Is the chicken nugget — already made from formless meat paste — the perfect menu item for a plant-based substitute?
At this point, you can find some sort of lab-grown (non-meat) meat at most fast food chains and major cafes, with one glaring exception. At Starbucks, there’s a breakfast sandwich made with Impossible sausage. Carl’s Jr. has a burger made with a Beyond patty and White Castle does an Impossible slider. Now Burger King, which introduced Impossible Whoppers nationwide in 2019 — and faced controversy after one New York store actually served beef patties in place of the vegetarian option (oops) — is the first fast food chain introducing diners to Impossible Foods’ meatless nuggets.
The nuggets aren’t yet available nationwide, according to CNBC, but starting Monday, October 11, customers in Des Moines, Iowa, Boston and Miami can get their hands on the meat-free nugs. Though some form of lab-made beef imitation is relatively easy to find on chain menus and on grocery store shelves, lab-made imitations of pork and chicken are still a relatively new addition. Impossible Foods only recently introduced a pork product, and it was just last year that KFC debuted vegan chicken nuggets in collaboration with Beyond Meat. Plenty of companies have, for years, been making imitation chicken nuggets using plant protein but these products, however delicious some of them are, don’t tend to precisely imitate the taste and texture of chicken in the way that food-tech companies are aiming for.
In the grand scheme of things, these lab-grown meat substitutes are still new to the scene, and each product launch leaves diners wondering how much it will taste like the real once-living deal. In the case of the Impossible nugget, San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho says they “sort of taste like chicken,” and have no aftertaste, which feels like a pretty low bar. Then again, Ho points out that, compared to the shaped-then-fried meat paste currently sold as nuggets at most fast food chains, the meat-free version is “nearly indistinguishable from what food manufacturers do to make the nuggets that animals die for already.”
Companies like Burger King aren’t just adding these products to their menus because it’s better for the planet or requires slaughtering less animals. Pandemic-era supply chain issues and labor shortages have pushed up the price of chicken and other meat, incentivizing major food businesses to invest in non-meat options. The mass production of fake meat is sure to present its own issues both in the treatment of workers and in its implications for the environment. But broadly speaking, eating less meat is a good thing. At least some degree of change in our diets is necessary to curb emissions and fight climate change, and there are worse things than an imitation chicken nugget that is “nearly indistinguishable” from the real thing.