If we are what we eat, we’re a generation of chicken nuggets. I grew up eating fun finger food as an after-school snack and an easy dinner, sometimes in the shape of dinosaurs and Disney characters. Nuggets please even the pickiest of eaters (case in point: this teenager who ate chicken nuggets for 15 years and practically nothing else) and take just minutes to prepare. As an adult, I pass on meat for environmental reasons but I join a growing number of nugget-inclined consumers opting for meatless alternatives. We’ve created a demand, and top companies are battling tooth and nail to be our supply. With release after release of new imitation chicken, fall 2021 is shaping up to be the golden age of imitation chicken nuggets. What a time to be alive.
What happens when you take chicken nuggets, an obscenely processed food to begin with, and remove the only recognizable ingredient? The vegan form emerges out of the shadows, a mystery meat sans meat … so, just a mystery. They’re not just fried tofu. Depending on the brand, they’re a concoction of protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, textured vegetable protein, wheat gluten and preservatives no one’s great-grandma would recognize. Chickenless chicken is a slew of paradoxes: both earthy and artificial, highly processed yet classified as a healthy alternative, plant-based but without any recognizable plants (clearly made inside a plant, though). They taste eerily similar to the real thing, a pinnacle of food science.
Vegan chicken nuggets also play into a nugget-obsessed culture, for they are more than just a food. A generation of young people uses “chicken nugget” as a term of endearment and paste slogans like “nugs not drugs” and “nug life” on water bottles and laptops. Such phrases not only signal an affinity for breaded chicken but also a knowing lameness, a message that the nugget-lover is down-to-earth and easy to please.
“Even though I look like a burnt chicken nugget, I still love myself,” said a little kid in a 2016 Vine.
“Chicken nuggets is like my family,” says another kid in another viral video, before eating the breaded poultry for breakfast.
The most retweeted tweet in English is a 17-year-old’s attempt to win free chicken nuggets from Wendy’s.
One of RedBubble’s chicken nugget products is a shirt that says “Chicky Nuggies” above an image of Yoda eating nuggets. There’s a sticker that says “26.2 (chicken nuggets eaten)” and others that read “Netflix and chicken nuggets.” Chicken nuggets have transcended sustenance and entered the realm of cultural obsession — similar to Trader Joe’s and wine, two other consumables with great PR. Buying nuggets brings back memories of childhood family dinners and play date snacks, of simpler times and simpler cuisines. You don’t need the chicken itself to get the same nostalgic experience. Like alcohol-free wine (which is surging in popularity), chickenless chicken is about more than taste: It’s about participating in culture. The deep-fried, faux-poultry confections, despite their obscure ingredients, fill a need—a cultural soft spot and a growing market share.
The fake chicken wars
Fake nuggets fill my freezer. Right now, my roommates and I have four different brands, each packed in earthy green tones and labeled with lawsuit-skirting phrases like “chickenless strips” and “chik’n.” One brand is Boca, a stalwart vegetarian brand started in the late 70s (now owned by Kraft Heinz) that boasts “the original chick’n veggie nugget.” I find that their nuggets are quite similar to Morning Star Farm’s (owned by the Kellog Company), another decades-old company: powdery breading and not too greasy. In contrast, the nuggets from Raised and Rooted (owned by Tyson Foods) are a greasy nostalgia trip to McDonald’s play places; they waft umami flavors through the house and pack a deliciously huge caloric punch. We’ve also bought Earth Grown, Gardein, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods brands. Lightlife has new tenders and filets, MorningStar has Incogmeato Chik’n, and Nestle is investing in fake meat too.
It’s a packed market, but two booming rivals hog a lot of recent press: Impossible and Beyond Meat. Like Coke and Pepsi, the Whopper and the Big Mac, Starbucks and Dunkin’, the biggest difference between the two powerhouses is the branding, not the products. This year, both Impossible and Beyond have branched out from fake beef and taken a highly publicized stab at recreating chicken.
The fake meat giants, which boast millions in seed funding, are focused on converting meat-eaters. This month, Impossible came out with new vegan nuggets, and rival startup Beyond Meat is coming to the freezer aisle, too. After discontinuing its disappointing imitation chicken in 2019, Beyond is trying again. Its fava-bean-based tenders, which have been at restaurants since July, are coming to grocery stores like Walmart as soon as October.
Standing beside the big rivals is the cool kid of fake meat startups, Simulate (formerly Nuggs), which is led by a 22-year-old from Australia named Ben Pasternak. The company is a media darling, and its branding is unconventional — unlike the earthy hues of other brands, Simulate is less “veggie” and more “edgy.” In a recent post, the brand’s official Instagram account parodied social justice slideshows with an absurdist story about Iceland. It starts with “What’s going on in Iceland right now and how you can help” and proceeds to describe a narrator’s “friend Jared” who said the narrator had “’mice hands,’ which is just so rude of him, because he knows I’m so sensitive about my small hands.” Later, the post shows a drawing of the narrator’s hand with a Nugg for scale. It didn’t make any sense at all, yet that was the point.
Where’s the beef?
Vegetarians aren’t hippies anymore. Peeking behind the opaque walls of the meat industry can radicalize even the devout carnivore, and younger generations care more about the environmental impacts of what they consume. As observed in the rise of alternative milks, a climate-minded culture now invites vegan products — intentionally vegan products — out of health food aisles and onto end caps and advertisements: grocery’s prime real estate.
At 15, I abruptly stopped meat after watching “Cowspiracy,” a documentary that unveiled the pernicious climate effects of the livestock industry. Some of its facts and tactics were misleading, but its message holds up: Eating large quantities of meat is unsustainable. A 2018 study published in the journal Science found that while meat and dairy provide 18% of calories and 37% of the protein in our diets, they use 83% of farmland and produce 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Those statistics have permanently changed the contents of my plate.
Now, I am not only proud to have a climate-conscious diet, but I am grateful that it’s easily attainable. It’s rare that I find a restaurant without a meatless option, and even fast-food giants are eschewing meaty menus at an astonishing rate. Passing on meat feels rather normal, not alternative. More than any time in recent history, the world caters to vegetarians.
Why can’t the chicken cross the road? It’s too fat to walk
Imitation chicken is having a moment half a century after processed chicken itself captivated the world.
If capitalism grows like a tree, the chicken nugget is its fruit: born out of an oversupply of poultry in the 50s and 60s, it took your grandma’s chicken dinner and returned something deboned, battered, deep-fried and packaged. Marketing efforts promoted a notion that true leisure wasn’t cooking but consumption and nuggets allowed home cooks to sit back and relax. The work you once endured to prepare dinner had instead been done by an amorphous supply chain. The chicken nugget is, if nothing else, easy to prepare.
Decades later, humans have a $66-billion-a-year chicken habit. We’ve slashed their growing time to a third of what it once was and have bred birds that are nearly three times as large as birds a century ago. The chicken is the world’s most popular bird.
The chicken nugget’s ingredients, though questionable, don’t seem to phase people. Pink slime panic blew over, the headlines about lighter fluid in chicken dwindled away and the unpronounceable petroleum and corn derivatives weren’t enough to deter everyone. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver showed a group of elementary schoolers how chicken nuggets are made, and though they let out groans of disgust at the liquified carcass and skin, they had no qualms about putting the finished product in their mouth.
“Anyone want one of these?” he asked after his stomach-churning demonstration. When the kids proceeded to raise their hands and lunge at the plate, the camera panned to the chef’s disappointed expression.
Just like the traditional chicken nugget’s ability to transcend the bad press, fake chicken nuggets haven’t been phased by criticism of their ingredients or carbon footprint. Despite being ultra-processed and packaged in plastic, a nugget forged out of soy may still seem greener than the real thing.
Little research has evaluated the climate impacts of fake chicken, but there are studies about promising impacts of fake beef. A 2018 report commissioned by Beyond Meat and conducted by the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan compared Beyond Meat burger with beef. They found that the Beyond Burger generated 90% less greenhouse gas emissions and required less land, water and energy.
Chicken farming isn’t nearly as bad for the planet as rearing cattle, but vegan chicken nuggets are part of an energy-intensive supply chain and they aren’t as green as eating beans and rice, but they’re a step in the right direction.
A meal of college students
Each time I go to the grocery store, I reach for a new brand, knowing that I’ll reach for the fake meat on a night I don’t feel like cooking. Dipped in spicy aioli and paired with carrot sticks and a pickle, they resemble something I’d eat for lunch on a Saturday afternoon in second grade — but dressed up a bit to account for the way I’ve grown.
As weird as they are, vegan nuggets seem like they’re here to stay — even with its perplexingly complicated concoction of oil, wheat and soy form, complemented by marketing strategies of unusually-placed apostrophes and intentional misspellings. They’re not cheap; they’re not healthy; they’re not outside the sprawling agricultural complex I like to avoid. Still, I keep coming back to them, and for a reason I can’t exactly put my finger on, I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Statement Correspondent Annie Rauwerda can be reached at email@example.com.