Considering that the vast majority of people aren't exactly going to whip up a substitute chicken product on their own, knowing what vegan chicken brands truly deliver is extra important. Fortunately, the plant-based movement has led many food brands to focus on creating vegan chicken products that are 100 percent legit in terms of both taste and nutrition. After all, the competition for plant-based products has gotten fierce; for a brand to truly stand out, they need to really nail it.
- Melissa Rifkin, MS, RD, New York-based registered dietitian
To figure out what vegan chicken brands are worth shelling out for, you certainly could spend your time buying and taste-testing all the options in the frozen food section. Or, you can use this guide as a handy cheat sheet. Highlighted here are six buzzy vegan chicken brands, with a registered dietitian weighing in on each one. No one has time to be stuck in aisle 12 debating whether pea protein or soy is a better option. Keep reading for all the intel you need.
A registered dietitian weighs in on 6 top vegan chicken brands:
What’s in it: Pea protein, fava bean protein, pea fiber, canola oil, garlic powder, onion powder, vinegar, natural flavorings.
What an RD thinks: Anytime you substitute meat for a non-meat product, you want to make sure it delivers on the protein front. And with 11 grams of the nutrient per serving, this new vegan chicken available at Publix does just that. Registered dietitian Melissa Rifkin, RD, says she’s into the primary sources of it used here, pea protein and fava bean protein. “Pea protein has become a popular substitute for soy protein in vegan products in recent years. Soy is one of the top allergens for children and adults, so swapping out that ingredient for pea protein creates a product that can now be enjoyed by many more people,” she says.
However, she does say that nutritionally, soy is a complete protein (containing all the essential amino acids) while peas and fava beans are not. “While this makes pea protein slightly less desirable, it isn’t a big deal if someone is eating a wide variety of foods each day in order to consume all essential amino acids,” she says.
What’s in it: Water, wheat flour, soy protein concentrate, vegetable oil, soy protein isolate, wheat gluten, yellow corn flour, methylcellulose, potato starch, cornstarch, yeast extract, sugar, salt, natural flavors, wheat starch, dextrose, spices, onion powder, potassium chloride, yeast, glutamic acid, paprika, leavening, garlic powder, citric acid, xanthan gum, barley malt extract.
What an RD thinks: Unlike the Greenwise vegan chicken, which is made with pea protein and fava beans, the Morning Star nuggets are made with soy. “Soy is an excellent source of protein and one of the few plant-based foods that provides all of the essential amino acids,” Rifkin says. While she’s into the protein source, she does point out that the breaded coating has a wheat based, which means it isn’t a good option for people who are sensitive to gluten. “If sensitivities and allergies are not a concern, this is a perfectly good plant-based product,” she says.
What’s in it: Filtered water, yellow pea protein, whole wheat flour, sunflower oil, yeast extract, maple fiber, mushroom extract.
What an RD thinks: At $40 a box, these nuggets certainly aren’t cheap, but they do get Rifkin’s seal of approval. “This is a much shorter ingredient list than many of the other vegan chicken options, and, for that reason, I would say this is a better-quality product,” she says. “It may not contain all essential amino acids due to the pea protein-base, but it has fewer questionable ingredients, which is a win in my book.” Rifkin also points out that the wheat protein used for the breading is a good source of fiber, although it does mean these nuggets are off the table for gluten-free eaters.
What’s in it: Water, soy protein concentrate, sunflower oil, salt, natural flavoring, paprika, pepper, ginger, nutmeg, mace, cardamom.
What an RD thinks: Similar to the Nowadays vegan chicken, Rifkin likes that this pick has a short ingredients list and has adequate fiber. The flavor is incredible—think indistinguishable from real-deal grilled chicken pieces. But she does have one criticism: “The fat found in these products is largely from oil, and therefore not the best quality, so choosing a lower fat vegan chicken product saves up fat grams to be used with better quality fats throughout the day,” she says. But overall, this one is a major win.
What’s in it: Water, soy protein isolate, vital wheat gluten, expeller pressed canola oil, methylcellulose, organic ancient grain flour, sea salt, potato starch, organic cane sugar, white distilled vinegar, organic soy sauce, color added, gum arabic, onion powder, garlic powder, pea protein, carrot fiber, beetroot fiber, paprika, turmeric extract.
What an RD thinks: Gardein has been in the vegan meat game a long time—way before plant-based eating really took off. Their meatless chicken clearly has a longer ingredients list than the others on this list, and Rifkin says she’s into some of what’s on there, but other ingredients not so much. “Vital wheat gluten helps to provide more protein in the food product while methylcellulose is a filler ingredient that allows the manufacturer to add bulk to food without using other ingredients that may be more expensive. It may also help with the texture of the product as well, but it does not provide any nutritional benefit,” she says.
“The ancient grain flour mix that is used may be providing some nutritional benefit in the form of some vitamins and minerals, however, it likely is not significant and not adding or detracting from nutritional value,” Rifkin says. She also points out that it’s lower in fiber than the others on this list.
What’s in it: Water, pea protein isolate, canola oil, sodium alginate, citrus fiber, calcium chloride, oat fiber, vital wheat gluten, pea protein concentrate, maltodextrin, salt, natural flavor, yeast extract, palm oil, carrot fiber, citric acid, medium-chain triglycerides, onion powder, torula yeast, onion juice concentrate, flaxseed, methylcellulose, sunflower oil, rosemary extract, wheat flour, yellow corn flour, leavening.
What an RD thinks: “The fiber content is great, carbs are very reasonable, and protein is awesome,” Rifkin says. However these nuggets have one downfall: the sodium. “It’s higher than McDonald’s chicken nuggets!” Rifkin says. (McDonald’s nuggets have 362 milligrams of sodium per serving while these have 560 milligrams.) She also says the saturated fat in these nuggets is the same compared to McDonald’s chicken nuggets, too.
Rifkin says all of this doesn’t mean she isn’t into these nuggets. “It just means you want to be mindful of the sodium and saturated fat you’re consuming throughout the day outside of when you eat them,” she says.
As with any food, the same general rules of reading the ingredients list and eying the nutritional panel applies to plant-based chicken. What's very good news is that there are so many options to choose from. So go ahead and try 'em out. And if you want to pair your nuggets with some vegan mac-and-cheese, there are options for that, too. Is there anything the plant-based food wizards can't do?
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