Many people choose grilled chicken sandwiches at fast food restaurants thinking they’re making a healthier choice. My concern as a dietitian is people aren’t clear on the risks of eating too much fast food grilled chicken breast. Is fast food grilled chicken healthy? What’s in it and how does that affect the nutritional value?
CBC Marketplace decided to investigate seemingly healthy grilled chicken breast at fast food restaurants to see how it’s really made. They sent chicken samples from the most popular fast food chains to independent labs for DNA analysis and nutritional analysis.
Marketplace contacted each fast food company directly to get their ingredient lists and also had access to their nutrition information for the whole chicken sandwich at each chain. Marketplace journalists also met with a food scientist to shed some light on why certain ingredients are used in the production of fast food chicken breasts.
Is Fast Food Grilled Chicken Healthy?
The CBC Marketplace team brought me on board early on as their nutrition expert to flag some of my concerns, analyze and apply the nutrition lab results, and to provide guidance on what to ask the food scientist.
I was aware of some of the sketchy ingredients used in frozen chicken and highlighted those for the team… but I was interested to see which fast food chains were using the least processed, healthiest chicken.
Watch the clip for a great overview of the nutrition findings!
Rubber Chicken, Anyone?
Are you surprised that your fast food restaurant isn’t using a whole chicken breast on your sandwich or salad? Even your cousin’s banquet hall wedding featured chicken that was similar to something you’d get in a packed airline meal.
The rubbery texture of your “100% white meat chicken” is a sign that this isn’t your typical home cooked chicken. Fast food chicken breast (and other food service chicken) has had several things added to it to make it seem more tender and allow it to be cooked, frozen, transported and reheated without losing too much moisture. The problem is, that impacts its nutritional value.
Fast Food Companies are Misleading You with “Healthy” and “Natural” 100% Chicken Breast
Companies are able to say they’re using 100% chicken breast when the piece of meat on your sandwich could be less than that. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, something can legally be called chicken if it has as little as 10% of its protein coming from chicken. Completely unacceptable, as far as I’m concerned.
Another issue I have with these fast food chains is their marketing is misleading at best. They’re using words like “natural” and “fresh” to refer to their chicken and feature healthy images in their marketing. This type of messaging creates a health halo over fast food grilled chicken, making it seem angelic when it isn’t. Fast food chains are purposely leading consumers into thinking they’re making a healthier choice when they aren’t. As a dietitian, there’s nothing that upsets me more than seeing people putting in a conscious effort to eat better but they’re not making the best choices because they’re misinformed.
Fast food grilled chicken breast is NOT your home-cooked chicken.
The “Big 3” Sketchy Ingredients in Fast Food Chicken
There are plenty of ingredients in fast food grilled chicken breast that aren’t the healthiest for us.
I prioritized 3 types of ingredients that I wanted consumers to be aware of and called them “The Big 3” fast food chicken ingredients to watch out for: 1) Sodium; 2) Phosphate Additives; 3) Sugars and Starches.
Overdoing it on sodium could increase the risk of high blood pressure and stress the kidneys. We know that fast food meals are famously high in sodium, but what about the “healthy” grilled chicken options?
- Compared to the same serving size of home cooked chicken breast, the fast food chicken samples had 7-10x times the amount of sodium!
- Some of the chicken sandwiches had as much or more sodium than a cheeseburger with medium fries or a poutine. Not exactly a heart-healthy choice. That’s 1000 mg of sodium or 2/3 the recommended daily limit for sodium!
2. Phosphate Additives
Phosphates enable protein to bind more water. They’re used to plump up fast food chicken and make it seem more juicy.
I believe that phosphate additives are the next trans fats. They may cause damage to the arteries and other blood vessels in large amounts.
Other potential health risks include osteoporosis and higher risk of death. It’s important to note that the research we have so far is based on association, not cause and effect… but disturbing trends nonetheless!
To put this risk into perspective, fast food chicken should be a once in a while choice… definitely not most days!
Another interesting note about phosphate additives: the amount of phosphate in these foods is not listed on the nutrition fact labels and in nutrient databases so it’s tough to know how much you’re getting. That’s a challenge for anyone with chronic kidney disease because phosphate in the diet needs to be limited.
- Of the 6 fast food chicken samples tested, only 1 didn’t have phosphate additives on the ingredients list… so read that list!
- Tip to avoid phosphate additives: Any word that contains “phos” (P-H-O-S) is a phosphate additive and you should look for an alternative that doesn’t contain these ingredients.
3. Sugars and Starches
Maltodextrin, corn starch, sugar, malt… what are all of these sugars and starches doing in your fast food grilled chicken breast?
Home-cooked chicken has 0 grams of carbs, but these fast food chicken samples have up to 10% of their calories coming from carbs thanks to starches and sugars that were added.
That may not seem like much in terms of carbs, but put that chicken on a bun with sugary condiments and guess what? Your fast food grilled chicken sandwich you thought was healthy is now the fast carb equivalent of eating 4 pieces of bread in one sitting. Not great for your blood sugar and insulin levels!
Fast Food Grilled Chicken: Lower in Protein than Home-Cooked
On average, the fast food chicken only had 3/4 the amount of protein as the home cooked chicken breast. Not surprising when you take a look at the long ingredient lists and all of the sugars and starches that are added.
Some of the fast food chicken used soy protein to up their protein content. The fast food chains claim these ingredients are added to the brine/marinade, but there has to be something holding these pieces of ground up chicken together… Hmmm…
DNA Test Reveals Subway Grilled Chicken is Less Than 50% Chicken
Subway has threatened to sue CBC over the Marketplace investigation that revealed Subway chicken is less than 50% chicken based on independent DNA lab results. The chicken samples were retested and the same result was found. According to DNA findings, Subway chicken is less than half chicken.
My take on the whole Subway response: You make low quality food. You got caught. Time to make a change to your recipe, don’t you think?
Thank goodness for investigative journalism shows like CBC Marketplace. Without them, we’d still be thinking we’re going to “eat fresh” and making a healthier choice.
Tips For Choosing Healthier Fast Food Grilled Chicken
In light of all of the sketchiness that’s in your fast food grilled chicken, you’re probably thinking, “Never again!” But we’ve all been in the situation where you’re on a road trip and there’s nothing to eat for miles other than fast food. So what should you look for if you wabnt the healthier fast food chicken?
- Look for chicken that isn’t breaded for fewer calories, less oil and fewer refined carbohydrates
- Check out the ingredients list. Avoid chicken with phosphate additives.
- Look at the nutrition facts table. Aim to keep sodium under 400 mg/meal.
Take Action for Healthier Chicken!
If you have concerns about ingredients or nutritional value of these foods, write to the fast food companies and write to the CFIA, FDA or government office to let them know that you want higher standards for what can be called chicken.
The best advice I can give you is to cook at home as often as possible. Check the ingredient list on your chicken and make sure it doesn’t have phosphate additives.
Do some meal prep and batch cook trays of chicken breasts to use in your sandwiches, salads, pasta and other recipes all week long.
Try my Roasted Balsamic Chicken Breasts for a delicious addition to your favorite recipes!
Any surprises for you in learning more about what’s in your fast food 100% white meat grilled chicken breast? Share in the comments below!