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Plant-Based Chicken Spreads Its Wings

Chicken alternatives are quickly growing in diversity of formats while improving in taste, texture and nutrition. Experts discuss the trend’s growth—and where it may be headed.

Posted on May 1, 2022

Vegan products Meat alternatives Vegan menu 5_1C04_Foodservice Chicken Tenders_Stacked with BBQ

Attendees browsing the aisles of the Plant Based World Expo in New York City in December 2021 couldn’t help but notice one standout trend saturating the space: plant-based chicken. “We get the benefit of having a first glance at the latest plant-based trends, and 2021 was undoubtedly the year of plant-based chicken,” says Benjamin Davis, VP of content for Plant Based World Expo. “We saw it all—from nuggets galore to tenders and patties, chicken Parm, chicken and waffles, shredded, grilled and everything in between. Products are improving immensely in taste and texture, and the category appears poised to gain traction, similar to the plant-based burger explosion just a couple of years ago.”

Driving the Trend

Tastewise, an AI-powered real-time food intelligence solution utilized by brands such as Nestlé, Givaudan and General Mills, culls data from more than 1 million restaurants and delivery menus, 22 billion-plus social interactions, and over 4 million home recipes. It found that plant-based chicken has taken off on menus, with 133% growth year over year. Interestingly, 11 times more consumers choose plant-based chicken for its health properties than for sustainability concerns, though sustainability is becoming increasingly prevalent as a motivation (with 47% growth year over year), while animal rights and health are declining as motivators.

Tastewise also found that, nutritionally speaking, the most important consideration in choosing plant-based chicken is protein content. Chicken sandwiches are the most popular application, but burgers, salads and pizza are also in demand, with pizza growing at 24% year over year. Finally, the most popular ingredients with which manufacturers make plant-based chicken are seitan, tofu and oyster mushrooms, but crimini mushrooms and pea protein are gaining traction.

“Plant-based chicken is the hottest segment of plant-based meats,” asserts Brian Pope, co-founder and CEO of CHKN Not Chicken, a manufacturer based in Portland, Oregon. “Consumer demand for plant-based chicken is not surprising, given the popularity of chicken itself—in the United States, consumers eat more chicken than they do beef or any other animal protein, and chicken is at the center of thousands of recipes that consumers have enjoyed for years.”

Indeed, even global fast-food giant KFC has hopped on the plant-based chicken bandwagon, debuting Beyond Nuggets in all of its U.S. stores nationwide as of January 2022. Brendan Cravitz, CMO of Next Meats, which recently launched in the United States after forming in Japan in 2020, believes that Gen Z and millennials are driving demand and purchases—thanks to increased education on environmental issues as well as personal health concerns, spurred on by COVID-19. “But even Gen X and baby boomers are open to having plant-based chicken twice or three times a week,” Cravitz adds. “Simply looking at any social media platform today, the excitement for what KFC alone has done would clearly indicate this is in demand right now. It’s impressive and exciting to see all of these quick-serve restaurants add plant-based options—even three to five years ago, it would have seemed unrealistic for that to happen.”

The Flexitarian Factor

In the not-too-distant past, meat alternatives were considered the realm of vegans and vegetarians, but today, manufacturers are targeting the flexitarian—after all, that’s a much bigger marketing pool. In fact, Jennifer Barnes, vice president and general manager at Sweet Earth Foods (owned by Nestlé), notes that a whopping 98% of meat alternative buyers also consume meat, which drives a strong need for product diversity and flavor matching in alternative proteins. “A lot of people are looking to reduce their meat intake for various reasons (health, sustainability, etc.) but not necessarily cut it out completely,” Barnes says. “Plus, people just love chicken and use it all types of ways, so there’s a lot of opportunity with plant-based chicken in particular.”

On the other hand, flexitarians can have different demands from their alternative proteins than the typical herbivore; they expect a product that’s a close approximation of their normal fare. “As was the case with plant-based burgers, to attract the flexitarian consumer, it’s important to recreate the experience of eating chicken,” Pope notes. “There are three areas where plant-based chicken needs to deliver: to recreate the flavor, juiciness and texture of chicken; to look like chicken when served on the plate; and to be able to be cooked in a similar manner to how consumers would cook chicken.”

However, Gina Galvan, SVP of innovation at Pope’s company, adds that its research suggests that consumers don’t necessarily want plant-based chicken to exactly mimic the raw meat. “There are a number of elements that consumers simply don’t like about raw chicken, including the look and sliminess, and the concern over the bacteria that are found in raw chicken sold in the grocery store,” Galvan explains. “If plant-based chicken can deliver the above three elements and can eliminate the negatives of real chicken, plant-based chicken will truly be a better consumer solution. The environmental and ethical benefits will simply be added benefits.”

Similarly, Cravitz believes his company doesn’t need to replicate the exact raw-to-cooked experience of traditional chicken. “We believe that people have less and less time these days—therefore, anything that saves time, and is delicious, healthy and quick, is what our consumers want and expect,” he says. “And for culinary professionals, they simply want a product that the consumer enjoys in the end but is 100% consistent and cost-effective.”

toppers_VEGAN_BUFFALO_CHIX_HT

Toppers Pizza offers the Vegan Buffalo Chicken-less Topper at its dozens of locations.

Formatting Issues

In recent years, plant-based chicken has often focused on certain formats—predominantly patties and nuggets—but today’s options are branching out into pieces, shreds, slices and more. “Right now, we’re entering an era of going beyond the patties and the nuggets, so we’ve developed a variety of plant-based chicken alternatives, from light whole-cut pieces to specific favorites like Chick’n Flavored Spinach Ravioli,” explains Alex Kramarchuk, CEO of Future Food Enterprises, producer of PAOW! (People and Our World), based in Ormond Beach, Florida. “I think the industry has already gone through the initial phase of accepting plant-based alternatives as a standard and have just begun to dive into exploring other options. We haven’t yet reached the point of seeing a whole-cut plant-based chicken at grocery stores, but I believe we’ll get there eventually.”

At Next Meats, developing healthy products with the taste and texture that meat eaters or flexitarians are looking for—without the use of any artificial additives or flavorings—is the main goal, but versatility also factors in. “Our plant-based chicken for foodservice is a whole-cut chicken tender that’s unseasoned, though we intend to import our preseasoned options from Japan in the near future, for consumers,” Cravitz explains. “Our products are sliced, which makes them very versatile and convenient for cooking preparations such as grilling, stir-frying, sauteing, etc.”

Pope believes that, historically, many plant-based chicken products simply didn’t taste good enough on their own, so the breading on patties or nuggets were employed to mask that weakness. “However,” he adds, “current innovation is allowing brands to deliver a great-tasting plant-based chicken that isn’t fried or coated so that it can replace chicken in any recipe that calls for it.”

Indeed, Galvan believes that the path to consumer delight is to create plant-based chicken that can replicate chicken in a range of recipes, from tacos and stir-fries to pizza and pasta. “Current product offerings are doing this with plant-based chicken pieces or shreds—this format meets the requirements of many recipes,” Galvan says. “But there is still a gap: to deliver a tender, whole cut of chicken breast that is carveable and can be a true center-of-the-plate protein. This will likely be a top innovation focus in 2022.”

Evolving Consumer Demands

In addition to greater variety in formats, Galvan believes consumers today are increasingly looking for clean ingredient decks, with ingredients they can understand and pronounce, as well as strong nutritional panels. “We expect to see heightened consumer demand for plant-based products that are actually healthier than the meat they replace,” Galvan says. “Delivering great taste and texture will become minimum requirements, but brands will be able to set themselves apart by creating the experience with ingredients that are clean, allergen-free, non-GMO and lower in sodium.”

Kramarchuk agrees, noting that as the growth of plant-based chicken continues, companies (including his own) want to ensure three elements: consistency in the products’ taste and texture; increasing versatility in recipes so it reaches consumers beyond typical plant-based eaters; and clear messaging on the clean ingredients to attract consumers with restrictions or allergies.

But it’s not always easy to replicate meat while keeping the ingredient list clean. “Technical hurdles are par for the course, and that’s why you see so many brands adding a slew of ingredients to create and bind, to mimic animal proteins,” Kramarchuk explains. “Utilizing minimal ingredients, we achieve our texture with temperature, pressure and mixing—not by adding questionable additives. Plus, our products can be further changed by simple cooking techniques: boil or slow-cook for a softer texture, or saute or deep-fry for different results. It’s a more versatile, healthier protein, and we’re also working with different protein sources, such as pea and other legumes, to diversify further.”

Finally, consumers are looking for ample nutritional benefits in their plant-based alternatives, according to Kate Schultz, RD, senior dietitian at Nestlé for Sweet Earth Foods. “We focus on giving consumers an easy way to enjoy the same taste and texture of animal protein sources without compromising their plant-based diets—so, for example, our Chipotle Chik’n has 13 grams of plant-based protein per serving and is a good source of iron and potassium,” Schultz says. “Consumers continue to seek a similar standard of nutrition in plant-based chicken as they do with traditional meat, often looking to nutritional callouts such as ‘good source of iron.’ Plus, Sweet Earth products are Non-GMO Project-verified, which is becoming increasingly important to consumers.”

J-Spec's Next Meats Plant-based Chicken Romesco by KK Chote

J-Spec in New York City was the first U.S. restaurant to put Next Meats' chicken on the menu, featuring this Next Chicken Romesco with a dipping sauce.

Hinting at Hybrids

As technology accelerates in future years, some manufacturers may even begin to explore hybrid alternatives—i.e., incorporating cell-based animal fat with plant-based ingredients in a single product or product range. “While more consumer research needs to be done to understand consumer perceptions of new technology such as cell-based animal fat, we view these as one of the tools in our toolkit to create the texture and juiciness consumers are looking for,” Galvan notes. “Our current belief is that the flexitarian consumer will be open to cell-based animal fat as an ingredient.”

Kramarchuk, too, has noticed that as the plant-based industry looks to expand, there’s growing talk of adding animal protein components to plant-based components. “I think this may work in some instances, but I think it’s too early to define this movement,” he says. “Yes, it appeals to the flexitarian, and the mix can be more beneficial to the consumer and the environment, but I question if the market is ready for an animal/plant mix. Still, we define our products as proteins, so anything is possible!”

This article will also appear in a forthcoming issue of The World of Food Ingredients.

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