14 Fast Food Restaurants That Still Don't Use 100% Real Chicken

We love chicken. In 2020, just shy of 179 million Americans ate frozen fried chicken at some point, with that figure projected to increase by a further five million people by 2024, per Statista. Fried chicken is just one of those foods that's good anywhere, whether it's from your home freezer or served up in a fast food joint. But if you're eating your fried chicken in a restaurant, it's wise to be on your guard.

Buzzwords and phrases like "premium" and "all-white meat" can be common in some of the biggest fast food restaurants around when describing their chicken. But the truth of what's in these products can be a little more complicated. It's frustratingly common practice for chicken products in fast food places to not be made of 100% real chicken. Oftentimes, fast food restaurants will fill their food with additives and even other proteins, to keep costs down or to give their food a longer shelf life. But which restaurants out there are doing this, and are there any fast food chicken products that you should avoid entirely? We've got all the answers you need right here.

1. ‌Burger King's chicken nuggets contain way more than chicken

Burger King may have gained its fame (and its name) thanks to its sandwiches, but there's far more than just patties on the menu. Its chicken nuggets are a staple of the fast food eatery. But you didn't honestly expect those little morsels of meat to be 100% chicken that just happened to be in nugget shape, did you? On the contrary, Burger King chicken nuggets have way more than just pure meat in them.

As well as containing chicken breast and rib meat, Burger King's chicken nuggets also have a host of flavorings. These include autolyzed yeast extract, a substance derived from yeast that tends to boost the umami flavor of foods. Other flavor enhancers in the nuggets include disodium guanylate, a form of salt that is sometimes used in tandem with MSG, and which is also found under the name E627. These chicken nuggets are additionally injected with water and chicken broth, presumably to bulk out the product and add both moisture and flavor, and they also contain dried chicken.

You only have to take one look at the allergen information from Burger King to realize that these nuggets contain far more than just meat. They're unsuitable for anyone who can't eat eggs, milk, wheat, gluten, celery, and sulfur dioxide.

2. Whataburger's chicken products get protein from other sources

When you buy a chicken product in a fast food store, you kind of expect it to be just chicken, right? Like, surely that's not an unreasonable assumption to make? Alas, if the chicken you're buying is from the primarily Southern States-based Whataburger, you may be slightly disappointed on that front.

Whataburger's chicken strips may be tasty, but they're not just 100% real chicken. A large proportion of these Southern-style strips are anything but chicken meat, with up to 12% of each tender containing ingredients like water, sodium phosphate, and isolated soy protein. This last ingredient is a common fixture in processed foods. A protein derived from soybeans, isolated soy protein is a cost-effective way to bulk out foods.

It's useful to note that isolated soy protein isn't necessarily bad for you, unless, of course, you're allergic to soy, in which case you should keep away from all products containing it, per Stanford Medicine. If you can tolerate soy, this form of protein has good nutritional value, and can be a cheap and healthy way to boost your protein intake. But is it chicken? It is not.

3. Despite Subway's controversies, their chicken still isn't 100% there

Subway's relationship with chicken is a long and controversial one. In 2017, CBC's "Marketplace" disclosed the results of an investigation into the DNA of the chicken that Subway used in its sandwiches, claiming that some of its chicken products were made from non-chicken material, predominantly from soy. Subway, for its part, responded to the controversy, reaffirming its claim that its products use real chicken breast, and pushing back against the results of the study.

Regardless of the actual ratio of chicken to soy in its products, though, it seems clear that they're not entirely made of chicken meat alone. As of July 2022, both its regular grilled chicken and its sweet onion teriyaki glazed chicken contains a proportion of soy protein concentrate, amongst various other additives. Its oven-roasted chicken patty, meanwhile, doesn't seem to contain the same additions in the form of soy protein. It has its own additives, though, including potato starch, dextrose (a form of sugar used to add sweetness), and carrageenan. Because of the addition of soy protein to the grilled chicken products, it's unsuitable for anyone with a soy allergy.

4. McDonald's McNuggets may not contain pink slime — but it's not just chicken

McDonald's Chicken McNuggets — has there ever been a more controversial foodstuff? These undeniably delicious bites of chicken have long been questioned for their contents, with images of pink slime being piped from a machine weighing heavy on the public imagination. The truth, you'll be pleased to hear, is that Chicken McNuggets are in fact not made from pink slime. But they're also not just unadorned pieces of chicken, either.

In fact, as you might expect from a food product that tastes the same no matter where you buy it in the world, McDonald's chicken nuggets are made with a specific, technical, and lengthy list of ingredients. Sure, there's white boneless chicken in them. But there are also several different types of flour, starch, a range of different vegetable oils, leavening products, flavorings, lemon juice solids (yeah, we were confused, too), and spices. McDonald's chicken nuggets also contain dextrose for sweetness, corn flour, and a fairly significant amount of salt, as well as yeast extract to add flavor to the little meaty morsels. These slime-less, timeless nuggets are chock-full of ingredients, y'all.

5. Smashburger's chicken tenders have multiple ingredients

Smashburger doesn't just deal in burgers, and for chicken lovers, its chicken tenders offering can be a great choice. But if you crave white meat and white meat alone, you're probably better off grabbing some chicken breasts from the store and making your own meal.

Smashburger's chicken tenders don't just contain extra ingredients beyond chicken, but the proportion they do so is pretty wild. Up to 20% of every chicken tender is comprised of non-chicken items. The fifth that isn't just chicken is a heady combination of fats, flour, acids, leavening products, sugar, and starches. There are also flavoring products, like monosodium glutamate, and good old-fashioned baking soda, as well as one ingredient intriguingly described as "flavor." Hmm.

Finally, folks who are looking for chicken and just chicken should be aware that while the tenders don't contain any other type of meat, they are fried in beef tallow. This beef-derived fat might be a no-go for certain individuals, including those following a pollotarian diet, and people who avoid beef for religious purposes.

6. Arby's chicken has a range of other proteins

Arby's is the master of offering pretty much any fast food item you'd care to eat up on its menu, from Greek gyros to its famous roast beef sandwiches. But when you order a food item from Arby's, or indeed anywhere, you sort of expect it to be ... what you ordered. So, if you're getting the Pecan Chicken Salad Sandwich or the Prime-Cut Chicken Tenders, you'd hope that the chicken is, well, chicken.

The sad truth, however, is that it is not just chicken in those cuts of meat. Take the Buttermilk Chicken Fillet, which contains a host of other ingredients to help it achieve its flavor. One of these ingredients is whey protein concentrate. Commonly consumed by athletes and bodybuilders, whey protein is frequently added to other foods to give them a textural and tasty boost and help them last longer on the shelf. As for those chicken tenders, well, other proteins are lurking in them too. Arby's chicken tenders have both hydrolyzed soy and corn protein in them. Both proteins are again used for their additions to flavor. But neither of them, it's safe to say, is chicken.

7. Domino's chicken contains more than you think

As Domino's is one of the biggest pizza chains out there, it makes sense that it might need to tailor its food products to stay fresh and tasty, even as it works its way down the supply line to your local store. But it's still somewhat surprising to see what ends up in its items. Even its plainest, most boring chicken items that nestle upon your pizza have additions to them. Items like food starch and regulators are placed into the chicken, which is then, of course, placed into your mouth.

Food starches, particularly modified food starches, are commonplace in fast food chicken items. These are highly processed food starches that are often derived from corn or tapioca and are usually put in food to improve its texture and make it last longer, particularly when the food is frozen or warm. As with other additives, modified food starch is rigorously tested, and is safe to be included in food. But if you're looking for 100% real chicken on your pizza, you might be better off making that pie at home yourself.

8. Wendy's chicken patties are pretty lacking in actual chicken

Fast food behemoth Wendy's famously prides itself in using "fresh, never frozen" beef for its hamburger patties. But what about its chicken? Unfortunately, on the poultry side, its promises might be slightly less rigorous. It might surprise you to learn that not only are Wendy's chicken patties not 100% made of real chicken, but almost half of each patty is something else entirely.

In the chicken patty in Wendy's Classic Chicken sandwich, only 56% of it is chicken breast. The other 44% is a mix of various other ingredients, which seem to be in there for flavoring, texture, and to regulate its structure. After chicken breast, the second ingredient is water, followed by wheat flour, implying that both of these are added to give the patty some extra heft (and, in the case of wheat flour, potentially for its breaded coating). The chicken patty also contains raising agents, presumably to help it puff up when it's cooked. And for that extra chicken-y flavor, it also has "dehydrated chicken powder" lurking inside it. We've got to be honest: We can think of many ingredients that are far more appetizing than that.

9. Carl's Jr. doesn't shy away from extra ingredients

Most fast food joints go for the classic nugget shape for their bite-size chicken offerings. But Carl's Jr.? It does things a little differently. Carl's Jr.'s chicken stars are in a world of their own, shape-wise. But as the eagle-eyes amongst you have probably noticed, chicken is most certainly not star-shaped. So, what goes into these to produce such a result?

The answer is: a lot of things. Its chicken stars, shaped in the formation of Carl's Jr.'s logo, contain a frankly pretty baffling list of items. These include soy protein, the slightly ominous "chicken type flavor" (which has corn protein in it), and perhaps most surprisingly, beef flavor. This beef flavor, which you rightly probably don't expect in a chicken choice, has three different types of protein in it (from hydrolyzed soy, wheat, and corn protein) and beef fat.

And that's not where Carl's Jr. ends things when it comes to its chicken products. Its spicy chicken sandwich ingredients are just as bizarre, with the chicken patty carrying an "isolated oat product" in it. The patty also has water added, and a host of flavor additives, including monosodium glutamate. And as for the bun? It has microcrystalline cellulose inside it, which is a refined wood pulp. It's safe to eat, but we wouldn't blame you if you gave this one a miss.

10. ‌Dairy Queen chicken strips contain soy protein

Dairy Queen may not be best-known for its chicken selection, with most people heading there for its Blizzards. But if you get a little peckish for something savory during your visit, you might be tempted to grab a portion of its chicken strips.

If you do, though, don't expect it to be solely chicken in each bite. Although DQ promises that its strips are all white meat, a substantial section of the meal isn't chicken at all. As much as 18% of the strips are a range of additional ingredients which assist in amping up its flavor and making each bite bigger and juicier.

Most interestingly, hydrolyzed soy protein is listed after water as the second ingredient added in, implying that it may exist, proportionally, in fairly high amounts. Hydrolyzed soy protein, like other hydrolyzed proteins, is added to fast food items to make things taste better, with the substance having a close relationship with MSG. Sodium phosphate is also a key ingredient, which is used to upgrade the chicken's texture, and potentially help it to stay fresh for longer.

11. Chicken rings at White Castle have several ingredients in them

So, we may not be full-fledged animal experts, but we know one thing about chickens: They don't look like rings. So White Castle's chicken rings immediately raise some eyebrows, before you even dive into what's inside them. And when you do, you'll find a pretty wild world of extra ingredients, making this product anything but simple.

One of the additions that you might not expect to see in these rings is powdered cooked chicken. A product made by spray drying chicken meat, and turning it into a fine powder, it's used to impart additional chicken flavor into foods. Carrageenan is another ingredient that you might not love the idea of eating. This widespread additive is a derivative of red seaweed and is often added to food as either a preservative or to bulk it out. However, while it's pretty much everywhere in the food industry, carrageenan isn't without its controversies. And as well as possibly causing an upset stomach and bloating, several studies have pointed toward the potential for carrageenan to cause long-term problems, potentially raising the risk of colon cancer, per Healthline.

12. Think Del Taco chicken products are 100% chicken? Think again

In the world of fast food, it's not unreasonable to assume that tacos are a possibly fresher and less processed option to go for. After all, grilled meats piled high with fresh vegetables and salsa doesn't sound that bad. But chain taco restaurants, like Del Taco, have had to make adjustments to ensure the food experience remains the same in every branch. And so, Del Taco's items, including their grilled chicken taco, can contain more than it might seem at first glance.

The Del Taco grilled chicken taco's chicken is crammed with ingredients. Much of these are seasonings and flavorings, which help to give the tacos their spicy, multilayered flavor. But some of these flavorings are probably things you won't find in your kitchen at home, and are proteins in their own right, like dried whey protein concentrate and hydrolyzed soy protein. There are also corn syrup solids, lime juice solids, and maltodextrin, an ultra-processed product designed to boost sweetness, made from thoroughly processed carbohydrates. Elsewhere, there's corn gluten and gelatin. Guess it takes a lot of additions to make things taste like regular old chicken, huh?

13. The chicken strips and nuggets at Jack in the Box aren't 100% chicken

You might just be able to forgive fast food joints that aren't necessarily known for their chicken for delivering products that aren't 100% meat and nothing else. But Jack in the Box is a different story. With a menu that champions chicken tenders and nuggets as a key offering, you'd think it might try and keep things simple.

But, like so many fast food restaurants before it, Jack in the Box's chicken items have additional ingredients. Its strips, nuggets, popcorn chicken, and patties all have multiple additives, often containing wheat and milk, making them troublesome for folks with certain allergies. Its chicken strips contain buttermilk solids, which may be used in place of other dried proteins, like soy protein isolate, for stability and to help retain water in food.

Other non-chicken proteins pop up elsewhere in the ingredients list of its products, with hydrolyzed corn protein in its spicy popcorn chicken. Its regular popcorn chicken, meanwhile, contains a slightly vague-sounding "isolated oat product." Look, we're all for oats, but we prefer them in a bowl of oatmeal, as opposed to injected into otherwise-delicious chicken.

14. Culver's chicken contains a few things

Culver's branding is focused on a family-friendly, homey vibe, with a menu that ranges from sandwiches to seafood. That menu, as with many fast food restaurants, also includes a selection of chicken items for those poultry fans out there. But, as many fast food restaurants also do, Culver's doesn't exactly shy away from using extra ingredients in its chicken, making it decidedly not 100% chicken and chicken alone.

Its chicken tenders and crispy chicken breasts are especially full of extra things. Modified tapioca starch is listed as the second ingredient after water in its chicken tenders, and it's generally used to make food feel better when you bite into it, and thicken an overall product. They also have sodium tripolyphosphate in them, again for texture, mouthfeel, and bulk. Its crispy chicken breasts, additionally, have a veritable universe of flavorings added into them, with spice extractives, torula yeast, hydrolyzed soy protein, and the simple-but-ominous "chicken flavor" for good measure. And that's all before you get to the breading that coats it. Jeez, who knew that making chicken was this complicated?