Chicken McNuggets: The Boneless Hit From The 80s

“It’s June 1981 and the year is just about half over, and I believe that, regardless of what happens from here on out, historians will recount 1981 as the year McDonald’s introduced Chicken McNuggets. Now, I think so. Let’s assume for a minute that there is a portion of the chicken anatomy that can accurately be described as nuggets. Is this something you want to eat, huh?

Ouch. Those were the words spoken by David Lettermen on the Tonight Show June 4th, 1981. He was summing up this strange new snack-type creation that fast-food giant McDonald’s had just put out.

Chicken McNuggets are a fast-food item from McDonald’s. They were developed by Keystone foods in the late 70s. They started with a trial launch in 1981 followed by a worldwide launch in 1983 and were an immediate hit.

Little did David Letterman know, many people would think the same thing as his statement back on the Tonight Show, but this would also be one of the most popular fast-food items in history.

This is a look back on the history of Chicken McNuggets.

How Did Chicken McNuggets Come To Be?

Even though Chicken McNuggets are an 80s food, our story begins in the late 70s with Keystone foods. The idea for a small bite-size (or two) piece of processed chicken wrapped in a batter and deep-fried came from a man named Herb Lotman.

Herb was the founder of Keystone Foods which is actually a Brazillian food processing company. Herbs story is pretty amazing as he started out as a truck driver and would start, and grow, a beef and chicken supply company that would become one of the biggest in the world.

Keystone Foods was, uh, key in producing frozen burgers in the 60s that would then become mass-produced. He started supplying these to McDonald’s and then would develop frozen fish and chicken items before coming up with the McNugget. 

This guy was a heavyweight in the industry and fast food as we know it would not have existed without him.

Creating The Actual McNuggets

Herb supplied the idea and the chicken but the actual recipe for the McNuggets would be created by Rene Arend. Arend was the first executive chef that McDonald’s had ever hired to give a little more design to their foods. Arend claimed that Chicken McNuggets were his greatest creation even though he had cooked for the Queen, Carey Grant, Sophia Loren, and the King of Belgium.

He stated that “those meals were once-in-a-lifetime dinners long since forgotten. But Chicken McNuggets will go on long after I am gone”.

Arend was passionate about creating the best tasting fast-food possible – even if he was working with limited quality ingredients. He would spend two years perfecting the McNugget recipe – and their accompanying sauces – to prepare them for launch and marketing. Arend would focus on using the breast and thigh meat only of the chicken and figured out how it could be pressed and designed into various shapes.

He had to design a   process including using machines from Sweden to cut the chicken, but the deboning process was actually done by hand. 36 people are used in each assembly plant to debone chicken, and there are 6 of these manufacturing plants. The next step was perfecting the dipping sauces and the batter which is actually a tempura batter.

Arend has a strong background in sauces from his work all over the world and would go through hundreds of creations before landing on three: hot mustard, barbeque, and sweet and sour. The hardest thing in all of this was determining the right cooking times for the chicken. They would be partially cooked in the factories then flash-frozen and sent to the restaurants where they would be fried some more before serving.

The Shapes Of Chicken McNuggets

Call me an idiot, but I had no idea there were specific shapes to McNuggets, let alone four different ones. The McNuggets four shapes are made up of:

  • The bell
  • The bow-tie
  • The ball
  • The boot

The reasoning behind these shapes was partly strategic and partly “fun”. The shapes needed to be able to dip properly into the sauces and the similar sizes were to ensure that they would all be cooked evenly and at the same time.

The four shapes? Well besides being for fun, they didn’t want to go overboard with the fun apparently. McDonald’s has been quoted as saying “3 would have been too few, 5 would have been, like, wacky”.

You can’t argue with that.

What’s In Chicken McNuggets?

We’ll get to the nutrition and quality issues, and how they have changed, in a minute. But here’s a quick look at what actually goes into a McNugget ingredient-wise:

  • White boneless chicken
  • Water, salt
  • Seasoning (yeast extract, salt, wheat starch, natural flavoring, safflower oil, lemon juice solids, dextrose, citric acid)
  • Sodium phosphates
  • Battered  with water and enriched flour ( bleached white flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine, mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid)
  • Yellow cornflour
  • Bleached wheat flour
  • Leavaning
  • Spices
  • Wheat starch
  • Dextrose
  • Corn starch

And the McNuggets are fried in vegetable oil which is made of canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil.

Chicken McNuggets Calories & Nutrition

So here’s what you’re looking at when you eat a 6-piece pack of McNuggets:

Calories 287
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 19 g29%
Saturated fat 3.1 g15%
Polyunsaturated fat 5 g
Monounsaturated fat 8 g
Trans fat 0.1 g
Cholesterol 41.8 mg13%
Sodium 537.7 mg22%
Potassium 239.4 mg6%
Total Carbohydrate 14 g4%
Sugar 0.1 g
Protein 15 g30%
Vitamin C1%Calcium1%
Iron4%Vitamin B-620%

Launching Chicken McNuggets
The early promotional commercials from 1981

It actually took a little bit of time to get these up and running. They started out in selected markets in 1981 to test what the response would be. It was pretty good. The problem was they were becoming such a big hit right away that there were problems getting enough chicken to supply the demand. 

They needed a new system put in place to be able to supply the individual McDonald’s restaurants worldwide with enough McNuggets. Here in Canada, the demand at first was so great that Canadian suppliers couldn’t cover it. They would have to start importing chicken from the US to meet the demand. This would help push the chicken industry in Canada as they stepped up the national quota by 92 million kilograms. 

It would take two years to get all of these supply problems solved and Chicken McNuggets were officially rolled out worldwide in 1983. 

McNugget Buddies

McNugget Buddies were so cute. They would be used as an anthropomorphic representation of the food to help sell them and be included in Happy Meal toys (check out my article all about the history of the Happy Meal). They first started being used in commercials in 1985 as each fast food item at McDonald’s has a character associated with them like Grimace for milkshakes and Birdie for Mcdonald’s breakfasts.

McNugget Buddies were some of the most popular characters and Happy Meal toys that McDonald’s has ever put out. In the commercials, the voices of all 6 McBuddies were voiced by one guy who was actually the voice of Sweep from Transformers and Deep 6 from G.I. Joe – Hal Rayle.

In the commercials, the McNugget Buddies would always make horrible puns, but this was the golden age of fast food and the characters that sold them. You may have noticed that today this tradition is long gone and you haven’t seen these characters for years. The McNugget Buddies would also be super popular with their Halloween versions

Are Chicken McNuggets Just McFrankenstein Chicken?

This issue has plagued McDonald’s since the nuggets were first launched and would continue for years. People researching more into what went into these nuggets would claim that the chicken actually came from older, unhealthy chickens that can no longer lay eggs. They are overbred to become larger and all the meat is taken and mashed together and mixed with stabilizers and unnatural ingredients before being pressed together, flash frozen and eventually deep-fried twice.

Lawsuits have come up over the issue that Chicken McNuggets are made with things that could never be used at home. This get’s a little ridiculous as when you walk into a fast-food restaurant, you throw some of the nutritional expectations out the window. One serious issue revolved around the use of TBHQ and polydimethylsiloxane.

These two compounds are used to prevent the oil from foaming when it’s frying, however, there are synthetic preservatives and seen as harmful. One of their uses is having them added to varnishes and lacquers to improve stability. Delicious…

With all of these issues coming up over the years McDonald’s decided to make some changes…

How Have Chicken McNuggets Changed?

You have to give McDonalds credit – they have listened to people and have taken out artificial ingredients, specifically in chicken McNuggets. This change took place in 2016 due to backlash at the whole Frankenstein association with the nuggets.

Today, they’re honestly not the worst thing in the world. The issue remains with them being deep-fried and the problems regarding trans fats. The other issue is based on the quality of the chickens they are sourced from. You can be pretty sure these aren’t organic free-range chickens that are running around the local farm.

 The nuggets themselves now have no artificial flavor, colors, or preservatives. They are now also made from 100% seasoned chicken breast and honestly, there are way worse things you could eat in a fast-food restaurant. Here are some of the changes:

1.The Other, Other White Meat

Mcdonald’s was actually using dark meat in the McNuggets and would continue to until 2003. Before that, they were using a combination of white and dark meats, but a lot of people weren’t fans of this apparently. Taking out the dark meat helps to cut down on calories but doesn’t necessarily make them healthier. The other chicken sandwiches at McDonald’s still contain some dark meat along with white, and “other” meat.

2. The Artifical Preservatives Were Taken Out

This was not only a smart move done in 2016 to show they were listening to the customers but had a huge payoff. When McDonald’s removed artificial preservatives from the McNuggets, sales skyrocketed. I think people were under the impression they were now a “healthy” alternative. It’s still fast food, but the removal of these artificial things made for a vast improvement, and they added in more familiar ingredients. 

3. Using Healthier Chickens

I mentioned before about McDonald’s using chickens that couldn’t lay eggs as the source of their meat. This was pointed out in the documentary “Supersize Me” and was always a concern of customers. Today, they use younger chickens to keep them “fresher”. 

4. Switching Up The Sauces

These days we now have Tangy BBQ, honey, and honey mustard. There have been many other iterations of the sauce over the years including sweet chili, mesquite, and a zesty Italian for some reason. Honestly, just hand out some ranch and everyone will be happy.

5. No More Pink Slime!

You may remember the whole “pink slime” issue that McDonald’s faced a few years ago. They would often use beef trimmings that had the texture and look of pink slime in order to plump up chicken and beef patties. It’s technically natural but not something a lot of people were thrilled to find out about. In 2011 they stopped using any of this pink slime and prooved they used real chicken meat in a video they released of the McNugget production process. 

6. There Are Now Fewer Ingredients

This is a bit of a tough one but McDonald’s states that they only use 30 ingredients in their nuggets. The problem is they don’t indicate what percentage of the nugget is meat and what percentage is other ingredients. 

Final Thoughts On Chicken McNuggets

These little beauties remain one of the most famous fast-food ingredients of all time and usually the go-to choice for kids since 1981. They worked perfectly for kids and as a Happy Meal item. The McNugget Buddies were also one of the top stars for the company – in commercials, and toys – during the 80s.

McDonald’s gets a lot of crap but you have to give them credit, they’ve made strides to keep the public happy. I would think, that as long as McDonald’s exists, you will always be able to get the bell, the bow tie, the ball, and the boot.