If you've lived in the United States for the last 40 years, chances are high you've had a chicken nugget. They've long been a staple for families — Americans ate 2.3 billion servings of them in restaurants last year, according to The NPD Group.
But Americans' favorite processed meat could be losing favor with consumers — data shows that chicken nuggets are appearing on menus less often, and demand in restaurants declined from 2017 to 2018, according to NPD. Nuggets are even seen less often on the kids' menu, where they've long been a mainstay for busy parents, according to Datassential.
Consumer preferences might be changing for three reasons: health concerns, media attention and new competition.
Chicken nuggets aren't seen as the most wholesome protein option. When CNBC did an informal poll in New York's Times Square, no one knew exactly what is in a chicken nugget. The products have also been at the center of bad press, including a debunked "pink slime" photo allegedly showing what nuggets are made of, and recent recalls.
Nuggets are also considered a classic, which means that they're not likely to benefit from any product innovation.
Customers also may be buying more chicken strips. They're seen as a more wholesome, grown-up version of chicken nuggets and are available more widely on menus. Restaurants have realized that customers are willing to pay a bit more for them, which means they have a higher profit margin.
"I don't really see how they're going to make a comeback in the future because it's not a product that most restaurants, especially in fast food, drive their innovation around," said Dean Small, CEO of Synergy Restaurant Consultants. "Chicken nuggets are an incremental purchase, it's like an add-on."