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Tofu McNuggets and the Reality of “Healthy” Fast Food

1280px-SGMcDI feel like this is something someone would have teased me about back in my vegetarian days. A prank played on an unsuspecting, gullible girl who could rarely find more than French fries to eat at a fast food venue.

All jokes aside, while I promise you I’m all about fast food joints making their menus lighter and adding healthier options, I never would have guessed in a million years this particular menu item would make the list.

Tofu nuggets.

Yes, they went there.

Of course, my first thought was something like, “Hooray, at least they’re looking out for vegans and vegetarians.” But lest I be surprised by one more thing the fast food conglomerates decided to do.

The tofu nuggets aren’t even, in fact, vegetarian.

According to a McDonald’s spokesperson, they’re technically described as vegetable-studded patties concocted from a mix of soybeans, onions, carrots, and shinjo, a sort of starch-fish paste concoction.

Mmm yum. Vegetable-studded patties, just what I wanted with my deep-fried potatoes.

The Tofu Shinjo Nuggets will be available in Japan only from now until September. They come with a ginger-flavored dipping sauce, which seems appropriate. It’s the tofu-at-McDonald’s part that has me scratching my head. Apparently, this idea wasn’t necessarily in response to people’s ever-changing and increasingly limited diets. Instead, some are claiming it was triggered by instances of rotten meat in some Mickey D’s chains due to a Chinese supplier. That’d have me turning my nose up to nuggets too, but I can’t say — even as a tofu lover — that tofu McNuggets would be my next choice on the menu.

While this particular menu item doesn’t sound appealing with its unclear ingredient description, it does make you wonder about the direction fast food is going. Like I said, I’m glad many fast food chains are shying away from the triple-quadruple-stacked multi-meat burgers and leaning towards healthier options like wraps and salads, but are they really hitting the nail on the head? A wrap or a salad sure sounds healthy, but if it’s laden with thick creamy dressing, cheese, and deep-fried meat, is it really any healthier than a simple burger? Not usually, but the idea itself tends to lead customers astray.

I have to say, I do eat fast food more than I should admit as a dietitian, but it’s probably still less than the average person. When I do eat fast food, I don’t typically go for the wraps or the salads. I don’t tend to make my choices by what’s the healthiest. Instead, I go by what I am going to enjoy eating the most. I tend to eat fast food when I’m traveling or on a road trip, meaning a salad is pretty much out of the question.

Eating a salad and driving is probably worse than texting and driving. If I were to eat fast food more regularly, I’d certainly aim for the healthier options on the menu. When it comes to my son, I’ve only let him eat fast food a few times, out of necessity, not because I think it’s the best choice. His options are limited since he has food allergies, so it would be nice if there were more options that didn’t include things that are battered and fried. If fast food menus included healthier options, it’d certainly open up the possibilities. I’d venture to say it’s the convenience of fast food that keeps us coming back for more – if it were just as convenient to get a healthier option, I’d be all for it.

I know fast food restaurants will never stop serving greasy burgers and French fries as long as that’s what the customers are buying, but perhaps this just means we as customers need to start voting with our orders and dollars.

I fear that the existence of menu items like tofu nuggets will continue to lead customers astray, thinking they are making a healthy choice while dining out, but in reality, it’s just as unhealthy as other menu options thanks to the frying and who-knows-what kind of processing. When we’re looking for healthy options for our kids, it helps to look at the ingredient list and the nutrition facts, which are now available at most fast food chains, either online or in stores. Instead of letting the name of an entrée sway you, look for options that have the fewest ingredients with the most pronounceable words. Look for options that are low in calories and sodium, and don’t forget to look at “add-on” options like dressings and sauces. At first glance a chicken sandwich may sound healthier than a standard burger, but looking at the nutrition facts may help you determine otherwise. You might be surprised that some chains have burgers that are truly made of just beef, while the ingredient list for a chicken patty goes on and on.

I’ll be curious to see how these tofu nuggets go over in Japan, a country used to eating tofu and not repelled by it like many Americans. I wonder if they’ll see it as a desirable option or a shame to tofu’s name. This isn’t the first time McDonald’s has catered a new menu option to a certain cuisine (think McArabia burgers, gazpacho, and vegemite) but it sure makes you scratch your head.

Image credit: WikiCommons

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