Dr. Robert Cook - Is It Bad For You? Approved by Dr. Robert Cook

Is Sesame Chicken Bad For You?



Short answer

Sesame chicken can be high in calories, fats, sugars, and sodium, posing a risk for metabolic diseases if consumed excessively. However, in moderation and with balanced meals, it can provide a good protein source. Healthier alternatives exist, like baking instead of frying and using reduced-sugar sauces.



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Long answer

Nutritional Content of Sesame Chicken

Understanding the nutritional profile of sesame chicken can help gauge its impact on your diet. This popular dish, often found in Chinese-American cuisine, is a combination of breaded and fried chicken pieces tossed in a sweet and savory sauce, then sprinkled with sesame seeds. While it's undeniably delicious, the nutritional content can be a cause for dietary consideration.

The nutritional value of sesame chicken can vary widely depending on the recipe and portion size. However, a typical serving of sesame chicken from a restaurant can contain the following:

  • Calories: 300-500 calories per cup
  • Protein: 14-25 grams
  • Total Fat: 15-30 grams
  • Saturated Fat: 2-5 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 20-40 grams
  • Sugars: 8-20 grams
  • Sodium: 400-1000 mg
  • Fiber: 1-3 grams
  • Cholesterol: 40-60 mg

Let's delve deeper into the specific components that makeup sesame chicken:

Breaded Chicken: The chicken, often white meat like tenderloins or breast, is breaded with flour, eggs, and sometimes bread crumbs or cornstarch. This contributes to the dish’s high-carbohydrate and fat content.

Sauce: The sauce typically comprises soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, and other seasonings and thickeners. High in sodium and sugars, it significantly influences the overall nutritional content.

Sesame Seeds: Sesame seeds add a slight nutritional boost, providing healthy fats, protein, and a range of micro-nutrients, including calcium, magnesium, and zinc. However, the quantity used is generally small; thus, the impact on the dish's nutritional value is minimal.

It's also worth noting that many restaurants serve sesame chicken with a side of white rice or fried rice, which adds to the total calorie, carbohydrate, and sodium content of the meal.

A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition highlights that meals high in refined carbs and sugars, such as those found in breaded and deep-fried dishes, can contribute to a higher risk of metabolic diseases when consumed in excess. Additionally, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health warns against high sodium intake due to the potential risks of high blood pressure and heart disease.

Despite these concerns, it's also essential to note that sesame chicken provides a decent amount of protein, which is vital for muscle building and repair. The key is consuming this dish in moderation and balancing it with other nutrient-dense foods to maintain a well-rounded diet.

Ultimately, when assessing if sesame chicken is a healthful choice, it's beneficial to consider your overall dietary patterns and nutritional needs. While it can be included as an occasional indulgence, this dish should be balanced with more nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins to ensure a well-rounded nutritional intake.

Saturated Fat and Sodium Levels in Breaded Chicken

Sesame chicken, a popular dish in Chinese-American cuisine, typically consists of breaded, deep-fried chicken pieces that are tossed in a sweet and savory sauce, and garnished with sesame seeds. While this dish can provide some nutritional benefits, such as protein from the chicken, it's essential to consider the saturated fat and sodium levels, particularly in the breaded and deep-fried components.

Deep frying adds a significant amount of saturated fat to chicken. Saturated fats are known to raise LDL cholesterol, which is often referred to as "bad" cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends a limit on saturated fat intake to no more than 13 grams per day for a 2,000 calorie diet.

Preparation of sesame chicken often involves dipping chicken pieces in batter and rolling them in flour or breadcrumbs before frying. This process not only increases the dish's fat content but also its calorie count. Let's look at the estimated saturated fat content in breaded chicken:

  • 3 oz of breaded, fried chicken breast: approximately 3-4 grams of saturated fat
  • 1 cup of breaded, fried chicken pieces: around 4-5 grams of saturated fat

As for sodium, sesame chicken can be quite high, especially due to the sauce and any additional seasoning. Sodium is necessary for bodily functions, but excessive intake can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that adults should consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day.

Condiments and sauces can contain large amounts of sodium, sometimes exceeding 400-500 mg per tablespoon. Therefore, the overall sodium content of sesame chicken can easily surpass recommended daily limits, particularly if consumed in large portions or alongside other high-sodium dishes. Below is the estimated sodium content for a typical serving of sesame chicken:

  • A typical restaurant serving of sesame chicken: from 1,000 to 2,000 mg of sodium

It's important to note that nutritional content can vary significantly based on the recipe and method of preparation. For those concerned with saturated fat and sodium intake, it may be beneficial to seek out versions of sesame chicken that are baked rather than fried, use less batter, or feature reduced-sodium sauces. Additionally, consulting nutrition labels or restaurant nutrition facts, when available, provides more precise information for making healthier choices.

When enjoying sesame chicken, portion control is vital. Opting for smaller servings, and complementing the dish with sides like steamed vegetables or brown rice can help balance overall saturated fat and sodium consumption. Deliberately breaking up the intake of such entrees with meals that are lower in these components throughout the day can contribute to maintaining a balanced diet.

Those with existing health concerns related to cholesterol and blood pressure or those who are actively managing their intake of saturated fats or sodium, should particularly be mindful of dishes like sesame chicken which are potentially high in these nutrients.

Added Sugars and Caloric Density of the Glaze

When examining the nutritional profile of sesame chicken, it's crucial to zero in on the glaze, which often serves as the primary vessel for both added sugars and calories. The typical glaze that accompanies this popular dish can significantly impact an individual's daily sugar and caloric intake.

Added sugars are sweeteners that are incorporated into foods during processing or preparation, as opposed to naturally occurring sugars found in fruits and certain dairy products. The American Heart Association recommends that women should consume no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day, and men should limit their intake to 36 grams (9 teaspoons).

The glaze used in sesame chicken, frequently made from ingredients like honey, brown sugar, and sometimes corn syrup, can easily surpass these recommendations in just a single serving. To illustrate, a typical serving of sesame chicken could contain upwards of 20 grams of added sugar, approaching or even exceeding the daily limit advised for women.

Furthermore, the caloric density of such a sweet and thick glaze is noteworthy. Calories from sugars are particularly concerning since they provide 'empty calories' – calories devoid of essential nutrients that the body needs to function optimally. The glaze can substantially increase the total caloric content of the dish. Depending on portion size and recipe specifics, a single serving of sesame chicken may contain anywhere from 300 to 600 calories, with a significant portion deriving from the high-sugar glaze. This calorie range, especially on the upper end, accounts for a substantial part of an average adult's daily caloric needs, which ranges from 1,600 to 3,000 calories depending on age, sex, and level of physical activity.

Bearing in mind the nutritional implications, it's essential to consider portion sizes and the frequency of consumption when enjoying sesame chicken. For those who are monitoring their sugar and calorie intake due to health concerns like diabetes, weight management, or heart health, it would be advisable to limit the portion size or seek out alternative recipes that use lower-sugar glaze variants.

Choosing a dish of sesame chicken from a restaurant that discloses nutritional information or preparing it at home where one can control the ingredients used in the glaze can make a significant difference. Homemade glaze options could include reduced-sugar recipes or natural sweeteners with a lower glycemic index, which may not spike blood sugar levels as sharply.

It is also worth noting that several studies have highlighted the risks associated with high sugar consumption. These risks can include metabolic syndrome, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. With these considerations in mind, understanding the added sugars and caloric density of the glaze in sesame chicken is pivotal for making informed dietary choices.

Preservatives and Additives in Sesame Chicken

When assessing the health impacts of sesame chicken, it's vital not merely to consider the main ingredients but also to delve into the less noticeable components, such as preservatives and additives. These substances can significantly influence the nutritional quality and safety of the dish.

Many commercial or restaurant varieties of sesame chicken might include preservatives and additives for various reasons:

  • Flavor enhancement: Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a common flavor enhancer, may be used to intensify the savory taste.
  • Color retention: Sodium benzoate or sodium sulfite may be present to maintain the colorful appearance of the sauce and chicken over time.
  • Texture improvement: Emulsifiers such as soy lecithin might be added to stabilize the sauce, preventing separation of oils and water-based components.
  • Shelf-life extension: Various preservatives can be employed to inhibit bacterial growth and extend the shelf life of the pre-made dish.

While these additives can serve practical purposes in food preparation and storage, their health implications are a cause for concern for some individuals. For instance, studies suggest that MSG, despite its FDA classification as "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS), may cause symptoms like headaches, flushing, and sweating in sensitive individuals, commonly referred to as "MSG symptom complex".

Furthermore, preservatives such as sodium benzoate have been scrutinized due to their potential to form benzene, a known carcinogen, when combined with vitamin C (ascorbic acid) under certain conditions, such as the presence of heat or light. While the levels in foods are typically low, the cumulative exposure from various sources can be problematic.

On the other hand, some preservatives and additives may carry little to no risk when consumed in moderation. It's the dose that often determines the potential for harm. Health experts recommend that while occasional consumption of foods with these additives is unlikely to cause harm for the majority of people, regular intake should be approached with caution, particularly for those with sensitivities or pre-existing health conditions.

To minimize risks associated with preservatives and additives in sesame chicken:

  • Choose dishes made with natural ingredients and without additional preservatives when possible.
  • Ask for ingredient information at restaurants or seek out clear labeling on prepackaged products.
  • Consider preparing sesame chicken at home using fresh, whole ingredients to control what goes into your food.

In summary, while some preservatives and additives might be safe in small amounts for the general population, their presence in sesame chicken is worth examining, especially for those with certain health concerns or dietary restrictions. Consumers are encouraged to make informed decisions based on their health priorities and to opt for products with transparent ingredient lists.

Allergens in Sesame Chicken: Sesame Seeds and Gluten

Sesame seeds, a primary ingredient in sesame chicken, contain one of the nine major allergens recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Allergic reactions to sesame can range from mild, such as hives or skin rashes, to severe, including anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening condition. The prevalence of sesame allergies is lower than other top allergens like peanuts or shellfish, but awareness and diagnosis are increasing.

According to a study published in "The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology," an estimated 0.23% of U.S. children and adults are reported to have a sesame allergy. Individuals with known allergies to sesame should exercise caution and avoid sesame chicken.

Gluten is another concern in sesame chicken, primarily due to the wheat found in soy sauce and breading of the chicken. While not an allergen in the traditional sense, gluten can provoke severe reactions in individuals with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The ingestion of gluten by someone with these conditions can trigger symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and damage to the small intestine over time.

There is a misconception that only those with celiac disease need to avoid gluten, but this is not the case. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity can also cause similar, though typically less severe, symptoms. A study published by BMC Medicine revealed that non-celiac gluten sensitivity could influence up to 6% of the population, indicating that a significant number of people should be cautious about consuming gluten-containing foods such as sesame chicken.

For those concerned with allergens like sesame seeds or gluten, here are some steps to consider:

  • Confirm Ingredients: Always check the list of ingredients in sesame chicken, as recipes can vary, and some may contain more allergens than others.
  • Ask the Chef: When dining out, communicate any dietary restrictions with the chef or a restaurant manager to ensure that your meal is prepared safely.
  • Seek Alternatives: Look for gluten-free soy sauce and breadcrumb alternatives or request sesame chicken without breading to reduce gluten content.
  • Read Labels: For pre-packaged sesame chicken, examine the labeling for mentions of "contains wheat" or "contains sesame" to identify potential allergens.
  • Carry Medication: Persons with severe allergies should always carry their prescribed epinephrine auto-injector or other emergency medications.

It's important to note that while sesame and gluten are the primary allergens in sesame chicken, other ingredients such as eggs, peanuts, or even additives could also cause allergic reactions. Consulting with an allergist can provide personalized advice for dealing with food allergies and sensitivities.

The Balance Between Portion Size and Moderation

When examining the health impact of any food, including sesame chicken, the principles of portion size and moderation are paramount. Consuming this popular dish in appropriate amounts is crucial for maintaining a balanced diet without overindulging in calories and fats, which are typically high in breaded and fried restaurant varieties of sesame chicken.

Firstly, let's delve into portion size. The typical restaurant serving of sesame chicken can contain considerably more than an individual's caloric and nutritional needs for a single meal. A standard portion may have upwards of 600 to 1500 calories, depending on the restaurant and preparation method.

The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests that at any meal, a portion of protein like chicken should be no larger than the size of the palm of your hand or approximately 3 ounces. When dining out or ordering takeout, it's often beneficial to split a meal into two portions right away, saving half for another meal to ensure you're not overeating in one sitting.

Now let's address moderation. While a single serving of sesame chicken every once in a while is not likely to derail a healthy diet, making it a regular part of your diet could lead to potential health issues such as weight gain, elevated cholesterol levels, and increased risk of heart disease. Regularly consuming meals high in sodium, like sesame chicken, can also contribute to hypertension. Moderation means enjoying sesame chicken occasionally, rather than making it a staple.

Here are some guidelines to achieve balance:

  • Portion Control: Limit your portion of sesame chicken to the size of your palm or approximately 3 ounces of chicken, and fill the rest of your plate with healthier side options like steamed vegetables or brown rice.
  • Frequency: Limit consuming dishes like sesame chicken to no more than once a week, as part of a diet that includes a variety of protein sources and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • Preparation Adjustments: Consider grilling or baking chicken at home and adding a sesame-flavored sauce to significantly reduce the calories and fat content, while still enjoying the taste you crave.
  • Nutritional Balance: Balance the meal by including dietary fiber and micronutrient-rich foods on the side to promote satiety and support overall health.

It's also wise to consult reputable dietary guidelines, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which emphasize the importance of portion control and moderation as part of a healthy eating pattern.

Remember, a balanced approach to diet includes enjoyment of your favorite foods in moderation, not complete deprivation; it's the portion and frequency that need mindful management.

Healthier Preparations of Sesame Chicken

When we think of Sesame Chicken, we often imagine the indulgent, deep-fried version commonly found in many restaurants. However, this dish can be prepared in healthier ways that maximize its nutritional benefits while reducing its potential downsides. By tweaking the cooking methods and ingredients, you can enjoy Sesame Chicken that supports your health goals. Here are some methods to do just that:

  • Baking Instead of Frying: One of the most impactful changes you can make is to bake the chicken instead of frying it. This cuts down on the amount of oil, and thus, the total fat and calorie content. To achieve a crispy texture, you might bake the chicken at a higher temperature or use a light spray of oil.
  • Health-Conscious Breading: You can make a healthier breading by using whole-grain breadcrumbs or even almond flour for a lower-carb option. Additionally, consider using egg whites instead of whole eggs for the breading process to reduce cholesterol.
  • Reduced-Sugar Sauces: Commercial sauces are often loaded with sugar. Preparing your own sauce with low-sugar alternatives like honey or agave nectar, or simply reducing the sugar content can significantly decrease the glycemic load of the dish. Including naturally sweet ingredients like orange juice or pineapple can also enhance the flavor without relying heavily on added sugars.
  • Lean Protein Choices: Opting for skinless chicken breasts instead of thighs reduces the saturated fat content, making the dish leaner. Tofu can be an alternative for those seeking a vegetarian option with the added benefit of being low in saturated fat while still high in protein.
  • Vegetable-Inclusive Recipes: Adding a variety of vegetables such as broccoli, bell peppers, and snap peas not only enriches the dish with essential vitamins and minerals but also increases its fiber content, which is beneficial for digestion and satiety.
  • Healthy Oils and Sesame Seeds: Use heart-healthy oils like olive oil or a small amount of sesame oil to maintain the signature flavor. Additionally, incorporating a generous quantity of toasted sesame seeds can provide beneficial fats, minerals, and a nutty crunch without adding unhealthy components.
  • Portion Control: Paying attention to serving sizes is vital. Enjoying a smaller portion of Sesame Chicken alongside a large portion of steamed vegetables or a salad can help balance the meal and prevent overconsumption of the more calorie-dense components of the dish.

Creative cooking techniques can transform Sesame Chicken into a more nutritious meal. For instance, using an air fryer can mimic the texture of deep-frying without the need for large amounts of oil, which can heavily increase the calorie content. Stir-frying the chicken in a non-stick pan with minimal oil is another option that maintains flavor while keeping the dish lighter.

By incorporating these healthier preparations, Sesame Chicken can be a delicious and more wholesome addition to a balanced diet. Whether prepared at home or chosen wisely at a restaurant, the ways in which Sesame Chicken is cooked can significantly influence its nutritional profile.

Frequently asked questions

Traditional sesame chicken might be challenging to fit into a low-carb diet due to the breading and sugary sauce. However, you can adapt the recipe by using almond flour or coconut flour for breading, and creating a low-sugar sauce with sugar substitutes. At restaurants, ask for a modified version with no breading and a lighter sauce, or consider having just the protein and sesame seeds.

When dining out, opt for sesame chicken that’s either grilled or baked, rather than deep-fried, to reduce fat content. Ask if the restaurant can provide data on nutritional content, or if the dish can be made with less sauce to lower sugar and sodium. You can also request for it to be served with more veggies or brown rice for added nutrients and fiber. Always inquire about portion sizes to ensure they align with your dietary goals.

Sesame chicken can contribute to a high-protein diet as the chicken itself is a good source of protein. To maximize the benefits, choose preparations that use lean chicken breast and are baked, not fried. Also, balance the meal with other protein-rich side dishes, such as legumes or quinoa, and minimize high-calorie additions by requesting a lighter sauce or no sauce.

To make a healthier sesame chicken at home, use skinless chicken breasts and bake instead of fry. Create your own sauce with reduced sugar or natural sweeteners and incorporate plenty of vegetables into the recipe. Consider using whole-grain breading options, or for a low-carb version, opt for almond flour. Finally, be mindful of portion sizes, and enjoy your sesame chicken with a side of nutrient-dense foods like steamed veggies or a salad.

Ask a question about Sesame Chicken and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • increased thirst
  • nausea
  • headaches
  • fullness or bloating
  • elevated blood pressure
  • flushing
  • sweating

Possible long-term side effects

  • weight gain
  • high ldl cholesterol
  • hypertension
  • cardiovascular disease
  • type 2 diabetes
  • metabolic syndrome
  • increased risk of heart disease and stroke

Ingredients to be aware of


  • provides protein
  • contains healthy fats (from sesame seeds)
  • supplies micronutrients (calcium, magnesium, zinc)

Healthier alternatives

  • baked sesame chicken
  • whole-grain breadcrumbs
  • skinless chicken breast
  • reduced-sugar sauces
  • tofu (for vegetarian option)
  • air-fried sesame chicken
  • stir-fried sesame chicken in minimal oil
  • lean protein sources
  • vegetables
  • whole grains

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Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 01-17-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 01-17-2024

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