It’s a new year, and for millions of people that brings resolutions like exercising more and eating healthier. Ice cream? Gone. Potato chips? In the trash. Burgers? Try a salad instead. Fried chicken? Well, hold on—is it really chicken?
In Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants across the US, customers will soon have the option for the answer to be no. The fast food giant is looking to cash in on healthy eating resolutions with a well-timed release of a plant-based substitute for its traditional (read: real) chicken. KFC partnered with Beyond Meat, which has been steadily expanding its repertoire since its founding in 2009. After getting started with burgers, the company now makes sausage and chicken too.
Beyond Meat has been developing plant-based chicken nuggets for a while now, and more recently started focusing on a plant-based substitute that mimics the taste and texture of whole muscle chicken (like a chicken breast or thigh). Nuggets are easier to replicate with plant-based ingredients since their meat is ground up and doesn’t have as specific a texture, but a plant-based chicken breast is more complex.
“Plant-based chicken breast” sounds like (and is) an oxymoron. Unlike cultured chicken, which is also on the rise, plant-based chicken isn’t really chicken at all; it’s soy protein mixed with various ingredients that get its texture and taste close-ish to that of real chicken. Beyond Meat is unsurprisingly keeping proprietary details of its formula quiet, but it’s likely the company’s chicken is made with a process similar to that used by competitor Impossible Foods for its burgers.
Impossible Foods made its plant-based burgers taste and feel like real meat by adding a protein from soybeans called leghemoglobin. Leghemoglobin is chemically bound to a non-protein molecule called heme, an iron-containing molecule that gives red meat its color. By teasing out this key ingredient and figuring out how to derive it from plants, the company made a unique product that more closely approximated the mouthfeel of real beef.
This isn’t the first time KFC partners with Beyond Meat. The two companies tested plant-based chicken at an Atlanta restaurant in August 2019, selling out their limited supply in half a day. The current plan is to make Beyond Fried Chicken available for a limited time, but Kevin Hochman, CEO of KFC, is expecting the trial to go similarly well. “We expect it’ll sell out,” he said. “Based on the speed of that sell-out and customer reaction, that’ll determine what our plans will be next. But our intent isn’t to be one and done.”
KFC is owned by Yum! Brands, which also owns Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. There were around 4,000 KFC restaurants in the US at the end of 2020, but only 18 percent of KFC’s global sales are domestic; the chain sells far more in China than it does anywhere else. The plant-based fried chicken is only rolling out in the US market for now, though, following a growing trend to meet consumers’ interest in both eating healthier and reducing their environmental footprint.
Burger King was first to jump on the plant-based bandwagon with its Impossible Whopper. McDonald’s followed last year with its McPlant burger. Yum! Brands plants to launch more meat-free products, including a plant-based carne asada at Taco Bell. “We do think that ultimately this idea of more and more plant-based protein being consumed is a fait accompli,” said Hochman. “It’s going to happen, it’s really about when.”
You can try Beyond Fried Chicken at KFC stores nationwide starting January 10. $6.99 will buy you a six-piece order, with some price variation by location. I’m not much of a chicken nugget person, but heck, I’m even curious to try these things.
Image Credit: KFC