The Real Reason People Stopped Buying McDonald's Onion Nuggets

An image of Onion McNuggets surfaced in the Nostalgia subreddit to a smattering of disapproving comments. Onion McNuggets, as you might imagine based on their name, looked exactly like McDonald's Chicken McNuggets; however, they had an onion within them, not the beloved chicken. If you don't remember these fried dollops of battered onion, it's because they haven't been available for over 40 years. As ABC News explained, they only appeared in a few test markets between 1978 and 1979, but failed to prove themselves a popular product.

The original poster of the Onion McNuggets thread on the Nostalgia subreddit offered their own theory as to why people weren't tempted. "This isn't that weird, if you think about onion rings, but thumb-sized chunks of fried onion still seems like a bit much. Perhaps that's the reason that this product only hit four test markets in the 1970s. Or maybe customers just went 'onions? That's a vegetable! That is NOT what I come to McDonald's for, folks.'"  

Perhaps a particularly vocal test subject did say something along those lines as McDonald's has avoided even offering onion rings in its American restaurants. However, in January 2021, their Australian branch began to sell them as a limited-time side dish, according to Still, the reason why people stopped buying Onion McNuggets was that McDonald's decided against pursuing the prototype further in favor of another battered and fried product that's since become an iconic menu offering: McDonald's Chicken McNuggets. 

The rise of Chicken McNuggets

Despite having cooked for Belgian royalty and Queen of England, Rene Arend, McDonald's first executive chef, claimed in a quotation shared by Back in Time that Chicken McNuggets were his crowning achievement. "Those meals were once-in-a-lifetime dinners long since forgotten. But Chicken McNuggets will go on long after I am gone," he reportedly proclaimed.

In fact, Time states Arend was originally hired by Ray Kroc to find some way to incorporate chicken into the McDonald's menu. After failing at fried chicken and fried chicken pot pie, Kroc suggested they switch to inventing a bite-sized onion ring, now known as the Onion McNugget. However, Fred Turner, the chairman of the McDonald's board, wanted chicken. So, Arend took the idea for an Onion McNugget and applied the cutting up and frying idea to chicken flesh, thus creating the Chicken McNugget.

Interestingly, chicken nuggets, as Slate points out, were first made in 1963 by Robert C. Baker, a professor at Cornell whose goal was to improve the lot of poultry farmers in New York state. But with the launch of Arend's Chicken McNugget in Knoxville in 1980 and a nationwide rollout in 1981, the cultural connection between McDonald's and the chicken nugget became unassailable. The explosion in popularity meant that the concept of Onion McNuggets instead of Chicken McNuggets would forever be considered as the weird alternative. Few would buy an onion nugget now because onion rings and Chicken McNuggets have captured the conceptual market.

Rene Arend is an unsung hero of McDonald's food

The Onion McNugget's insignificance deepens when the list of Arend's additions to the McDonald's menu widens to include the McRib, another of McDonald's cult classics. According to Retroist, the reason for this invention was that the introduction of the Chicken McNugget destroyed the chicken supply chain with its demand, but franchises still needed a new product to offer customers.

These might seem like odd legacies given that Arend had served the heights of society. Picking up on this, the Orlando Sentinel asked him why he cooked so un-European, to which he replied, "I am 31 years here, nearly as long as McDonald's. I have also become Americanized. McDonald's is perfect American food, you see."

However, it would be wrong to infer from this answer that Arend cared little for the quality of his inventions, as shown by his prickling when in the late '80s, journalists began to complain about the high levels of sodium in McDonald's Chicken McNuggets. "We have an ongoing program to reduce sodium, and we have already reduced the content of Chicken McNuggets by half a percent," he snapped to The Buffalo News. "But of course we never get any publicity about that." Arend did admit, though, that while the public repeatedly protested that they wanted healthy food, they would not eat from McDonald's if they offered them unsalted dishes. After all, we could believe the theroized response to the Onion McNugget: "That's a vegetable!"