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Is Chicken Salad Healthy, Actually? What Science Says

Chicken Salad Sandwich

Is Chicken Salad Healthy, Actually? What Science Says

A longstanding lunchtime favorite, chicken salad was invented in 1863 in Rhode Island (There are Internet rumors that the original chicken salad variation came from China, but we’re sticking with the official version). The dish has come a long way since then, making an appearance on every menu from New York delis to Britain’s beloved curried chicken salad with mango chutney. And while there are many people who would debate the ingredients of a “true chicken salad” (Nuts or no nuts? Sweet or savory?), the first official version on record consisted of leftover chicken mixed with grapes, mayonnaise, and tarragon. Whether or not that particular version is your cup of tea, the bottom line is that chicken salad is a delicious go-to if you’re putting it between two slices of bread or scooping it on top of salad greens. But is it healthy? In a sense, the jury is still out — while the chicken itself is a great source of lean protein, the addition of ingredients such as mayonnaise can easily pile on the calories. Let’s find out more about its health advantages and disadvantages.

Homemade Healthy Chicken Salad in a Bowl
Where you were born and raised may contribute to your favorite style of chicken salad, but one thing is for sure: it's delicious! Image: Brent Hofacker, Shutterstock

©Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock.com

What Exactly is Chicken Salad?

At the risk of stating the obvious, chicken salad is essentially any salad with chicken as a main ingredient. For argument’s sake, however, we’re focusing on the classic chicken salad, which is creamy — namely, thanks to mayonnaise. Additionally, the average chicken salad includes ingredients such as chopped celery, hard-boiled egg, chives, garlic, mustard, grapes, herbs, walnuts or pecans, and even relish. Of course, what you put in your chicken salad may very well have something to do with where you’re from. Southern chicken salad, for example, often contains chow chow or pickled relish (and maybe even Duke's mayonnaise or Old Bay seasoning), while French chicken salad typically derives some of its creamy texture from Dijon mustard.

The fact is that chicken salad can take on a lot of different flavors because its base ingredients — chicken and mayonnaise — lend themselves to absorbing whatever they’re mixed with. You could, for instance, make a Greek-style chicken salad by mixing in yogurt, lemon, garlic, and oregano. Alternatively, you could lean into Asian fusion by adding sesame oil, sriracha, and water chestnuts and wrapping the chicken salad in lettuce cups. Food for thought. 

Asian minced meat lettuce wraps over dark stone background. Top view, flat lay
Chicken salad lends itself to an endless supply of flavor profile options — from simpler, traditional iterations to more complex versions with in-depth flavor profiles. Image: Tatiana Volgutova, Shutterstock

©Tatiana Volgutova/Shutterstock.com

What are the Health Benefits of Chicken Salad?

As we touched upon earlier, chicken salad’s health benefits largely depend on what’s mixed into it. In combination with mayonnaise, eggs, and cheese and slathered on a toasted croissant, for example, you’re looking at a far higher calorie count than a chicken salad made with Dijon mustard on a slice of wheat bread.

In general, Chicken salad offers a lean protein, and it tends to be a fairly good source of iron. Additionally, it might also offer decent fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, depending on what’s mixed into it.

As a side note, it's also important to mention that if you make chicken salad from scratch, you need to properly wash the raw chicken and then follow up by washing your sink properly. The U.S. Department of Agriculture warns that the risk of bacterial contamination is high!

What Can You Do to Make Chicken Salad Healthier?

If you're looking to cut down on fat content, here are a few ingredients you can choose in lieu of mayonnaise that might help reduce calories in your chicken salad:

  • Light mayonnaise
  • Plain Greek yogurt
  • Low-fat sour cream
  • Dijon mustard
  • Vinegar
  • Lemon juice

Additionally, here are a few options for flavorful additions to help spruce it up!

  • Fresh herbs (such as dill or Italian parsley)
  • Spices such as curry, salt, pepper, and garlic or onion powder
  • Garlic
  • Red onion
  • Chives
  • Red or green peppers
  • Celery
  • Red grapes
  • Slivered Almonds (or walnuts, pecans, or pine nuts)
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Relish
Chicken Salad Sandwich
We would be remiss not to mention that skipping the bread and opting for chicken salad on top of greens cuts down on calories, too! But if you go for the sandwich, multigrain or wheat is typically the healthier option over traditional white bread. Image: Brent Hofacker, Shutterstock

©Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock.com

Important Takeaways

  • The official record is that chicken salad was invented in 1863 in Wakefield, Rhode Island.
  • Chicken salad can take on the flavor of whatever it's mixed with, leading to endless iterations.
  • Chicken salad offers a lean protein and tends to be a fairly good source of iron. It can also offer fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, depending on what’s mixed into it.
  • Chicken salad can be high in fat and calories, particularly due to the mayonnaise. But don't fret! There are plenty of substitutes to cut down on the fat content and many additions that can add some pizazz.

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