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Can meat-free nuggets challenge chicken on the UK high street?

·4 min read

It is being called the year of the nugget as plant-based “chicken” nuggets that claim to be “better for you and the planet” compete with the real thing in UK chicken shops.

A new brand of faux nuggets, made by the high-profile US plant-based food company Impossible Foods, arrived on the high street this week and will be rolled out to thousands of takeaways, restaurants and pubs, as well as supermarkets, within the year.

Impossible Foods founder Patrick Brown said the company, which is worth about $7bn (£5.6bn) and has a star-studded cast of investors including Bill Gates, Jay-Z and Katy Perry, that it was possible to make meat from plants that is more sustainable, nutritious and delicious than animal products.

The former Stanford University biochemistry professor said: “Our mission is to completely replace the use of animals in the food system globally by 2035 and I would say we’re gonna do it. Every single day, we’re getting better and more efficient and the cow is not, and the pig is not, and the chicken is not.”

Impossible is better known for its faux burger which Brown describes as a “knock your socks off” product. However, soy leghemoglobin – known as heme – the secret ingredient it uses to create the “meaty” taste is produced by genetically modified yeast and has not been approved by the Food Standards Agency, which is considering its application.

Chicken is the country’s most popular meat, with consumption levels far outstripping beef, lamb or pork and, while less popular than burger chains, the UK’s more than 3,500 chicken shops sold close to £2bn worth of fried chicken wings, poppers and nuggets last year, according to market researchers Mintel. However the popularity of these cheap and filling foods is seen as a contributing factor to the UK’s obesity problem.

Companies including Impossible will face an uphill struggle to convert fast food customers to alt-meat products, according to Mintel, because Britons favour meat-based comfort food such as burgers and fried chicken. However, fast food chains are eager not to miss out on the booming popularity of plant-based diets and earlier this year Burger King started selling vegan nuggets made by Unilever’s The Vegetarian Company.

Impossibles nuggets have 1g of salt per 100g, 25% lower than a standard chicken bite, although not McNuggets have half that level. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

Like many plant-based options, Impossible’s nuggets are more expensive than the products they are trying to replace. The Chicken Cottage menu, which is a guide for its franchisees, suggests they charge £1 per meat-free nugget, with a “five for £5” deal. By comparison, the actual chicken nuggets on the menu cost £3.50 for six, making it a hard sell during a cost of living crisis.

Impossible says its “chicken” nuggets are better for the environment because their production requires 55% less water and 24% less land than animal chicken nuggets. Made from soy and wheat flour the nuggets have 1g of salt per 100g which Impossible says is 25% lower than a standard chicken bite although not McNuggets which have half that level.

Trish Caddy, a senior analyst at Mintel said it looked like it was shaping up to be the “year of the nugget” after a previous wave on innovation focused on plant-based burgers. However high prices would be turn off for value conscious fast food customers, she suggested.

Some food experts argue that alt-meat is junk food in another guise but Brown disputes this. “We are incredibly conscientious about making foods that are better than what they replace. Our chicken nuggets are not intended to replace a lentil salad. They’re intended to replace a chicken nugget, made from a chicken, and from a nutrition and health perspective, it’s a net positive.”

Marisa Heath, the chief executive of the Plant-based Food Alliance said anything that helped the shift to foods with a lower environmental impact was to be welcomed.

“It is an important time for change and the products Impossible are bringing to the UK will make it easier to make those changes,” she said. “With 75% of people eating chicken weekly and intensive chicken farming on the rise in this country this has to be a good thing for the environment and sustainability.”

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