The Nugget Numbers: How Much Chicken is in a Chicken Nugget?

A lighter piece for a long day.

A Nugget Analysis

According to Epictetus, the right way to eat is the same as the way to live: “just, cheerful, equable, temperate, and orderly.”

More precisely:

Source: Daily Stoic

So when I came across a chicken nugget dataset on Kaggle, I was fascinated. This person had weighed their individual nuggets from McDonalds and Wendys.

Like Epictetus, I wanted to explore how “equable, temperate, and orderly” the nuggets might be – how much chicken is in the chicken nugget?

Nugget Numbers

According to this dataset, McDonalds nuggets weigh 16.5g on average – and they range from 21g to 14.6g. Wendy’s nuggets weigh 17.2g on average, ranging between 18.3 and 15.9g. There was a standard deviation of 1.68g across the McDonald’s nuggets and of 0.70g across the Wendy’s nuggets.

As you can tell by the very squished Wendy’s logo, Wendy’s has a more consistent nugget experience – a larger nugget AND less variation in nugget weight, as compared to McDonalds.

But which nugget actually has the MOST chicken of the nuggets (the most chicken-y chicken nugget?)

Disclaimer: I am vegan. As a vegan, I must inform you that I am vegan. It’s a vegan rule of law. Also, this is not a scientific article. These are educated guessestimates (as most things are)

The Nugget Nutrition

Looking at the nutrition data for a 6-pack of nuggets from McDonalds and Wendys, some nutritional discrepancies appear. Wendy’s nuggets are higher in fat (27g versus McDonalds 25g) and McDonalds have more carbs and protein. 

Each food that we eat is composed of macro- and micro-nutrients. From the macros we can calculate the number of calories in each food.

  • Each gram of carbohydrates = ~4 calroies
  • Each gram of protein = ~4 calories.
  • Each gram of fat = ~9 calories. 
Source: Health24

So taking our McDonalds nuggets, we can calculate the calories based on the fat, carbs, and protein that are listed.

  • McDonalds Nuggets Calories
    • (25 g of fat) x (9 g cals / gram) = 225 calories from Fat
    • (25g of carbs) x (4 cals / gram) = 100 calories from Carbs
    • (23g of protein) x (4 cals / gram) = 92 calories from Protein

Comparing the two nuggets side-by-side:

 The graph below breaks down the calories from each macro into percentages. Wendy’s nuggets are 57% fat, 22% carbohydrates, and 21% protein. McDonald’s are 54% fat, 24% carbs, and 22% protein. Both are 100% nugget.

To compare, a regular piece of chicken is 90% protein and 10% fat. 

So, the nuggets definitely aren’t “regular” chicken, but we knew that already. But how much “regular chicken” is in the chicken nuggets?

Source: Very Well Fit

The Nugget Math: McDonald’s McNugget

McDonalds has the following macro breakdown:

McDonalds nuggets are ~24% breading (meaning it’s ~24% carbohydrates, as explained above). This is not chicken. For illustrative purposes, that leaves 76% of the nugget left to be the “chicken” in our chicken nugget.

Taking our previous all-white chicken example (chicken is 90% protein and 10% fat): we would expect this remaining 76% of the nugget to be ~8% fat and ~68% protein.

But the remaining 76% nugget is actually 54% fat and 22% protein – far from the expected 8% fat and 68% protein! Quite the nugget nonplus!

We have an excess of fat (relative to what it would be if rest of the nugget were pure chicken).

The fat surplus is ~27%, most likely from different types of vegetable and cooking oils. 

That leaves the remaining portion of the chicken nugget left to be actual chicken: a whooping ~30%.

A chicken nugget is 70% bread and fat, 30% chicken.

This actually fits the true Merriam Webster’s definition of nugget well – “a small chunk or lump of another substance.” (note, they don’t specify the substance)

Wendy’s Nuggets

With McDonalds, we get about 30% chicken in our chicken nugget.

Looking at the ingredients, we can see that the two nuggets are relatively similar in build.

McDonald’s Chicken NuggetsWendy’s Chicken Nuggets 

Is Wendy’s any better? More bang for the nugget buck?

Nope- Wendy’s nuggets are only 28% real chicken! All the math is below.

Even taking into account Wendy’s larger nugget size of 17.2g, you still get less chicken versus the 16.5g McDonalds nugget in absolute terms. To be (far too) precise, each Wendy’s nugget has 4.89g of chicken and each McDonalds nugget has 4.92g of chicken (on average).

That 0.03g adds up overtime. Compounding, but for nuggets.

If you’re eating nuggets, it looks like the McNugget might be the highest value “real” chicken nugget you can get – Wendy’s might have a bigger nugget to offer – but it might not be as chicken-y as you would expect.

(Please note, this is obviously not *exact science*)


A Nugget for your Thoughts

Why am I looking at nuggets? That is a good question. I don’t have a great answer. I find datasets (like this one on Kaggle) and I try to build stories with them.

With this story, I was shocked that there wasn’t more than 50% chicken in the chicken nugget. As a vegan, it made my stomach hurt to read the ingredients – but I also think that we should actively treat our bodies with the love and care they deserve. Chicken nuggets are not good for you.

But then, one of my friends brought up an important point – what does the nugget stand for? They are non-chicken nuggets masquerading as chicken nuggets – they aren’t real.

Is reality even real? If our chicken nuggets are less than 50% chicken, are they even chicken nuggets at all?

Is Jean Baudrillard right in his work Simulacra and Simulation? Have we truly “replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is of a simulation of reality?

This reminded me of the fourth stage of sign-order that he highlights in his book:

This is a regime of total equivalency, where cultural products need no longer even pretend to be real in a naïve sense, because the experiences of consumers’ lives are so predominantly artificial that even claims to reality are expected to be phrased in artificial, “hyperreal” terms.

Source: Simulacra and Simulation

Our brains will fill in the blanks of our existence, perceiving things that are not there, confusing reality and representation. Perhaps these nuggets are just a symbolic representation of all that nuggets used to be, a psychological construct that we build upon in order to obtain a sense of reality. 

Welcome to the desert of the real.

This is a reference to the Matrix. In this scene, Morpheus shows Neo the world as it exists today, and that tells him that he had been existing in the Matrix. He says “welcome to the desert of the real”, a reference to Baudrillard’s work.

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