7 Unhealthy Frozen Chicken Nuggets To Avoid And 5 Healthier Alternatives

stacked chicken nuggets
stacked chicken nuggets - Lauri Patterson/Getty Images

There's one simple reason why chicken nuggets are a childhood (and, let's face it, lifelong) staple. Breaded or battered, deep-fried or baked, they're undeniably tasty and extremely straightforward. Since hitting the culinary scene in the 1960s, nuggets have established themselves as a go-to meal or snack for anybody who wants their evening culinary challenge to begin and end by emptying the contents of a box onto a tray and picking out their favorite dipping sauce.

Delicious and convenient as they may be, chicken nuggets don't have the best nutritional reputation. For years, critics have peddled sensational stories about what actually goes into our nuggets. The majority of rumors are false (no, McDonald's McNuggets aren't made with pink slime), but the idea that nuggets are made from not-so-healthy ingredients isn't far from the truth. Like all kinds of chicken, nuggets are perfectly capable of packing a protein-powered punch. However, most grocery store options are weighed down by excessive amounts of sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars. The quality of meat also differs, with some brands padding out regular chicken breast meat with fillers.

The silver lining here is that not all chicken nuggets are made equal. Some brands keep things simpler than others, selling nuggets that can easily slot into a balanced meal. We've studied the nutritional value of the most popular nuggets on the market and separated the healthy from the unhealthy, so you know what to pick up on your next stroll through the frozen foods aisle.

Read more: The Best And Worst Grocery Store Fried Chicken

Worst: Tyson All Natural Crispy Chicken Nuggets

Tyson chicken nuggets bag
Tyson chicken nuggets bag - Tyson

Don't let the words "all natural" fool you. While Tyson's All Natural Crispy Chicken Nuggets may use minimally processed ingredients, the result is by no means a healthy choice. A single serving of these nuggets (which have received a barrage of complaints about their soft, mushy texture from customers) contains a whopping 17 grams of fat including 4 grams of saturated fats. The latter is 20% of your daily allowance eradicated by just a few nuggets -- if not more, considering how tough it is to apply rationality when chowing down on comfort food.

Eating excessive amounts of saturated fat over a long period of time has been linked to an increased risk of both heart disease and stroke. However, saturated fat isn't the only thing raising a red flag for Tyson's All Natural Crispy Chicken Nuggets. A serving contains 470 milligrams of sodium, which also happens to be 20% of the daily amount recommended by the FDA. For context, experts estimate that we only need 500 milligrams per day to function properly. Sodium content tends to be one of the biggest concerns raised over the potential health risks of chicken nuggets, with experts warning that eating too much salt can increase your risk of heart issues, strokes, and high blood pressure.

Worst: Banquet Original Chicken Nuggets

red bag Banquet chicken nuggets
red bag Banquet chicken nuggets - Banquet

Banquet is extremely proud of the fact that its Original Chicken Nuggets are made with 100% natural chicken -- although highlighting that just makes us more nervous about the alternative, because what is unnatural chicken? Poultry semantics aside, these nuggets contain no preservatives or artificial colors. They also contain less than 1 gram of added sugar, which is another point in their favor.

However, we're not quite so keen on the amount of sodium per serving. Five nuggets contain an eye-popping 540 milligrams of sodium -- the highest number we saw in our search. That's 40 milligrams more than you'd find in a six-piece box of McDonald's Chicken McNuggets, which tend to be considered the epitome of unhealthy nuggets. The amount of saturated fat per serving isn't ideal either at 2.5 grams -- the equivalent of 13% of your daily recommended allowance. Saturated fat may be common in battered and breaded foods, but rest assured there are still healthier ways to get your nugget fix.

Worst: Tyson Air Fried Chicken Breast Nuggets

Tyson chicken nuggets bag
Tyson chicken nuggets bag - Tyson

Generally speaking, air-fried foods tend to be healthier than their traditionally fried counterparts because they haven't been soaked in oil. One thing air frying will not do, however, is magically improve the nutritional value of an already unhealthy good. That's true of the Tyson Air Fried Chicken Breast Nuggets, which brag about containing 75% less fat than their fast-food counterparts and have a reasonable 160 calories per serving, but aren't necessarily a better choice than regular nuggets.

Yet again, the most concerning issue is the amount of sodium. Each serving contains 520 milligrams -- nearly a quarter of the amount of sodium you're supposed to consume in an entire day -- which is a real dealbreaker for us. If you end up eating more than one serving (which is easy to do, considering one portion is only 80 grams) or combining the nuggets with anything containing even a minimum amount of salt, you'll be entering into unhealthy territory; the FDA recommends eating no more than 600 milligrams per meal.

Worst: Good & Gather Chicken Breast Nuggets

bag of chicken breast nuggets
bag of chicken breast nuggets - Target

Target's Good & Gather range prides itself on providing healthy foods at affordable prices. The Chicken Breast Nuggets definitely meet the latter requirement (they cost $5.49 for almost 2 pounds worth of nuggets, at the time of publication depending on location). Whether or not they're actually healthy though, is up for debate.

We'll give credit where it's due: These breaded nuggets are free of added sugars and contain less sodium than some of the other entries on this list at 320 milligrams per serving. They're not overly calorie-dense, either, at a respectable 220 calories per portion. As is often the case with chicken nuggets, our biggest critique is the amount of saturated fat. A single serving contains 4 grams of saturated fat, which is 20% of the daily recommended amount. That number seems especially large when you consider the fact that one four-piece serving is only 80 grams worth of nuggets.

Worst: Great Value Breaded Chicken Nuggets

purple bag of chicken nuggets
purple bag of chicken nuggets - Walmart

Like Target's Good & Gather, the Great Value brand exists at Walmart to give customers, well, great value. The products are reliably affordable, with a monstrous 4-pound 6-ounce bag of Breaded Chicken Nuggets costing just $11.93 at the time of publication. But as the same nuggets prove, they're not always the healthiest option.

Every serving contains 430 milligrams of sodium, which is on the higher end for chicken nuggets. You'll also find 2 grams of saturated fat in that same portion. Making these numbers more extreme is the fact that a serving of Great Value Breaded Chicken Nuggets is just four pieces, which is a very modest estimation of the actual amount you'd dole out for dinner. If you whipped up a more realistic serving of eight nuggets for dinner, you could end up sitting down to a meal containing at least 860 milligrams of sodium -- assuming you paired your nuggets with absolutely no extra sodium whatsoever.

Worst: Pilgrim's Chicken Nuggets

blue chicken nuggets bag
blue chicken nuggets bag - Pilgrim's

Pilgrim's Chicken Nuggets are totally free of antibiotics and contain 10 grams of protein per serving (plus zero added sugars), but that's pretty much the extent of our nutritional praise. These crispy morsels of breaded chicken -- which is a mixture of both breast and rib meat -- are ridden with a concerning amount of sodium at 570 milligrams, placing the four-piece serving at the upper end of this list.

Things aren't so rosy on the fat front, either. Every portion of Pilgrim's Chicken Nuggets contains 3.5 grams of saturated fat, which is 18% of the maximum healthy amount recommended by the FDA. Not to mention, this percentage easily increases if you end up eating more than four chicken nuggets (which is admittedly quite likely, unless you're specifically looking for a quick, small snack). Next time your nugget cravings come calling, you may want to look elsewhere for the solution.

Worst: Tyson Any'tizers Buffalo Style Chicken Bites

Tyson bag of chicken bites
Tyson bag of chicken bites - Tyson

Unlike your average nugget that requires dip on the side, the Tyson Any'tizers Buffalo Style Boneless Chicken Bites come preloaded with a spicy buffalo wing sauce. That's great for your taste buds, but not so great if you're trying to cut back on sodium. A single serving of these nuggets contains 700 milligrams of sodium -- a third of the FDA's daily recommended intake -- putting their salt content in a league of its own.

But salt is just one part of the problem. Every 84-gram portion of Tyson Any'tizers Buffalo Style Boneless Chicken Bites includes 2 grams of added sugars. That may not sound like an alarming amount, but considering we're talking about chicken -- a food that very much does not need sugar to taste good -- 2 grams is still 2 grams too many. Another ingredient that caught our eye was polysorbate 80, an emulsifier that may impact the body's ability to absorb nutrients and cause gastrointestinal issues. On the bright side, these nuggets are marginally lower in saturated fat than some of the others we've deemed unhealthy at 1.5 grams per serving. Regardless of this very thin silver lining, these nuggets are still probably best left in the freezer.

Best: Applegate Naturals Chicken Nuggets

green bag of chicken nuggets
green bag of chicken nuggets - Applegate Naturals

Some brands use the word "natural" -- which the FDA defines as anything that doesn't contain artificial or synthetic ingredients -- as a smokescreen to imply their products are healthier than others. That's not the case with Applegate Naturals, whose Chicken Nuggets actually are decidedly healthier than a lot of its competitors. The brand only uses chicken raised on a vegetarian diet without the use of antibiotics. As a general rule, it doesn't use chemical nitrites or nitrates, artificial ingredients, preservatives, or fillers in any of its products.

The chicken nuggets boast just 190 calories per six pieces, as well as 1.5 grams of saturated fat. There is a tiny amount of added sugars, but this is kept to a bare minimum at less than 1 gram per serving. Sodium is ever so slightly higher than we'd like at 340 milligrams, but this is still easy to slot into a balanced meal. Also, with 12 grams of protein, you're only 3 grams off the recommended minimum amount per meal after just six nuggets. Most importantly, you'll be pleased to know you won't be missing out on flavor by making the healthier choice; Applegate Naturals previously placed third in Mashed's ranking of store-bought chicken nuggets.

Best: Smart Chicken Panko Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets

white bag of chicken nuggets
white bag of chicken nuggets - Smart Chicken

Smart Chicken takes its poultry extremely seriously. All of its farm-raised chickens are fed a vegetable-grain diet and humanely raised without antibiotics. A common technique is to use water-immersion chilling during processing, but Smart Chicken air-chills all of its meat, which it credits with improving flavor and texture. While some of these details don't necessarily improve the nutritional value of the Chicken Breast Nuggets, they set a strong precedent for the amount of care and attention given to the quality of the products.

Whether you cook these panko-breaded nuggets in the oven, air fryer, or microwave, every four-piece serving contains a generous 14 grams of protein, which is great for your metabolism, bone health, and blood pressure. You'll also get a relatively minimal dose of sodium at 300 milligrams, and absolutely no added sugar. The amount of saturated fat isn't overwhelmingly low at 2.5 grams a serving, but the rest of the nutritional profile holds up enough for us to class Smart Chicken Breast Nuggets as one of the healthier indulgences.

Best: Kidfresh White Meat Chicken Nuggets

green bag of chicken nuggets
green bag of chicken nuggets - Kidfresh

As the name suggests, Kidfresh specializes in easy, wholesome meals that encourage children to eat healthier (even if the result is so tasty they don't necessarily realize they're doing so). If you doubted the White Meat Chicken Nuggets could ever meet this definition, a quick scan of the nutritional information will reassure you otherwise. Each nugget contains a blend of chicken breast meat (raised without antibiotics) and pureed cauliflower and onion, adding a sneaky serving of veggies alongside 12 grams of protein.

When it comes to the things you don't want to find in your nuggets, the numbers are also pretty promising. Kidfresh adds absolutely no extra sugars to its nuggets and just 250 milligrams of sodium for every five pieces. Fat is also minimal, with 4 grams per serving, including 0.5 grams of saturated fat, the kind you want to keep a tight cap on. According to Kidfresh, this is 70% less than the leading brand of chicken nuggets. Impressive stuff.

Best: Realgood Lightly Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets

white bag of chicken nuggets
white bag of chicken nuggets - Realgood Foods Co.

Chicken is already naturally rich in protein. Throw in whey protein, and you've got yourself a turbo-powered snack that's both indulgent and nutritionally beneficial. Realgood's Lightly Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets contain an incredible 23 grams of protein in every single serving. For those who find it hard to hit the recommended daily amount of 50 to 175 grams, this gives you a solid boost in reaching your protein goals.

The nuggets are gluten-free, using chickpea flour instead of regular flour. They're a strong choice calorie-wise, with 160 calories per 112-gram serving. As if that's not enough, they're also free of added sugars and contain just 3 grams of carbohydrates -- perfect for anyone on a low-carb or ketogenic diet. While they're not overly low in sodium with 390 milligrams, there are much worse things you could pick up in the frozen foods aisle.

Best: Earth's Best Gluten Free Frozen Chicken Nuggets

blue box of chicken nuggets
blue box of chicken nuggets - Earth's Best

If sodium is your main concern with chicken nuggets, you couldn't make a smarter choice than Earth's Best Gluten Free Frozen Chicken Nuggets. These baked, gluten-free nuggets boast the lowest amount of salt of any other product on this list. In every four nuggets, you'll find just 85 milligrams of sodium. That means even if you doubled your serving to eight pieces, you'd still only consume 170 milligrams -- far below the chicken nugget average.

They're equally light-handed with the sugar (of which there is none) and saturated fat, with just 0.5 grams per serving. This gives you the freedom to double up your portion without worrying too much about eating into your daily recommended allowance. The only downside is that they're not teeming with protein at just 6 grams per serving, but again, you have plenty of nutritional wiggle room to increase the size of your portion.

How Did We Chose Our Chicken Nuggets?

chicken nuggets with dip on plate
chicken nuggets with dip on plate - Nandi Marganingrat/Shutterstock

To separate the healthy chicken nuggets from their not-so-healthy counterparts, we relied on the nutritional information for both big-name brands and lesser-known options buried in the frozen food aisle. While we paid attention to the calorie count, our number one priority was assessing the amount of saturated fat and sodium in each product, with these often being the pitfalls of ready-to-cook breaded or battered foods. We also considered the quality of meat, the use of ingredients such as artificial preservatives or fillers, and kept an eye out for added sugars.

All of these numbers were then compared to the daily recommended amounts provided by the FDA. It's worth noting that not every product featured in the "healthy" section of this list holds up in every category we just mentioned, nor are all the products we declared to be "unhealthy" totally without any nutritional value. Instead, we looked at the overall nutritional profile of each portion of chicken nuggets, with some details -- such as a generous amount of protein -- making it slightly easier to forgive an extra gram or so of fat. We also took into account the serving size when making our decision; after all, it's easy for two nuggets to sound healthy if you're comparing them to eight nuggets.

Read the original article on Mashed