Orange chicken is a popular Chinese takeout dish consisting of fried chicken pieces coated in a sweet, sticky orange sauce. It was created in the late 20th century in the United States and has become a staple menu item at many North American Chinese restaurants. But is this tasty dish actually good for you? In this article, we’ll take a comprehensive look at the nutritional value of orange chicken and determine whether it can be part of a healthy diet.
Nutritional Profile of Orange Chicken
To understand if orange chicken is healthy, we first need to examine what it contains from a nutritional standpoint. Here is an overview of the main nutrients found in a typical serving:
Calories and Macronutrients
A single serving of orange chicken contains 650 calories, which is a significant amount for one meal. It is also high in fat at 24g total, 4g of which are saturated. The sodium content is very high at 930mg, or about 40% of the daily recommended limit. Orange chicken is lower in protein at 13g per serving.
The high sugar content of 12g also contributes significant empty calories. While orange chicken does contain some carbohydrates from batter and minimal fiber from orange peel and vegetables, the nutritional value of these is negligible.
Vitamins and Minerals
Orange chicken doesn’t contain significant amounts of important vitamins and minerals. Here is the typical vitamin and mineral content:
|Percent Daily Value
The only nutrient with a significant daily value is iron at 8%. Vitamins A and C, as well as calcium, are present in low amounts. Any vitamins and minerals come from small amounts of carrots, onions, and orange peel used.
Overall, orange chicken is high in calories, fat, sodium, and sugar. It lacks protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are part of a balanced healthy diet.
Health Effects of Ingredients in Orange Chicken
To better evaluate the health impacts of this popular dish, we need to look at the effects of its main ingredients individually:
Orange chicken is typically made with deep-fried chicken pieces like breaded boneless thighs or nuggets. Frying adds a significant amount of extra fat and calories compared to baked or grilled chicken. The frying process can also destroy vitamins and create harmful trans fats if hydrogenated oils are used.
Eating fried foods like this regularly is associated with weight gain and obesity, two of the leading health risk factors. The high sodium and cholesterol in fried chicken can also contribute to hypertension and heart disease over time.
The chicken pieces are coated in a batter before frying. This batter contains refined carbohydrates like white flour or cornstarch. Refined carbs provide calories but very little nutritional value. They also cause a rapid spike in blood sugar levels. Frequent consumption is linked to overeating, high blood sugar, weight gain, and diabetes.
Sugary Orange Sauce
What gives orange chicken its signature flavor is the sweet, sticky orange sauce. This is typically made from orange juice concentrate, oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, corn starch, and a large amount of brown sugar.
The high sugar content provides excess calories without nutritional benefit. Over time, diets high in added sugar lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses. While orange juice provides some vitamin C and citrus flavor, its nutritional value is minimal in the small amounts used.
Sodium and Preservatives
Many prepared orange chicken dishes and sauces from restaurants or frozen meals also contain very high levels of sodium and chemical preservatives.
Consuming too much sodium can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and kidney problems. Preservatives like MSG have also been linked to adverse effects in sensitive individuals, such as headaches, nausea, and dizziness.
Healthier Alternatives to Orange Chicken
Based on its high calorie, fat, sugar, sodium, and refined carb content, orange chicken is generally not considered a healthy dish, especially for regular consumption.
However, orange chicken can occasionally be enjoyed as part of an otherwise balanced diet for most people. Here are some ways to make it healthier:
Order Steamed or Grilled Chicken
Many Chinese restaurants will make entrees to order. Opt for steamed or grilled chicken instead of fried to eliminate hundreds of calories of oil.
Request Light Sauce on Side
Ask for the sauce to be served on the side and use sparingly to control portion size and calories.
Look for Lower Sodium Options
Search the menu for lower sodium orange chicken dishes made without MSG. This will help reduce daily sodium intake.
Enjoy with Vegetables
Pair orange chicken with steamed mixed vegetables instead of fried rice or noodles to add nutrients and fiber.
Make Healthier Orange Chicken at Home
Cook baked chicken coated in a lighter orange glaze with natural sweeteners, fresh orange juice, ginger, garlic and less sugar and sodium. Serve over brown rice with broccoli for a healthier home-cooked meal.
Substitute Similar Chinese Dishes
For home, try lighter chicken stir fries with vegetables in orange sauce. Or, enjoy chicken lettuce wraps for a low calorie, high nutrient alternative.
The Bottom Line
Orange chicken is a beloved Chinese takeout dish, but its high calorie, fat, sugar and sodium content make it hard to consider it truly healthy. Occasionally enjoying this meal is fine for most people, but it should not be a regular part of a balanced diet due to its lack of nutrients and potential health risks when consumed frequently.
Making small modifications when dining out and choosing lighter recipes at home can help make this restaurant favorite somewhat better for you. But overall, orange chicken is one of the more unhealthy Chinese menu options. Focus on healthier dishes full of lean proteins, fresh vegetables and whole grains instead. With some mindful changes, it’s possible to eat Chinese food that satisfies your taste buds and your body!