Commentary: It’s chicken—sort of . . .

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By now you’ve probably heard about the report alleging that chicken nuggets served at fast-food restaurants are only 40 percent meat.

It’s the typical “lighter side of the news” story that allows local broadcasters to snicker self-righteously as they banter about “what’s in that other 60 percent?” at the close of the 11 pm newscast.

As if they’ve never dined at an establishment that didn’t have white tablecloths and tuxedoed waiters.

Of course, to the average low-information fast-food patron—not that there couldn’t be a PhD or two idling in the drive-thru lines at McDonald’s or Wendy’s (the researchers are keeping the names of the fast food stores they sampled a “secret” . . . wink, wink)—the news that chicken nuggets contain ingredients other than meat must have come as a violent shock. Something that really rocked their world.

Like being told that it will slowly start getting colder at night as the calendar moves along toward the holidays.

Who knew?

The study in question was conducted by medical researchers at the University of Mississippi, which is only appropriate: That state has an abysmal rate of adolescent and adult-onset obesity. In fact, the researchers themselves noted as much in their study:

“Mississippi leads the nation’s epidemic of obesity, and Jackson, the state capitol (sic), which has just over a half million citizens, boasts 50 different companies offering varying numbers of fast food outlets. Because chicken nuggets are a favorite of children, and the obesity epidemic now extends to them as well, we thought knowing a bit more about the content of the contemporary chicken nugget could be important.”

And that content was gleefully reported by Mother Jones magazine, which began its “exposé” with the following introduction:

“Marketing isn’t about giving people what they want; it’s about convincing people to want what you’ve got—that is, what you can buy cheap, spiff up, and sell at a profit.”

Okay, as a former principal at a marketing firm, I take offense to that notion. Sure, if all you have are “cheap” products, and your business model is based on creating new ways to overcharge gullible customers, then yes: Your “marketing” is all about suckering people into buying something that’s not worth the price they paid.

But really, how often does that work, at least over the long-term? In virtually every business sector, companies that adopt such tactics usually end up stranded on the roadside, dumped off by former customers who wised up to the scam.

For Mother Jones, however, the 40 percent nugget is evidence of corporate conspiracy at its worst.

“Their implicit marketing pitch goes something like this: ‘You like fried chicken, right?’ ” the article continued. “How about some bite-sized fried chicken chunks, without the messy bones?”

Well, you can guess what comes next: That isn’t fried chicken!

“One of [the samples] contained just 40 percent muscle,” the magazine quoted the research report. “The rest? Generous quantities of fat and other tissue, including connective tissue and bone spicules. The other sample had a whopping 50 percent muscle. The remainder consisted primarily of fat, with some blood vessels and nerve present, as well as epithelium,” which the magazine characterized as “the stuff that glands are made of.”

Uh, sort of.

Actually, epithelium is a generic name for membranous tissue that could be part of the lining of an animal gland, but when such cells are found in chicken nuggets it’s because the typical formulation calls for chicken skin to be added to the muscle tissue, deboned meat and added fat. The skin acts as a natural binder during processing (and the fat adds flavor and mouthfeel), but don’t tell that to Mother Jones.

In fact, if you tried to formulate a chicken nugget out of pure poultry breast meat, which is apparently what the self-appointed critics seem to be demanding, you’d end up with a lump of dry, tasteless protein that would then be savaged by those same critics as a gastronomical disaster.

Indeed, the comments to the article predictably feigned disgust at the researchers’ findings, calling the way nuggets are made “disgraceful,” “a fraud,” and urging that people “go vegan!” to avoid consuming such horrible substances as connective tissue or blood vessels.

As if mammalian or avian muscle tissue could exist without connective tissue or capillaries.

C’mon, people. It’s called biology. Look into it.

There were a couple comments, however, that zeroed in on the real fast-food obesity issue:

  • “Seriously folks, it isn’t the fat. It is the breading and SUGAR in food that is the problem. Besides, we all know now that if one goes on a high-protein and fat diet that has no sugar, you can lose weight very quickly.”
  • “Actually, the least nutritious part of the nugget is what isn’t discussed in the article—the breading. Most of the salt, a good chunk of the calories, and a substantial portion of the fat (the bad kind from deep frying) is in that breading. The micronutrients people need [are] found in the chicken parts, including nearly all of the potassium (which people need a lot more of).”

Like I’ve said before, it ain’t the burger, it’s the bun. Or in this case, it ain’t the nuggets, it’s the breading.

Perhaps the best retort to all the hysteria, however, came from the satirical online publication The Onion, which noted that one of the chicken nuggets was “only 40 percent meat, with the remainder composed of fat, cartilage, and bone fragments,” and posed the question (to a fake panel of readers): “What do you think?”

Howard Lamneck (name made up), a dynamite reclaimer, responded by saying, “These days it’s impossible to know exactly what you’re putting in your body. It’s very exciting!”

Isn’t it, though?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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