Welcome to the party! Let’s introduce plant-based chicken to the other plant-based guests: burgers from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. How does plant-based chicken compare to the real thing? Is it healthy? Let’s take a look.
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We’ve all seen and probably tried the Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat beef burgers. Plant-based options are popping up in almost every fast-food restaurant: plant-based chorizo at Chipotle, Impossible Whoppers at Burger King, and most recently, plant-based chicken at KFC.
Let’s start with the basics – protein
Food is tasty, and we all love to eat (I know I do), but in the end, we want the nutrients in the food just as much as we want the flavor.
When I consider the benefits of chicken, the first thing that comes to mind is it’s a great source of protein. This means it has the nine amino acids profile that can fill in for the ones our body can’t make on its own.
Our bodies need 20 amino acids to break down foods, grow and repair body tissue, build muscle, boost your immune system, make hormones and brain chemicals, and give us healthy skin, hair, and nails.
We can make 11 of these essential amino acids on our own, but we need to eat the other nine. What type of protein we eat determines if we are getting an incomplete or complete profile.
Complete proteins such as beef, poultry and eggs have all nine essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins such as nuts, seeds, beans, and grains have some amino acids but are missing some of the essential ones.
Is it worth it, then?
So, does this mean we shouldn’t eat plant-based proteins? Absolutely not. We need nuts, seeds, vegetables, and various other plant-based protein sources as part of a balanced diet.
Interestingly, soy is the primary source of protein in plant-based chicken. This is different from many plant-based “beefs” using pea isolates as the main source of protein. Soybeans are one of the very few plant proteins that contain all nine amino acids and are considered a complete protein. Others include brewer’s yeast, cottonseed, and the germ of grains. All of the plant-based chicken brands we listed below have the full complement of amino acids.
Let’s take a look at the nutrient profile of traditional chicken in comparison to some of the more popular plant-based chicken companies: Daring, Tofurky, No Evil, and Sweet Earth. These companies sell plant-based chicken that is not fried. There are other plant-based chicken companies, like Impossible and Beyond, but they focus on fried nuggets and patties that contain extra fat and calories.
Sources: USDA, VeganEssentials.com, Tofurky.com, NoEvilFoods.com, Goodnes.com.
What’s really in plant-based chicken?
When looking at the nutritional components above, one thing is clear: conventional chicken has the most protein out of all the options. It also has the least amount of sodium.
When buying processed food products such as these plant-based options, it’s essential to look at the product as a whole as well as each macronutrient. High sodium is often hidden in these processed foods because it makes the product more shelf-stable and taste better. The FDA recommends we limit our sodium intake to below 2,300 mg a day to decrease our chance of getting diet-related illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Let’s take a look at the differences in ingredients:
It’s obvious that there’s only one ingredient in chicken, but take a look at all of the ingredients in the plant-based alternatives. The protein source in alternative chicken is soy. But notice how seed oil appears in almost every other product.
Seed oils, like canola oil and sunflower oil, contain many omega-6 fatty acids. While not harmful to our health when consumed in the proper ratio to omega-3s, we want to limit our intake of omega 6s to between 11-22 grams a day.
It’s important to consume more omega-3 fatty acids from foods like salmon and spinach as they lower inflammation and increase blood flow. Conversely, too much omega 6 in our diet can lead to increased blood pressure, blood clots, and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
Plant-based meat misconceptions abound, from nutrient profile…
So now you’re probably asking yourself, “Should I begin eating plant-based chicken?” Of course! But it’s important to call out some misconceptions regarding plant-based meat before making your decision.
The phrase “plant-based” leads consumers to assume that these products are veggie-filled, or that vegetables are the primary ingredient, similar to a veggie burger.
However, being “plant-based” does not mean full of veggies, so you’re not getting the same nutrient profile. Plant-based just refers to the protein source, whether that’s from peas or soybeans.
Other consumers switch to plant-based meat, including chicken, as part of a “clean eating” diet. The phrase refers to only consuming unprocessed foods, like fruits and vegetables. However, when you look at plant-based chicken or any other alternative meat, for that matter, it’s pretty hard to argue that these foods are not processed.
As a marketing strategy, many of these plant-based companies also emphasize that they are non-GMO and organic because consumers associate both these terms with a healthier food product. However, neither of those components speaks to the nutrient profile or overall health of the product. Instead, be sure to look at the nutrition label for a real determination of health — especially its sodium and fat content. And, by the way, there’s no such thing as a GMO chicken.
…To its environmental effects
Like the Impossible burger, plant-based beef caught on quickly for a few reasons, but probably the biggest one was that people believed cattle were responsible for climate change. This fad caught on quickly, giving companies like Impossible and Beyond the push they needed to really start selling. To learn more on cattle’s effect on climate change, click here.
Chicken is less criticized for contributing to climate change. Some consumers make the switch to the plant-based alternative because of animal advocacy and concern for animal rights. There are misconceptions that chickens raised on factory farms are treated inhumanely and not as living, breathing animals. It’s also believed, erroneously, that chickens are pumped with antibiotics and not allowed outside.
Which to choose? Any and all.
With all of this in mind, will plant-based chicken ever catch on? Maybe. At the end of the day, it depends on the taste! Plant-based chicken is a good alternative for those who are vegetarian or vegan, but it doesn’t pack the same punch concerning other important aspects like plant-based beef did.
Either way, there’s room for all protein sources to give all 7.9 billion people in the world their complete amino acid profile, we need all types of proteins. Personally, I tried plant-based chicken and prefer the taste and texture of the real deal.
The Bottom Line
For those practicing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, plant-based chicken is a good alternative since some of them have all nine amino acids from soy protein. But remember that plant-based does not mean veggie-filled, and this kind of food is not superior nutritionally or environmentally.