While cutting beef out of your diet is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint at home, chicken farming also takes a heavy toll on the environment. Raising chickens for meat, while more eco-friendly than raising cattle, still requires the use of large amounts of fossil fuels, and is far more burdensome to the environment than switching to a predominantly plant based diet.
As such, the plant based chicken wars have begun.
On your right, Impossible Foods, whose plant-based chicken nuggets were launched in early September in the Bay Area, at Gott’s Roadside, a gourmet burger and casual food chain known for quality ingredients with seven locations in this region, and El Alto Jr., a pop-up in a new food hall, State Street Market, in the South Bay. By year-end, it’s expected to be sold in over 100,000 groceries nationwide.
On your left, Beyond Meat, whose plant-based chicken nuggets launched in 400 restaurants nationwide, as well as in grocery frozen food sections.
There’s a buzz. New York Times Op Ed columnist Ezra Klein even tweeted about Impossible nuggets from the Bay Area-based company.
Eager to get in tune with the zeitgeist, I headed to Gott’s Roadside, and ordered the Impossible chicken nuggets, $12.99 with fries.
I settled down to wait for my order on the outdoor patio at San Francisco’s Ferry Building, a few feet from a street guitarist. I began chatting with the woman at the next table, who ordered the same thing, confiding she stopped eating chicken after it gave her stomach problems.
|Impossible Chicken Nuggets||Beyond Chicken Nuggets||Gardein Chicken Nuggets|
|Primary Ingredients||Soy protein, sunflower oil, wheat flour||Fava beans, pea protein, rice flour, wheat flour||Pea and wheat protein|
|Price||$7.99 per 13.5 oz package||$4.99 per 8 oz package||$4.79 per 8.6 oz bag|
|Calories||48 calories per nugget||60 calories per nugget||40 calories per nugget|
|Protein||2.6 grams per nugget||5 grams per nugget||2.8 grams per nugget|
|Taste Verdict||Tasty, truly chicken-like||Great, just like the real thing||Too soft, not chicken-like|
Impossible chicken nuggets review
Finally, after a reasonable wait, I picked up my order. Seven golden nuggets, made from soy with sunflower oil, greeted me, tucked next to three sauces (honey mustard, BBQ and ranch) and a nice heap of fries.
Note: Impossible chicken nuggets use wheat flour as a binder, and are not gluten free.
I bit into one. Hmm. Next, a bigger bite. Gee. Then, I ate the whole thing and grabbed another. Suddenly panicking, realizing I was supposed to take photos before they were devoured, I began to document them for posterity. As the strains of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, courtesy of the street musician, wafted over my table, I ate ‘em all.
The verdict: Crunchy. Tasty. Truly chicken-like.
Never in a million years would I think it wasn’t chicken. I say this, folks, as someone who cooks chicken several times a week, from Moroccan chicken tagine with green olives, lemon and turmeric, Thai-style in peanut sauce or red chile paste with veggies to cooked in sherry with mushrooms. Of course, it helps that chicken is basically bland and infinitely transformable, eagerly soaking up any sauce or spices applied to it, like a chameleon. But, all the more reason for chickens not to be sacrificed on the altar of eating, if a substitute takes its place so easily.
I wasn’t the only one. “This is really good,” said April, the Atlanta accountant seated next to me (who went plant based to help with digestion issues). So far, Chickenless nuggets were a hit. “It tastes just like chicken,” said James, her boyfriend, who suffered from no such gastrointestinal issues, and returned to happily munching his hot dog.
As April began talking about all the meatless meatballs, chicken, burgers and breaded fish she had eaten from the frozen foods section in Publix, the grocery chain, her boyfriend showed me the company behind them on his phone, Gardein. I silently congratulated myself on my sheer good luck in seating myself next to such a connoisseur of plant-based foods. I added Gardein to the taste off between Impossible and Beyond plant based chicken as a third option for greater context.
Beyond Meat chicken taste test
As for Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat, I tried their plant-based chicken from Bad Mutha Clucka (I kid you not) in San Francisco’s SOMA (South of Market) district. Absolutely thrilled to read both its chicken and faux chicken sandwiches are made Nashville Hot-style – a spicy fried chicken style I enjoy – with a choice of spicy, extra spicy or plain, I ordered The Hot Chick (spicy), $14.99 for three tenders.
After picking up my order (takeout and delivery only at this location, no dine-in), I went home to eat it, first waving it in front of my dog, Fluffy, who responded with a tail wag. This was a good sign the nuggets, made from fava beans and breading made from pea protein, rice and wheat flour, might be worth my attention. (On the other hand, Fluffy might be banking on past experience, learning long ago that anything Mommy eats makes her kibble and canned food pale by comparison.)
My chicken tenders, coated orange, Nashville Hot-style, came with dill pickles and a secret sauce on King’s Hawaiian rolls. (I omitted lettuce or slaw, wanting to concentrate on the chicken.) The first bite – wow. The second bite: wow!!
Note: the Beyond Meat chicken tenders, unlike Beyond Beef, are not gluten free.
Verdict: I really liked it. It so reminded me of the Nashville Hot chicken I order often from Hotbird in the Twitter building. Once, after ordering extra spicy from aptly-named Hotbird, I had to lie down afterward to recover (and I’ve been to Thailand, tell waiters in Thai restaurants here I’m sending it back if it’s not Thai-style-spicy, and used to write for a magazine called Chile Pepper). If you want to skip the carbs in the rolls, tenders or wings are available, both chicken and faux. If you want to add some carbs, a cheese version, adding both American cheese and chipotle aioli, is available for both real and faux chicken.
What I didn’t like: the careless packaging. My chicken-less chicken came in a small box labeled Dog Haus, with the tagline “all natural, humanely raised, Black Angus beef, no hormones and no antibiotics – never ever” on the side. Not only that: a flyer from Impossible Foods, a cutthroat competitor, was inside the box. Talk about mixed messages! Talk about faux meats – this was a faux pas, meriting investigation. While I knew from reading LeafScore that plant-based meat has a packaging problem, this was a bit ridiculous.
It turns out Dog Haus is a national gourmet burger and hot dog chain, which launched Bad Mutha Clucka in 2017 as a collaboration with a Bravo Top Chef, Ilan Hall, of Ramen Hood and Esh, from Season 2. Initially his chicken (cage-free, antibiotic- and hormone-free), beer-battered style, was served in all Dog Haus locations, but standalone Bad Mutha Clucka eateries came later. But its only San Francisco location, where mine came from, is a “ghost kitchen” where, it turns out, 27 different eateries offer pickup or delivery. A careless worker must’ve put it in a box for Dog Haus meat burgers, since Beyond Meat’s plant-based chicken is also served at Dog Haus Biergarten in Belmont, a city halfway between San Francisco and San Jose.
This cross-pollination of meat and plant based alternatives would have been less than ideal for Vegans.
Beyond Meat’s chickenless sandwiches are also served at all locations of Next Level Burger, the nation’s first plant-based-burger chain, in San Francisco and Concord (inside Whole Foods in both Bay Area cities), Portland, Seattle, Brooklyn and Austin. Heaped impressively high with soy-based tempeh “bacon,” grilled onions and cheese, the Beyond Chicken Animal Burger is also joined by faux chicken nuggets with fries, and faux Red Hot chicken nuggets with fries.
Gardein plant based chicken review
Now, for contrast, it was time for me to sample plant based chicken from a “grocery store brand.” Many brands like Gardein, or Whole Food’s 365 brand as another example, make meatless chicken. I thought Gardein would be a good representation of a more traditional meat producer trying their hand at plant based meat, plus my friends from the Ferry Building recommended I give them a try. These nuggets, like most plant based chicken, are not gluten free.
Gardein is the plant protein brand of ConAgra Brands, a huge conglomerate that also include Duncan Hines, Birds Eye and Blue Bonnet. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are plant based companies exclusively, whereas Gardein dabbles.
I read to find Gardein also sold chicken-less chicken noodle soup, sausage-less sausage gumbo, non-beef jerky and 16 different plant-based meals, from Italian rigatoni with sausage to beef-less Chinese-style orange beef, at chains from Whole Foods Market, Safeway to Target.
I also found over 60 recipes for Gardein products. Enthused, I raced to Whole Foods to buy Gardein’s chicken nuggets, made with pea and wheat protein, $4.79 for an 8.6 oz bag. After cooking them for 14 minutes in my oven as per the instructions, I tasted them. They didn’t seem done, so I put them back for a few more minutes, then ate them with BBQ sauce I had on my counter.
The verdict: Meh. The inside tasted too soft. They weren’t chewy or chicken, and lacked flavor. Wouldn’t order again.
The Bottom Line
We are in a climate crisis, plain and simple.
With the meat we eat carrying such a substantial carbon footprint, and resulting in the poor treatment of animals, not to mention the dangerous overuse of antibiotics, products like plant based chicken are a no-brainer. I won’t hesitate to give either Beyond or Impossible chicken a try again.
As Beyond and Impossible chicken products are comparable in taste and texture, the deciding factor for many of you will be whether you prefer nuggets or tenders, and how much spice you can handle.
Something to watch out for – will any of these producers create a yummy gluten free option?