Grilled chicken breast is a super-lean protein, perfect for snacking and spicing up salads. The tricky part, of course, is the grilling. Who has the time? Tyson Grilled and Ready Chicken strips are fully cooked! What’s that, you’re thinking? Perfectly grilled, already-sliced chicken is as easy as opening a bag? While these pieces of poultry claim to be a quick and easy alternative to the fresh variety, I examined the label to determine if this chicken is another chemical-laden processed food or a great option for those who are pressed for time. Let’s see if Tyson can handle the heat… is this white meat treat Too Good to Be Food?
What’s in it:
CHICKEN BREAST MEAT WITH RIB MEAT, WATER, SEASONING, SUGAR, DEXTROSE, SOY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, SALT, NATURAL FLAVORS, SOY SAUCE (WHEAT, SOYBEANS, SALT), MALTODEXTRIN, YEAST EXTRACT, GARLIC POWDER, GUM ARABIC, ONION POWDER, POLYSORBATE 80, CARAMEL COLOR, NATURAL SMOKE FLAVOR. CONTAINS 2% OR LESS OF POTASSIUM LACTATE (FOR FLAVOR), MODIFIED FOOD STARCH, SALT, NATURAL FLAVOR, PROPYLENE GLYCOL, WATER, AND NATURAL FLAVORS, SODIUM PHOSPHATE, SODIUM DIACETATE (FOR FLAVOR), CARAMEL COLOR.
CHICKEN BREAST MEAT WITH RIB MEAT — No surprises here. But wasn’t this supposed to be chicken breast meat, only? Good start, though, chicken is at the top of this list, which means it’s the primary ingredient in this product, by weight.
SEASONING — "Seasoning" can mean "anything."
SUGAR — Well that's pretty self-explanatory. Sugar is sugar, and moderation is key. We all know that we have to watch the amount of sugar that we eat, so just keep that in mind. Do you add sugar to your chicken at home?
DEXTROSE — Dextrose is a simple sugar, made from cornstarch and easily broken down and absorbed by the body. In addition to adding super-sweetness (much, much sweeter than standard table sugar), it is often used to extend the shelf life of foods and keeps packaged foods from losing their color. While safe, dextrose really just adds more sugar.
SOY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE — Such a little bean… so much controversy… it’s good, it’s bad… what’s the deal? Soy protein concentrate is added to keep meats moist and boost protein without added fat. It’s created by dehulling and defatting a soybean while retaining its original fiber. Soy protein concentrates have received some criticism, however. Production methods for this additive may produce nitrosamines, compounds known to be carcinogenic. Studies also show that soy protein isolate interferes with the body’s absorption of other important nutrients, especially fat-soluble vitamins and minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, and copper.
SALT — Salt, simple and natural, acts as a preservative and enhances flavor. Watch the quantity, though!
NATURAL FLAVORS — Natural flavors are extracted from plant seeds, leaves, and stems, and used by food manufacturers for added flavor. Natural flavors always raise the question: what exactly are the natural flavors used? Manufacturers are not required to put in specifics. Personally, I’m not a fan of secret stuff in my food.
SOY SAUCE (WHEAT, SOYBEANS, SALT) — Soy sauce is made from fermented soybean paste. It adds a complex, savory flavor, and a little goes a long way! Soy sauce is high in sodium but also niacin, an important B vitamin shown to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
MALTODEXTRIN — A safe additive, maltodextrin is used to give foods texture. While it is generally regarded as safe, the general controversy surrounding it lies in its production methods. Most maltodextrin is derived from corn, but some is derived from wheat sources. Wheat-based maltodextrin is not considered gluten-free, so if you are gluten intolerant or have celiac disease, you must make sure the product is clearly labeled as 100 percent gluten-free!
YEAST EXTRACT — Used as a replacement for MSG (monosodium glutamate), yeast extract provides umami (salty/savory) flavor to many processed foods. However, it does contain free glutamic acid, a compound similar to MSG, which causes flare ups in MSG-sensitive people.
GARLIC POWDER — Garlic powder is made from dehydrated garlic and retains the health benefits of fresh garlic, including antibiotic and anti-cancer properties.
GUM ARABIC — Gum Arabic acts as a stabilizer, emulsifier, and thickener, meaning it keeps foods from decomposing, separating, and thinning out! It is generally regarded as safe for consumption, but studies on animals have shown toxicity to occur at certain levels of consumption, and the FDA says more studies are needed to determine possible allergenic effects of this filler.
ONION POWDER — Onion powder is made from dehydrated onion and adds flavor.
POLYSORBATE 80 — This type of emulsifier, or anti-separation agent, is commonly used in baked goods. The FDA places strict limits, however, on how much polysorbate 80, can be used in a food, to avoid potential harm. Not a good sign!
CARAMEL COLOR — This food colorant claims to come from "natural" sources like corn syrup, potatoes, or wheat. Remember that color additives like this give foods artificial color that appears fresh — key word appear! Always better to stick with natural colors and flavors.
NATURAL SMOKE FLAVOR — Natural Smoke Flavor can be tricky, since smoked and charred meats have been shown to have carcinogenic properties. "Natural" smoke flavor is produced by burning wood and isolating the odor compounds created by the burning process — those smoky smells. These compounds may give rise to free radicals in the body, which can cause cell damage and contribute to heart disease, cancer, and even premature aging. Keep in mind, however, that smoke flavor is usually added to foods in quantities so small as to make health hazard unlikely.
POTASSIUM LACTATE (FOR FLAVOR) — Potassium lactate is used to mask negative flavors, enhance positive flavors, and boost the color of meats. The additive also serves as a microbial growth inhibitor. It is generally safe for consumption but is simply an added flavor enhancer.
MODIFIED FOOD STARCH — This can be used to bind food ingredients or give items a smooth texture. Modified Food Starch is used in place of cornstarch (which breaks apart easily) to act as an anti-caking agent. It is safe, but highly processed.
SALT — MORE salt?!
PROPYLENE GLYCOL — Made from ocean greens (seaweed), this chemistry-lab product is used to keep fats and oils from separating in baked goods and icings. Called an emulsifier, it can also be used to thicken products without natural oils or fats, thereby saving calories. Thanks for the gesture, but I’ll take my seaweed without the chemical modification!
SODIUM PHOSPHATE — Sodium phosphate is not something I want in my food. This is a compound usually ingested by patients about to undergo a colonoscopy. That’s right, a colonoscopy, which means sodium phosphate is a diuretic! Diuretics flush out any remaining waste in the large intestine, to allow a clear view of the intestinal walls. Sodium phosphate is not usually added to foods in quantities large enough to clear your digestive system, completely, but some people can be sensitive to this additive’s diuretic effects.
SODIUM DIACETATE (FOR FLAVOR) — This preservative was declared safe by the FDA and has no effect on food’s physical properties. But don't forget: Sodium means one thing — more salt.
First of all, look at the length of this list! Tyson just got knocked out of the ring and is clearly Too Good to Be Food. Not only are the Grilled and Ready strips filled with stabilizers, artificial colors, and unnatural flavors, but they’re also loaded with multiple forms of sodium. As an alternative, take 10 minutes on a Sunday to grill about six chicken breasts, and then slice, and store them in the fridge for up to a week. To spice them up, throw on some cayenne, drizzle them with olive oil, salt, and pepper, or sprinkle with rosemary and thyme. You’ll have a meal in minutes.
Keri Glassman is a Registered Dietitian and founder of Keri Glassman, Nutritious Life. She contributes to Women's Health Magazine and is an author of 4 books, including her latest: The New You and Improved Diet, (Rodale) which hits stores Dec. 2012. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.