Nutritionists and health experts hate them, people love them and there’s even a song about them. Chicken nuggets or `nugs` as those in the know call them are breaded or battered chicken pieces which are deep fried- usually in vegetable oil these days. A lot of people imagine it was MacDonalds who invented what they call McNuggets in their usual McWay. In fact Nugs were invented back in the 1950s and it wasn’t until 1980 that McDonalds launched their McVersion. In fact Nugs were the creation of Robert C Baker, a food scientist working at Cornell University. 

Baker’s driver in creating such a product was mostly to do with the situation poultry farmers found themselves in after the Second World War when demand had fallen far below the amount of birds the farmers were raising. This was partly because chickens were inconvenient to cook as they were sold whole in those days. What the farmers needed was something to make chicken meat more sellable to the public.

Baker had already been experimenting with different ways of selling food including smaller eggs, turkey ham and canned hash. He and his team would go on to develop over 50 different chicken related products including chicken baloney, chicken steak, chicken salami, chicken chili, chicken hash and chicken pastrami. Alongside a student called Joseph Marshall, Baker managed to find a way to create a smaller chicken portion – see separate paragraph for the details. If you’re a regular consumer of Nugs you may care to skip over it!

The secret of the original chicken nuggets: or Chicken Sticks as they were originally called. Baker solved two problems to enable the creation of the first chicken nuggets . To keep ground meat together without a skin around it by grinding raw chicken with salt and vinegar to draw out moisture, and then adding a binder of powdered milk and pulverized grains. To keep batter attached to the meat during both freezing and cooking processes by shaping the sticks, freezing them, coating them in an eggy batter and cornflake crumbs, and then freezing them a second time to -10 degrees. These innovations also meant that you could create these items in any shape. Yum. 
The Nugster! Robert C Baker the inventor of chicken nuggets

After perfecting this process Baker, Marshall and three others made enough Chicken Sticks to sell 200 boxes. However ongoing sales were slow and as he was employed by the university Baker soon moved on to other work. Unfortunately neither he nor Cornell patented the idea meaning that they never made any money from the millions of sales that would occur in subsequent decades. In fact few people knew he’d even invented them instead crediting McDonalds with the idea. Baker remained with the university until he retired and even on campus was better known for a barbecue sauce he developed. It was only upon his death in 2006 that his involvement in chicken nuggets came to be known at all.

McDonalds didn’t get involved until 1977, though it would seem they developed their version without direct recourse to Baker’s work (albeit using his innovations) and there was never any contact between the two parties.  Following US government guidelines urging people to eat less red meat for health reasons burger sales, the company’s well established line, started to fall so they looked at using chicken as well. The first two ideas - a chicken pot pie and fried chicken on the bone- failed; the latter was seen as too similar to rival KFC. Then they developed what they dubbed McNuggets which debuted in 1980. The word nugget comes from the name given to a small lump of gold or other precious metal or a small piece of valuable information.

Chicken nuggets do have a poor reputation as being unhealthy and there have been a string of reports over the years that have largely concluded they have a very high fat content. One expert said: “Their name is a misnomer.”  However claims that these days they still contain “mechanically separated chicken” which is a sort of paste created by grinding machines is certainly untrue. In 2003 McDonalds started using white meat pieces and other companies followed soon after. Even tv chef Jamie Oliver- once the bete noir of the nug- now has a recipe for what he describes as a “proper chicken nugget”.

Last year McDonalds made a big change by removing artificial preservatives from chicken nuggets altogether and there was a 10% rise in sales though there has been criticism that the sauces people dip them in still contain such preservatives. American vlogger Nick Bean even released a song celebrating chicken nuggets which has been viewed several million times and inspired others to film themselves singing along. Altogether now: “If you like chicken nuggets then you gotta sing along, if you like chicken nuggets, this is your favourite song….”

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