linked with obesity, can begin in early childhood.
"If a child is consuming calories in nuggets and sodas, their energy needs might be met, but their nutritional needs won't," says Joan Carter Clark, dietitian at the Children's Nutrition Research Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. "Who knows when the ramifications of these kinds of food choices in childhood are going to show up later in life."
So exactly what part of the chicken does a nugget come from? Dissecting the chicken nugget isn't easy, but a look at the label and nutrition information can help.
The first ingredient is always chicken, but unless the label specifically says it's made with all-white meat, then the product contains a combination of white meat, dark meat and chicken skin. Dark meat is far higher in fat and lower in certain nutrients than white meat, and the skin is notoriously high in fat. (The skin is included in the same proportion as you would find on a whole chicken, says Richard L. Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council.)
The vast majority of nuggets aren't whole pieces of chicken -- instead the chicken is either chopped into small bits or "comminuted," which means the meat and skin is finely ground into an almost paste-like concoction. At that point, binders are added to make it stick together and it's pressed into the traditional nugget shape. Some brands also offer "fun" shapes like stars and dinosaurs.
Popular brands of chicken nuggets tend to have far more grams of fat and carbohydrates than they do protein, and most are made with partially hydrogenated oils -- meaning they include cancer-causing trans fats.
Consider McDonald's nuggets -- a kid-size serving of four nuggets contains 210 calories, with 120, or 57%, of those calories coming from fat. By weight, the nuggets contain 13 grams of fat, 12 grams of carbohydrates and 10 grams of protein.
Compare that with 72 grams of roasted, skinless chicken breast, which has 22 grams of protein, no carbs, and less than one gram of fat.
In 1,000 restaurants in New York City and Columbus, Ohio, McDonald's is test-marketing a new version of its nugget, one with all-white meat that has 14% fewer calories and 15% less fat. McDonald's spokeswoman Lisa Howard says the company's nuggets are made "from the highest quality food," and are a good source of vitamin C, calcium and iron. "Our Happy Meals can fit into a balanced diet," she says.
Nutritionists aren't so sure. "People assume it's all chicken, but there's been zero truth in advertising of that food by any fast-food company," says Barry M. Popkin, nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health in Chapel Hill.
Fast-food nuggets aren't the only culprits. Store-bought frozen nuggets baked at home are often just as fat-laden and unhealthy. A look at the label shows that many of those are pre-fried.
A serving of five Banquet chicken nuggets contains 270 calories with 160, or 59%, of those calories from fat. The 17 grams of fat and 16 grams of carbs dwarf the 11 grams of protein. And the protein doesn't all come from chicken -- most brands, including Banquet, include soy, corn and plant proteins as well.
A spokesman for Tyson Foods, the chicken company that sells its own brand of nuggets and supplies some of the fast-food chains, says that as with all foods, balance is essential. "Chicken nuggets can be a healthful part of a balanced diet, which should also include all of the other elements of the USDA food pyramid," says spokesman Ed Nicholson.
The problem is that the prominence of chicken nuggets is throwing off the balance of kids' diets. Very young children are just developing and establishing their eating habits and preferences, and the more nuggets they eat now -- the more unhealthy food they will crave as they get older.
"This is what children have developed a taste for because that's what they're served," says Christina Economos, Tufts assistant professor of nutrition. "It's not their fault."
Many parents complain that their child simply won't eat anything else. Debbie Corbishley, a Coral Gables, Fla., lawyer and mother of three, says her five-year-old daughter eats chicken nuggets four or five times a week and will eat very little else. Although she is healthy, the girl is small for her age.
"I know this isn't considered the very best thing I can feed my kids, but I was just grateful she would eat something," says Ms. Corbishley, who adds that she read the labels and buys only all-white meat nuggets.
But nutritionists say parents have more options than they think. Start by trying to scale back the number of times your children eat fast-food nuggets and substitute healthy fun foods such as vegetable pizza.
When you do serve nuggets, make better choices. Dr. Economos serves her son Morningstar Farms Chik Nuggets, made with a blend of vegetable and plant proteins. Four nuggets have 160 calories and just four grams of fat. Also, homemade baked nuggets (see accompanying recipe) are simple, tasty and far healthier than processed nuggets -- with just 202 calories and two grams of fat.
None of the popular fast-food versions are particularly healthy, but some are better than others. For instance, a serving of Chick-Fil-A nuggets has 260 calories, 12 grams of fat and gets about 40% of its calories from fat, which is still high but lower than most fast-food brands.
And, contrary to what many parents may think, a simple hamburger at McDonald's is a better option, with 280 calories, 10 grams of fat and 30% of its calories from fat.
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