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Let’s Play Chicken

With KFC’s Beyond Fried Chicken, fake meat finally tackles the fast-food chicken nugget — and we’re totally on board

A row of vegan chicken nuggets and a plastic fork at KFC
Vegan “chicken” nuggets at KFC in tests this summer
Mike Jordan

The fast-food chicken nugget, a paragon of processed food, is finally poised to transcend its animal origins: Almost a year after Burger King rolled out its plant-based Impossible Whopper, Kentucky Fried Chicken becomes the first major fast-food chain to introduce a plant-based chicken product to its stores. Beyond Fried Chicken, a collaboration between Beyond Meat and KFC, is described as something between a traditional chicken nugget and a KFC “boneless wing,” but made from plants — reportedly soy and wheat — and it’s now available at 100 KFC locations in Charlotte, North Carolina and Nashville, Tennessee, with a national rollout likely to follow. Early reviews of the spiced and sauced nuggets (they come in options like honey barbecue, buffalo, and Nashville hot) are solid: “It tastes like a doggone piece of chicken,” writes Fast Company’s Mark Wilson — the “meat” even gently flakes and shreds. Huge crowds that gathered for Beyond Fried Chicken tests this summer tended to agree: The nuggets are good.

If chains like Burger King and White Castle have shown success in replacing highly processed meat products with plant-based alternatives, then a fake-meat chicken nugget could be a gold mine for fast-food brands. The Impossible Whopper was credited with increasing Burger King’s quarterly sales by 10 percent, though they’ve since slowed; Meanwhile, chicken — the real thing — has taken center stage in the American diet, outselling beef and continuing to show growth.

Now could be the perfect time for a great-tasting fake-meat nugget: Plant-based foods are hot, chicken is huge, and nuggets themselves are already the most highly processed meat product on the typical fast-food menu. Way more than a chicken breast or even a chicken tender, that makes the nugget an ideal candidate for plant-based meat replacement.

Eater NY chief critic Ryan Sutton once praised the fast-food chicken nugget as “a masterpiece of molecular gastronomy,” which is a generous way to say that it’s a product whose deliciousness is scientifically engineered, not naturally occurring. An often cited 2003 Federal District Court ruling claimed that “chicken McNuggets, rather than being merely chicken fried in a pan, are a McFrankenstein creation of various elements not utilized by the home cook.” But that’s their beauty, not their fault. The McNugget contains more than 20 ingredients, some of them unpronounceable, which would make for a fun Gourmet Makes episode, not an easy weeknight meal at home. That’s the point. As Sutton put it, the nugget is charcuterie, not steak: It’s a delicacy all its own, one based on — but now nearly independent of — chicken. Leave it to the professionals.

It will surprise no one to learn that chicken nuggets got their start in a lab. Robert C. Baker, a Cornell University poultry sciences professor, invented them 1963 while looking to establish new outlets for a glut of factory-farmed chickens in the post-war years. Baker and his team developed a recipe for partly dehydrated raw chicken meat, grains, and powdered milk covered with egg batter and cornflake crumbs. Their samples in supermarket freezers sold out fast, and the team described their work in a well-circulated food-science article distributed to hundreds of companies.

But it was McDonald’s that brought the nugget mainstream — and like today’s plant-based burgers, nuggets were partly a response to concerns about beef overconsumption. In 1977, the first federal dietary guidelines discouraged red meat and fat consumption, dealing a blow to McDonald’s burger sales. The company sought new items to augment its menu, introducing “McNuggets” in 1981 to runaway success: Think of a fervor on par with the Popeye’s fried chicken sandwich craze last summer. McDonald’s is still a nugget king, though it’s repeatedly changed its recipe over the years, sometimes attempting to dispel rumors about unsavory ingredients. It’s a golden-fried piece of perfection ideal for dipping in a sweet or slightly vinegar-y sauce — though some prefer Wendy’s offering in the category.

KFC has McNugget-sized goals for its Beyond Fried Chicken rollout. And if plant-based burgers at fast-food restaurants are any indication, the product might well succeed. In 2018, Sutton wrote of the new Impossible slider at White Castle that the patty’s “indistinctness” was actually its advantage. “The genius (or insidiousness) of the Impossible Food folks is not that they’ve created something that tastes like beef — they haven’t — it’s that they’ve taken discrete ingredients from the natural environment and transformed them to mimic the artificial awesomeness (or awfulness) of American processed food,” Sutton wrote.

If it’s true that the more processed the meat product, the easier to replace it with a plant-based alternative, then nuggets might be the motherload. The unique flavor of beef — whose bloody richness Impossible Foods seeks to replicate with a yeast-derived version of the molecule heme — has been a challenge to replicate. But everything, as the old joke goes, tastes like chicken. That’s no coincidence or quirk of human taste buds, a famous Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology paper from 1998 argues. Animals from rabbits to snakes and kangaroos might “taste like chicken” because they share a common dinosaur ancestor. ”The emphasis on chicken in the statement ‘tastes like chicken’ is misleading,” author Joe Staton writes. “The common ancestor of most tetrapods would have tasted similarly, if we had only been there to cook and eat it.” Who knew that dino nuggets were so historically accurate?

In the next 10 years, the alternative meat industry could be worth $140 billion. We won’t just see chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and hamburgers replaced with plant-based alternatives: Impossible and Beyond want to replicate full cuts of steak and poultry. Replacing chicken with plant-based alternatives could be highly lucrative — but what, exactly, is the point?

Impossible Foods’ goal in replacing beef is explicitly to eliminate human reliance on cows. More precisely, it’s an effort to ameliorate climate change, since livestock is responsible for between 14.5 and 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. With those parameters, replacing beef is much more important than replacing chickens: According to a 2013 article in Nature, beef produces eight times as much greenhouse gases as chicken does.

But from the perspective of animal cruelty, the consequences of replacing fast-food chicken with plant-based products could be huge. PETA, for example, considers KFC a particularly egregious offender, referring to the chain as “Kentucky Fried Cruelty.” They’ve openly celebrated KFC’s Beyond Fried Chicken experiment. “We’re hopeful that KFC’s Beyond Fried Chicken test marks a new era for the company and that when it sees how much consumers value animals’ lives, it will work to make changes in its supply chain as well,” PETA representatives write.

The target for KFC’s new product, however, isn’t just PETA members: It’s the “flexitarian” category,” that ambivalent class of carnivore seeking an occasional alternative from meat, if it tastes just as good. The goal for KFC, then, is to seamlessly replace meat where it can. It could be some time before a bucket of whole plant-based chicken pieces can convince carnivores, but the day of a credible plant-based nugget could already be here. It was never really so far away.

KFC is now selling vegan chicken nuggets in 2 major cities [Vox]