If there’s one piece of advice about food consumption that has permeated popular culture over the past decade, it’s probably this Michael Pollan adage from his book, In Defense of Food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The mindset of eating better for health or the environment is more prevalent these days, with those who can exploring sustainable solutions, including a conscious effort to consume less meat. According to a report from the Agri-food Innovation Council analyzing the plant-based protein market in Canada, “more than 40-percent of the population are actively trying to incorporate more plant-based foods in their diet.” The plant-based food movement isn’t geared strictly for vegetarians or vegans either, and food purveyors have been finding creative ways to appeal to consumers at all points of their plant-based journey. That includes fast food restaurants.
Although there are traditional vegetarian options, many chains have jumped on the plant-based bandwagon to offer Beyond Meat and similar burger substitutes. Recently, a number of fast food chains have branched out into plant-based chicken burgers and nuggets, too.
Vegan-friendly by design (although final output might not be—more on that below), these products are engineered from a mixture of pea protein, wheat gluten and seasonings, these substitutes promise to imitate the taste, appearance, and texture of poultry. Or at least the molded meat paste that’s usually made into nuggets and patties. In theory.
As a curious food consumer (and a proud omnivore), I felt compelled to check them out in the interest of science, or masochism. (Also because my editor is making me.)
There’s the stigma that mock or faux meats—which I’m also guilty of harbouring—have a weird texture or flavour. I won’t even get into the unappealing rubber eraser-like colour or how it generally tastes like beige and leaves a slight health food store bean bin aftertaste. Outside of Buddhist cuisine (which is delicious, and generally nails meat-like textures and umami), imitation meat has often been disappointing at best. Which means this assessment is biased from the point of view of an omnivore who is looking for a chicken doppelgänger—not just a vehicle for honey mustard sauce.[contextly_auto_sidebar]
With those caveats, read on for more on how these would-be nugget replacements taste.
Limited by what’s available on the current market in my home city of Toronto, I tried out the plant-based chicken items from 7-Eleven, KFC, Mary Brown’s, Pizza Nova, and Pizza Pizza. (Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to pit A&W’s plant-based ‘chicken’ nuggets against the group because it’s no longer available.)
My method was simple. I visited each fast food outlet and ordered the standard plant-based chicken item (sandwich, and tender/nugget, in original or plain if there were variations in flavours). I then brought the items back to the, uh, testing centre (my home) and tasted them, taking notes on their texture, taste and chicken-like characteristics. The results are below.
Things to Note
While the individual chains have their own proprietary recipes and seasoning for the breaded nuggets, tenders and patties, the plant-based chicken product itself is manufactured by Maple Leaf Foods’ plant-based arm, Greenleaf’s subsidiaries Lightlife® and Field Roast. Unlike most of the vendors who are using category pioneer, Lightlife®, Pizza Nova employs chef-founded Field Roast’s chicken product. And while the base product from both brands is made with water, pea protein, wheat gluten and oil, their composition is different: Lightlife® is predominantly made from coconut oil then wheat gluten, pea protein and both sunflower and canola oils, whereas Field Roast is canola oil, pea protein, wheat gluten and fava bean protein isolate.
Item: Plant-based sandwich
Description: A crispy plant-based fillet that’s coated in KFC’s herbs and spices and sandwiched in a potato bun with lettuce and plant-based mayo.
What you get: Built with all the fixins’ expected of a stereotypical fast food sandwich: a split bun griddle toasted on one side and slathered with a calculated measure of dressing (in this case, two big squirts of mayo—one on each bun half—that has a stiff icing-like viscosity) sandwiching a loose smattering of shredded lettuce and a golden, fried-to-order breaded patty.
Variation: Spicy plant-based sandwich that’s topped with spicy plant-based mayo.
Retail price: $7.99
Texture: This nails it for the textures we’ve been trained to look for in fast food sandwiches when it comes to balanced structure and substance. You’ll get the tooth-sinkability and slight crunch from a tight-crumbed griddle-toasted bun, plus the satisfactory crunch when you chop into the golden breading then into the springy dense ‘fillet.’ It’s not really a juicy meaty finish, but that’s where the slick of viscous mayo comes in. The real winner here comes from the slightly crisp/wilted and slippery cool pre-shredded lettuce.
Taste: I’m assuming that the breading is seasoned with the brand’s 11 secret herbs and spices because it’s very mild and is more akin to salt and pepper. There is a faint aroma of familiarity (which could be due to the oil it was fried in). The shredded lettuce scattered between the griddled bun halves seems like an afterthought but gave the neutral tasting sandwich freshness and character.
Believability: Without a doubt, this is a mock meat sandwich. Just what kind of meat, I can’t tell.
Note: Plant-based KFC is cooked in the same oil as their Popcorn Chicken and Big Crunch.
Additional notes: Although the online menu advertising popcorn-style chicken and U.S. franchises are offering the Beyond Fried Chicken for a limited time, the franchise I visited didn’t carry either options.
Despite being rather anaemic, the sandwich clocks in at 700 calories.
Item: Plant-based chick’n sandwich
Description: Features a Lightlife® “chick’n filet” with crunchy pickles, creamy vegan mayonnaise on a toasted gold bun.
What you get: A soft enriched brioche-like bun that’s wrapped around a fried breaded fillet with a layer of pickles and dressed on both sides with disturbingly white, whipped shortening-like vegan mayo.
Variation: Spicy plant-based “chick’n” sandwich that’s topped with the brand’s secret vegan spicy sauce.
Retail price: $7.99
Texture: The sandwich and its springy-dense breaded fillet holds up even as the mayo tends to squish out with each bite. The most crunch is provided by the pickles.
Taste: A little saltier, the combination of the slight oil-slicked sandwich with the pickle and the fried patty is reminiscent of well seasoned dill pickle chips.
Believability: Having more (pickle) flavour distracts from the relatively neutral patty, which could be a good thing if you’re looking for something to eat that’s conservative in size but a whopping 760 calories.
Item: 10 pc plant-based chick’n bites
Description: “Tastes like chicken, but without the chicken! The perfect morsel of juicy, plant-based chick’n”
What you get: Ten, thick thumb-sized nuggets with your choice from these plant-based sauces: Buffalo, Frank’s Red Hot, Sweet Chili Thai, or Texas BBQ
Variation: Also comes in 20 pc.
Retail price: $10.99
Texture: Thick, crunchy breading shields nuggets that had a dense-springiness broken up by the random dense node, which I assume is to simulate muscle fiber without the chew. Cutting into the nugget reveals ripples in the molded meat paste that looks more meat-fibre like.
Taste: Without any flavour enhancement (sauce), the undressed nuggets tasted like what you’d expect oily golden fried breading to smell and taste like. The ‘chicken’ itself didn’t stand out.
Believability: Looks like a nugget on the outside, but it didn’t leave any impressions of being more than a vehicle for sauce. This isn’t a bad thing out of context, but if it’s supposed to deliver as the menu description says, then it doesn’t. Aside: The nutritional information suggests that the 10 pc. order is supposed to serve two, however that’s a pretty ambitious claim for a cup of nuggets unless it’s only a shared snack (albeit seeing a serving as 370 calories versus 740 calories for all 10 pieces does look less shocking).
Item: Plant-based Lightlife® tenders
What you get: Seasoned breaded strips of ‘chicken’
Retail price: $7.59 for three
Texture: Being longer and thinner means that each strip has a greater batter to meat paste ratio. The result is more crispy and crunchy breading to an almost drier, springy-dense firm tofu-like fillet.
Taste: The 100-percent-Canadian-owned brand delivers on seasoning and flavour, but tastes a bit like battered firm tofu. The fresh fried tenders are the oiliest of all the plant-based chicken items sampled.
Believability: Besides achieving the visuals, the tenders also had a mouth-watering aroma (it was challenging to not want to eat them as soon as the takeaway bag was handed over). With pretty decent flavour, the slightly chewier texture of the battered strips can pass as chicken tenders that leave a greasy residue on your fingers.
Item: Plant-based sidekick sandwich
Description: “Plant based Lightlife® Tender, topped with our own creamy MB Sidekick Sauce and lettuce.”
What you get: A snack-sized chicken sandwich made from a single tender stuffed in a soft dinner roll with shredded lettuce and mayo.
Variation: Plant-based sidekick sandwich sweet heat that’s topped with red Thai chili sauce and spicy mayo.
Retail price: $3.79
Texture: There’s a true contrast of a squishy soft bun against a crisp breaded fillet. The mayo here is loose and creamy and the fresh lettuce adds a bit of lift, making the sandwich taste not that heavy or greasy.
Taste: Between the slightly sweet and squishy roll, refreshing lettuce, and smattering of mayo, the fillet for all intents and purposes simulated the aromatic and savouriness of fried chicken. The flavour itself is like firm tofu but it’s not as prominent given the flavour bombs around it.
Believability: A satisfying three-bite snack that is the best of all worlds. It wraps a flavourful crispy, warm and slightly chewy core with a cool and soft exterior. Best of the sandwich bunch.
Item: Plant-based chick’n tenders from Lightlife®
Description: “Battered and breaded like your typical chicken strip but made from soy protein for a savoury, delicious, guilt-free meal or snack.”
What you get: Battered and breaded ‘chicken’ strips that are baked.
Retail price: $6.50 for three
Texture:: Baked, not fried, these long, thin fillets got soggy quite quickly in their perforated cardboard box. While the end parts were still crispy, the majority of the tender ended up being kind of limp which meant the springy dense texture dominated over any crispy breading.
Taste: A bit like textured vegetable protein (TVP), and definitely more mock meat beany than chicken.
Believability: Despite being baked and technically on the healthier end of the spectrum, the lack of a flavourful crispy breading mean these tenders taste more like low-tier nuggets, which is fine if that’s your comfort food.
Description: Plant-based “chick’n” bites served plain or covered with your choice of sauce
What you get: 10 pc. plant-based chicken nuggets by Field Roast that can be tossed in sauce like chicken wings
Variation: Also available tossed in mild, medium, hot or barbecue sauce
Retail price: $12.49
Texture: Thicker than all other plant-based nuggets and tenders sampled, these had a meat-like chew and consistency, and were surprisingly juicy. The breading was noteworthy, since it delivered an audible crispy, crumbly crunch that wasn’t oily or greasy.
Taste: Succulent and savoury, the bites were indistinguishable from chicken when sauced (fact: there was a miscommunication when I first ordered the chicken bites and was given chicken wings instead. So, I tried both side by side).
Believability: Holy cannoli. This is the real deal. It’s hard to tell this was plant-based especially when it’s coated in sauce. They were easily devoured in minutes (the chicken wings took a little longer and more “work”).
While taste is a personal preference, as is the food choices one make, it should be noted that many of these plant-based patties and nuggets are cooked in the same fryer as the restaurant’s chicken items. So if you’re a strict vegan or vegetarian, or you’re avoiding meat for religious reasons, these options might not be suitable.
Knowing this, I feel compelled to ask: is this truly vegetarian or vegan—or is it mainly a meatless option for omnivores?
And, from a nutritional standpoint, we’re still talking about fast food, most of which is breaded and fried. Plus the practice of eschewing meat, fish or animal-derived products in favour of ultra-processed alternatives isn’t necessarily healthier. When viewed side by side nutritionally, the KFC plant-based sandwich clocks in at 630 calories, 37g fat (7g saturated fat, 0.5g trans fat), and 17g protein versus the chain’s famous chicken sandwich, which registers at only 540 calories, 27g fat (4g saturated fat, 0.3g trans fat), and 26g protein. Not only is the meat option lower in calories, it also has less saturated fats and more protein than its plant-based counterpart.
There’s also growing concerns over climate change and food sustainability—legitimate reasons that have propelled plant-based options into the spotlight. Then there’s the concern over the inhumane treatment factory farmed livestock experience, as well as antibiotic resistance and the deforestation necessary to raise animals for food. While experts agree that plant-based foods have a smaller impact on the environment than animal products, fake meat—or at least the monoculture production and processing of the soybeans or peas used to make their products—has also been shown to impact the environment.
So, if it’s not any more nutritious, in most cases not more delicious, and certainly not any cheaper than meat, then what’s the point for these heavily processed products?
For those following a planet-friendly diet or who are looking for a simple meatless alternative when they eat fast food—which isn’t terribly nutritious in the first place—these plant-based items are a good substitute that can satisfy cravings. All in all, they’re an inclusive option for those who are making changes to their lifestyle who still want to savour their meaty favourites. For myself, it’s nice to know there’s a substantial non-meat item to reach for that’s not French fries or salad.