February 25

Chicken Nuggets: The Unrecognized Symbol of Kids’ Food


Have you watched Food Revolution by Jamie Oliver? 

Where he famously tried to turn a group of school children off of eating chicken nuggets by showing them the process of what actually making them involved...

He threw a whole chicken carcass in the food processor, bones, skin, and fat (there was very little actual meat), then threw in a handful of unknown powders.

Then let the machine ground it all up together. After, he shaped them and covered them with bread crumbs.

The children recoiled in horror at what they saw... but when asked if they'd still eat them, all said yes!

So what is it about chicken nuggets that are so appealing to kids?

Well… Chicken nuggets are easy to make, handle, dip, and eat. They're portion-controlled (a three-pack is three servings) and they come in boxes or bags - no knife or pan needed, and most children love finger food. 

They are also cheap to produce, cheap to buy, and can be made in just about any shape or size - all characteristics of processed food developed for profitability, not nutrition

These factors make chicken nuggets the perfect choice for school lunch programs, fast-food restaurants, and children's menu items everywhere…

How did they rise to such prevalence?

Robert C. Baker, the Cornell University poultry science and food science professor widely credited as the "father of the chicken nugget," died in 2007, but his legacy lives on. 

Baker created a process to transform ground-up, previously rejected pieces of chicken into a shape that could be breaded and deep-fried - creating a product that was not only tasty but also cheap and convenient. In 1972, he launched Chicken Nuggets in the school lunch program.

But it was McDonald's that really brought the chicken nugget to the world spotlight. In 1989, the company permanently added them to their menu after a successful trial run. This move put pressure on every other fast-food restaurant and food manufacturer- including school cafeterias - to follow suit or be left behind.

The success of the chicken nugget is all thanks to Baker's process for shaping ground chicken into what he deemed "chicken tenders." It's unclear whether he knew how revolutionary his process would be, but the key components of the nugget are this: 

1) It has to have a long shelf-life.

2) It has to be economical.

3) It has to taste good.

However, it has been well documented that some highly processed long-life meats - including fish sticks, turkey ham, and chicken sausage - have been shown to contain more fat, sugar, and preservatives than the meat they are replacing.

Nevertheless, food marketers continue to push the processed food paradigm to kids by making it fun for them to eat.

One of the most effective ways food companies keep children coming back is by creating a sense of fun around their products, it's not surprising that youngsters would be drawn to bright colours and familiar cartoon characters.

Food marketers know the nagging power kids have on their parents if they like a brand, especially if that brand or food is fun to eat and all their friends are eating it.

Chicken nuggets are an easy choice, deemed acceptable by both adults and children.  They are marketed in a way that will appeal to both. For example, a box or bag of chicken nuggets will say something like 'healthy choice for lunch.

And most parents will admit to giving in to the sheer handiness of a quick meal on those nights when we really can't be bothered to cook.

Then there is the social aspect of the chicken nugget that has made them so popular with kids and adults over the years.

This is seen in children from a very young age. Peer influence starts at a surprisingly early age.

According to recent studies, one in three American children eats fast food every day - partly because it tastes good, and partly because it's so accessible and inexpensive.

This is especially true in low-income communities, where fast-food restaurants may be the only places serving affordable alternatives to home-cooked meals - if they have a kitchen at all.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Chicken nuggets have been given a hard time in recent years for their lack of nutritional value and high-fat, high-sodium content. Many fast food chains and school cafeterias across the country have begun to offer healthier alternatives in an effort to prevent obesity in children.

And the chicken nugget itself has seen an increase in meat percentage than it previously had. Today, when you talk about a chicken nuggets, they are generally going to have the texture of a breast meat.

With our heightened awareness of healthier food choices, today's kids may eventually see the chicken nugget replaced as their go-to lunch at school by healthier (and tastier!) options.

But for now? The chicken nugget reigns supreme.

Check out my Healthy nugget recipe if you fancy trying them for yourself.


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