Kung Pao chicken is a popular Chinese dish that typically consists of chicken, peanuts, vegetables, and a spicy sauce. It’s a tasty dish that can be found at many Chinese restaurants, including Panda Express. But is Panda’s Kung Pao chicken actually good for you?
What’s in Panda Kung Pao Chicken?
The main ingredients in Panda’s Kung Pao chicken are:
- Chicken – Chicken breast is the lean protein
- Bell peppers – Red, yellow, orange peppers provide vitamins A and C
- Onions – Onions add flavor and contain some antioxidants
- Peanuts – Peanuts add protein and healthy fats
- Chili peppers – Chili peppers bring the heat and contain capsaicin which has potential health benefits
- Soy sauce – Soy sauce provides saltiness and umami flavor
- Rice vinegar – Rice vinegar adds tanginess
- Sugar – Sugar adds sweetness
- Cornstarch – Cornstarch is used to thicken the sauce
- Vegetable oil – The chicken and veggies are cooked in vegetable oil
So the main components are lean protein, vegetables, some healthy fats from the peanuts, and a sauce containing sodium, sugar, and preservatives. Overall, it seems like a pretty healthy mix of ingredients.
But to really understand if Panda’s Kung Pao chicken is healthy, we need to look at its nutrition information. Here are the nutrition facts for Panda’s Kung Pao Chicken entree with rice and broccoli:
|Per serving (460g)
% Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet
Looking at the nutrition information, here are some of the positives about Panda’s Kung Pao Chicken:
- High in protein – With 38g of protein, this meal provides over half the recommended daily intake for most adults.
- Contains veggies – The broccoli and bell peppers provide nutrients like vitamins A and C.
- Has fiber – There’s 5g of fiber, which is decent for a one-meal serving.
- Relatively low in sugar – Only 6g of sugar is not too bad considering the tasty sauce.
- No trans fat – The meal has no unhealthy trans fats.
However, there are also some downsides to the nutrition profile:
- High in sodium – With 1940mg of sodium, this meal is over the daily recommended limit of 1500mg.
- High in calories – At 670 calories, this is a calorie-dense meal, providing over 1/3 of daily calories for many people.
- High in fat – With 23g total fat, a good portion of the calories come from fat. Saturated fat at 3.5g is also somewhat high.
- May be high in added sugars – It’s unclear if the 6g of sugar includes added sugars, which should be limited.
Verdict: Occasionally Healthy
Given the nutritional breakdown, Panda’s Kung Pao Chicken can be part of a healthy diet when eaten occasionally and in moderation. It does contain lean protein, veggies, fiber and some healthy fats. However, the high sodium, fat, calories and possible added sugars mean this dish should not be eaten too frequently.
Here are some tips for making Panda’s Kung Pao chicken healthier:
- Ask for lower sodium sauce or bring your own low-sodium soy sauce
- Get a small size or split with someone else to control portions
- Load up on the veggies like broccoli and steer clear of fried items
- Pair with a side salad instead of rice to reduce carbs
- Drink water instead of soda to avoid extra sugar
- Avoid creamy sauces or sugary drinks that add fat and calories
Overall, Panda’s Kung Pao Chicken can be an occasional part of a balanced diet, if you pay attention to portion sizes and what you pair it with. While not the healthiest choice on the menu, it does contain some nutritious ingredients like protein, veggies, and peanuts when consumed mindfully and in moderation.
How Does Panda’s Kung Pao Chicken Compare to Other Chinese Food Options?
Panda’s Kung Pao Chicken has some good things going for it nutrition-wise compared to other popular Chinese food dishes. Here’s how it stacks up:
Vs. General Tso’s Chicken
General Tso’s chicken is deep fried and sauced, making it higher in calories, fat, and sodium compared to the stir-fried Kung Pao chicken. Panda’s General Tso’s Chicken has 770 calories, 33g fat, and 2,320mg sodium. So Kung Pao is the healthier pick.
Vs. Orange Chicken
Like General Tso’s, Orange Chicken is also deep fried. Panda’s Orange Chicken packs 760 calories, 30g fat and 1,750mg sodium. The stir-frying method makes Kung Pao slightly lower in fat and calories.
Vs. Broccoli Beef
Broccoli Beef is a healthier menu choice with 530 calories, 18g fat and 1,520mg sodium at Panda. But Kung Pao chicken edges it out when it comes to protein, providing 38g vs. 24g in Broccoli Beef.
Vs. Chow Mein
Chow mein noodles may seem like an innocent carb, but Panda’s Chow Mein has 560 calories, 21g fat and 1,140mg sodium. The veggies in the Kung Pao make it more nutritious overall.
Dumplings seem like a lighter appetizer but can pack in calories and sodium. Panda’s Potstickers have 350 calories, 16g fat and 880mg sodium for 6 pieces. Kung Pao chicken is more filling and nutritious per serving.
Vs. Fried Rice
Fried rice is another deceivingly unhealthy option, with 11g fat in Panda’s Veggie Fried Rice and 16g fat in their Chicken or Beef Fried Rice. The stir-fried method makes Kung Pao a bit lighter.
Healthier Alternatives to Panda’s Kung Pao Chicken
If you’re looking for a healthier Chinese food option at Panda Express, here are some recommended dishes:
As mentioned earlier, Broccoli Beef has fewer calories, fat and sodium compared to Kung Pao Chicken, while still providing protein, veggies and fiber.
String Bean Chicken Breast
This light option skips the heavy sauce and packs a protein punch with 440 calories, 6g fat, and 1280mg sodium.
Vegetable Spring Rolls
Get your crunch fix with these veggie-filled spring rolls coming in at 160 calories, 7g fat, and 560mg sodium for two rolls.
Super Greens with Chicken
Load up on vitamins with kale, cabbage and broccoli plus grilled chicken for 360 calories, 6g fat and 715mg sodium.
Broccoli & Chicken
You can never go wrong with broccoli and a lean protein – this bowl has 150 calories, 3g fat and 380mg sodium.
Healthier Homemade Kung Pao Chicken
To make Kung Pao chicken even healthier, consider making it at home. That way you can control the ingredients and tweak it to your dietary needs. Try this recipe:
- 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cubed
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1⁄2 cup roasted unsalted peanuts
- 1 red bell pepper, chopped
- 2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1-2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
- 1⁄4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
- 2 green onions, chopped
- In a skillet or wok, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add the cubed chicken breasts. Cook for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until chicken is browned on the outside and almost cooked through.
- Add the bell pepper and continue cooking for 2-3 minutes, until starting to soften. Stir in the peanuts.
- In a small bowl, combine the soy sauce, rice vinegar, honey, sesame oil, garlic, ginger and red pepper flakes. Pour over the chicken and peppers.
- Continue cooking for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly, until chicken is cooked through and sauce coats the ingredients.
- Top with green onions. Enjoy over cauliflower rice or stir-fried veggie noodles for a healthy low-carb option.
This homemade version uses minimal added oil, lower sodium soy sauce, and skips the cornstarch thickener for a healthier Kung Pao chicken. Play around with the vegetable additions as well – try carrots, broccoli, water chestnuts or snap peas.
The Bottom Line
Is Panda’s Kung Pao Chicken healthy? In moderation, yes. This popular Chinese chicken dish provides lean protein, fiber, vitamins, and vegetables. However, the high amounts of sodium, fat, and calories mean it shouldn’t be eaten too frequently. Compared to other Chinese options, it’s relatively nutritious. But for the healthiest choice, go for lighter menu items or make a modified version at home.
Overall, enjoy Kung Pao Chicken occasionally as part of an otherwise balanced diet. Pay attention to portion sizes, what you pair it with, and how it fits into your daily calorie and sodium limits.
Panda Express’s Kung Pao Chicken can be part of a healthy diet when eaten in moderation. It provides protein, vegetables, fiber and healthy fats from peanuts. However, the high sodium, fat, sugars and calories means it should be limited. Choosing lighter menu options, splitting a portion, loading up on veggies, and pairing with salad can help make this dish healthier. Making a homemade version allows you to control the ingredients. Overall, Kung Pao Chicken is a reasonable option for Chinese fast food every once in a while.