Before noon on a warm March day, a friend and I arrived at Plant City in Providence none too soon. Tables inside and outside the two-year-old plant-based vegan food hall were taken in no time, primarily by millennials, those leading the trend in “cruelty-free” chicken and other plant-based foods.
Each and every day, Americans consume, and therefore kill, about 25 million chickens — my own dinner plate yielding to juicy supermarket chicken thighs far too often. But more and more I can’t go there. Not when most grocery-chain poultry comes from barbaric factory farms where chickens “are bred to suffer,” as NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote.
My lunch companion, a long-time vegetarian, ordered the barbecue burger, while I went for the fried “chicken” sandwich, praying I’d like it. During the pandemic, 18 percent of Americans have purchased plant-based protein for the first time, while a growing number of meat-eaters say they want more plant ingredients in their diet and less animal — out of concern for the welfare of animals, the planet, and their own health. “Flexitarians,” as we are called, stop short of going whole-hog vegan or vegetarian, and leave the door open for the occasional real burger or wing.
Since 2019, while plant-based beef has gobbled up attention, the development of plant-based chicken has advanced more slowly. However, with more and more alternative “chicken” products coming to market, faux chicken could start stealing dinner plates, especially if Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods roll out new chicken products, as both companies have indicated. In 2019 and 2020, Beyond and KFC held numerous taste tests for KFC’s Beyond fried “chicken.” Its resemblance to “a doggone piece” of KFC chicken “with hints of those 11 herbs and spices” compelled Fast Company to call it “A Miracle.”
One reason for plant chicken’s slower innovation is “the technical challenge” of replicating chicken’s neutral flavor and muscle texture, said Liz Specht, the Good Food Institute’s associate director of science and technology. Plant substances and their small particles can be made to mimic ground beef or minced meat more easily than they can chicken’s more striated structure. Another reason, she said, “is that chicken is one of the lowest price points for meat.” From a market perspective, it has been more attractive for companies to develop plant-based beef rather than chicken, because of beef’s higher perceived value.
But judging from the sandwich I bit into at Plant City, plant-made “chicken” is ready for prime time. The cost of $14 seemed reasonable for a meaty double-decker in a bun, served with sides of mixed greens and coleslaw. (No fries — fine by me.)
More to the point, the sandwich was delicious. The meat, made of tofu and yeast, had the “mouth feel” of sturdy chicken, and tasted similar to chicken, even better, I dare say, because of a swirl of peppy flavors. As Dasha Shor, a food analyst at Mintel, noted, “taste is the big driver” of the new popularity in alternative meats. “Without taste, there’s no repeat purchase.”
My friend also let out a wow when she bit into her barbecue burger, which was made of mushroom (filamentous fungus can taste very meaty), walnuts, and beet and carrot proteins, topped with a molasses-onion-pepper sauce. Swiftly receding are the bland vegetarian dishes of old.
Alternative chicken can seem mysterious. After all, how can you make plant substances taste like chicken? Ingredients vary widely from product to product, but plant chicken is often made of vegetable proteins, frequently pea and soybean, and wheat. Explains GFI’s Specht, after harvesting a crop, “you mill it into a flour that has all the crop’s components — proteins, starches, and carbohydrates.” The flour’s protein content is then enriched while carbs or starch might be reduced.
Plant-made chicken actually has been around for decades, while next generation items are just beginning. Today’s freezer aisle can feature MorningStar Farms (Kellogg’s veggie line), Gardein, Quorn, Boca, Alpha Foods and still others, in the form of patties, tenders, nuggets, pot pies, and even boneless wings. Tyson Foods, an early investor in Beyond Meat, has gotten onboard with its Raised and Rooted nuggets and tenders. So has chicken king Perdue, with Chicken Plus tenders, a blend of real chicken meat and vegetable protein.
When heated, many of these items smell amazingly like chicken. Specht said food scientists “have been able to identify molecules coming off cooking chicken that are triggering receptors in your cells, whether taste buds or olfactory cells in your nose, and find plant sources of those same molecules.” Mind blowing, yes?
Blocks of sliceable plant-made chicken aren’t in supermarket delis yet, but may be soon, said Caroline Bushnell, GFI’s director of corporate engagement. Vegan butcher shops are starting up, such as the Herbivorous Butcher, from which you can order online, if not in person. “There’s incredible product innovation in this category,” Bushnell said, and the introduction of plant-based chicken in the refrigerated meat section, alongside cuts of real chicken, may not be far away.
Generally, plant-based foods are associated with a lower risk of many diseases. However, “there’s a misperception that just because a food is plant-based, it’s healthy for you,” said David McClements, a food scientist at UMass Amherst. Protein from animal meat provides a balance of essential amino acids, while vegetable proteins don’t necessarily — though, when correctly paired, they can. More tinkering at the biochemical level will help these foods meet nutritional standards, said McClements, who last year received $700,000 in grants to work on designing protein-rich, plant-based whole chicken, pork, and beef.
Consumers, meanwhile, are increasingly wise about something: Farmers feed their chickens grain and other crops to fatten them up, using huge amounts of land, water, and energy, and then slaughter them for meat. Why does the animal have to enter in, when plant components can be turned directly into meat? (Meat companies are arguing that plant-based producers shouldn’t be able to refer to their products as “meat,” a term they say denotes it is animal-derived. However, in my Webster’s, at least, the first definition under “meat” is: “Food; esp solid food as distinguished from drink.”)
For flexitarians wanting occasional animal meat, the ASPCA warns that Big Ag practices are so loosely regulated, supermarket labels like “free-range,” “organic,” and “natural” sometimes can hide a sorry story. Certifications the ASPCA stands by are Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, and Global Animal Partnership.
The best outlet for real chicken can be a local farm that prides itself on raising its birds as kindly as possible.