In 2020, a survey found that a quarter of people in the United States have eaten plant-based meats and that an additional 37 percent of them were open to trying plant-based products. With interest in meat alternatives growing, so is curiosity about what these are exactly, and why consumers should consider eating meat alternatives, including plant-based chicken, instead of their animal-based counterparts.
What Is Plant-Based Chicken?
Plant-based chicken is a food product that is created to imitate the taste and texture of chicken, in order to prevent the killing of chickens for food. Some of the earliest kinds of plant-based chicken originated in China, as a way for those transitioning to vegetarianism to enjoy traditional Chinese food in alignment with their religious beliefs, and without killing an innocent being. Since the sixth century, when Chinese Buddhists officially adopted a vegetarian diet, the technology used to create plant-based chicken has greatly improved.
What Is Plant-Based Chicken Made of?
The primary ingredient used to create plant-based chicken varies according to location. In China and much of Asia, soybeans and their derivatives are the primary bases used to create imitation meats, including chicken. Due to the region’s long history of vegetarianism, a unique culinary tradition of vegetarian eating has grown up, separate from the mainstream diet, and involving a variety of unique recipes.
Options created in Europe and North America capitalize on modern technology to create substitutes for popular meat-heavy dishes such as chicken sandwiches, wings, and even entire rotisserie chickens. These are made primarily from either wheat or soy, and their derivatives.
Why Choose Plant-Based Chicken?
Real Chicken Puts Your Health at Risk
Consuming real chicken products comes with a number of risks due to both the inherent nutritional makeup of the flesh of chickens, and the methods by which they are raised and bred. When eating chicken, it is important to keep in mind that it contains much more cholesterol than plant-based options. According to the USDA 100 grams of skinless chicken breast—the preparation that is lowest in cholesterol—nevertheless contains over 116 milligrams. Because your body is capable of producing all of the cholesterol that it needs, most dieticians suggest eating less than 300 milligrams a day. Eating large amounts of chicken and other meats and animal products can quickly raise cholesterol intake to above healthy levels. Because cholesterol is not found in plants, plant-based chicken does not generally contain any cholesterol.
Chicken Can Be Infested With Bacteria
There are a number of bacteria that chickens can carry and which are capable of causing illness in people.
Not least of these is Salmonella, which can cause diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, and even death. Not only can chickens themselves spread this bacteria to people, but their eggs and meat can also as well. Each year in the United States, Salmonella bacteria cause about 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths.
Another common bacteria found on chickens is Campylobacter. It is estimated that 1.5 million U.S. citizens are infected every year, though many cases go unreported. The most common symptoms are diarrhea (which is often bloody), fever, and stomach cramps. More severe symptoms include temporary paralysis and irritable bowel syndrome. Those who have weakened immune systems already run the risk of contracting a deadly blood infection from the bacteria. In 2015 it was found that 24 percent of raw chicken purchased from retailers tested positive for Campylobacter.
Listeria is caused by the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. The symptoms of listeria are similar to those of other foodborne illnesses and include diarrhea and fever. But in those populations, most at-risk—pregnant women, those with weakened immune systems, newborns, and older adults—the symptoms can be much more severe. In pregnant women, listeria can cause miscarriage or stillbirth, while other vulnerable populations may experience convulsions, confusion, and loss of balance. In chicken populations, young birds are the most susceptible to listeria infections, but infected birds often do not show obvious symptoms of infection. Despite the higher prevalence of listeria in young birds, the average age at which chickens are slaughtered is 42 days.
Chickens Have Feelings
Chickens have long suffered from a poor public image that treats them as commodities rather than living beings. This perception neglects their cognitive abilities which are on a par with other birds, and even with mammals, points out Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy. In her essay analyzing the existing academic literature, she details the evidence supporting the cognitive abilities of chickens such as their aptitude to learn from one another. Though more research is needed to understand the full breadth of chicken emotion, there is ample evidence suggesting that chickens do experience emotions.
A range of research that introduced chickens to situations designed to cause fear resulted in the birds demonstrating an array of responses seemingly based on the stimuli, such as immobility when being restrained in a new way. This suggests that chickens are capable of some version of fear.
When given the choice chickens consistently choose environments that provide better welfare.
Chickens likely experience empathy. When their chicks were exposed to puffs of air, mother hens displayed much more alert behavior and reduced their preening compared to when the sound of the air puff was made without the actual air. The air puff on the chick also resulted in an increase in heart rate for the mother hen. This increase in heart rate did not take place when the hen was exposed to the air puff herself. The response to the perceived discomfort of their chicks demonstrates that mother hens are capable of some version of empathy.
To Protect the Environment
The production of chickens for food has serious consequences for the environment.
The yearly production of chickens for food in the United States alone emits the same amount of CO2 as 12.37 million cars. Chicken manure releases nitrous oxide which is a greenhouse gas more potent than methane. The negative environmental impacts of chicken production continue well past the life of the chicken, as processing accounts for half of the emissions from production as a whole.
Much of the manure produced by chickens ends up running into local water supplies, and this can cause algal blooms which can prove detrimental to wildlife.
Of all the birds on earth, 70 percent are being used for agriculture. These birds need to be fed, and growing the food necessary to meet their needs calls for the destruction of vast tracts of land around the world.
Is Plant-Based Chicken Healthy?
Plant-based chicken provides a healthful alternative to chicken. A comparison between a Kentucky Fried Chicken BeyondMeat plant-based chicken nugget and one of their animal-based chicken nuggets revealed that the plant-based option was lower in calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium. The two options had equal amounts of protein. In addition to being nutritionally similar, plant-based chicken options do not run the same risks for bacterial infection as their animal-based counterparts.
This demonstrates that plant-based chicken can fulfill the same role as animal-based chicken while avoiding many detrimental environmental effects of the chicken farming industry.
What Is the Best Plant-Based Chicken?
With so many options to choose from, there is a plant-based chicken to please every palate and for every situation. Below are just a few of the many options available globally.
- Gardein makes a variety of options including tenders, fillets, sauced wings, and strips.
- MorningStar Farms recently committed to being fully vegan by the end of 2021, by removing eggs from the last of their products. Included in their range of products are nuggets and patties.
- BOCA is best known for veggie burgers, but they also make both chik’n patties and nuggets.
- Layonna. In addition to offering a variety of unique meat alternatives, they also offer smoked chik’n legs, Thai lemon chik’n, and boneless chik’n.
- Lightlife. Another staple in the plant-based meat market, Lightlife offers both fillets and tenders.
- Tofurky. Not only does Tofurky sell plant-based roasts perfect for any celebration, but they also offer a variety of chopped chik’n options, including lightly seasoned and sesame garlic.
- No Evil Foods. Another option for a plant-based holiday roast, this company also offers a minimally seasoned chik’n alternative, ideal for preparation in any cuisine.
- Trader Joe’s. As they do with many other products, the retail giant has its own line of plant-based chicken that includes strips and mandarin orange options.
- Whole Foods Market. The grocery chain’s in-house brand, 365, offers plant-based nuggets.
- Abbot’s Butcher. This brand, which offers only three finely curated options, all completely plant-based, offers slow-roasted chik’n.
- Upton’s Naturals. This brand offers a seitan-based chicken alternative along with fully vegan ready-to-make meals such as chik’n tortilla soup.
- Loma Linda. Another brand offering ready-to-make meals featuring plant-based chicken, such as Thai Green Curry and Tikka Masala, Loma Linda also produces canned plant-based chicken alternatives such as Tender Bits and Fried Chik’n.
Where to Buy Plant-Based Chicken
With so many options available, it is becoming easier and easier to acquire plant-based chicken not only at grocery stores but also at restaurants globally.
For Home Preparation:
- Grocery Chains. In the U.S., a variety of plant-based chicken options can be purchased from national chains such as Walmart and Target, or at regional chains such as Publix and Stop n Shop. In South Africa, options can be found at a variety of grocery chains including Checkers and Spar.
- Online Retailers. Another option for purchasing plant-based chicken to prepare at home is through online retailers. India has a burgeoning market in this area with brands such as Vezlay and Veggie Champ providing an easily accessible online market for their products. In the United Kingdom, plant-based chicken options can be easily ordered for delivery from Tesco.
- Fast Food. A number of fast-food restaurants have debuted plant-based chicken options. Those in the United Kingdom can enjoy a vegan Chicken Royale sandwich at Burger King. Those in Los Angeles, California can enjoy plant-based chicken from KFC. In Shanghai, consumers can enjoy vegan chicken options at a variety of fast-food restaurants including STYX and Dicos.
- Eat Local. A variety of small businesses across the globe provide innovative plant-based chicken options. In Orlando, Florida Winter Park Biscuit Company is a small business that provides an ample number of plant-based chicken options including chicken sandwiches and chicken biscuits. Plant Cafe in Capetown, South Africa provides a number of delicious plant-based substitutes that can be enjoyed for breakfast or lunch. To find a variety of plant-based, locally owned restaurants to support, use HappyCow.
The Road Ahead
In just the last few years plant-based chicken has moved from being a rarely seen specialty item to being a mainstream source of protein available at a number of grocery stores and restaurants. This comes as no surprise given the vast number of benefits that plant-based chicken holds for the environment and animal welfare without compromising taste or nutrition.
Grace is an animal advocate with a passion for social justice within the animal protection movement.