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KFC now has experimental meatless 'chicken' made from pea protein, but a nutritionist said it's not much healthier than the original

Gabby Landsverk , Business Insider US
 Aug 30, 2019, 08:13 PM
KFC 's "Beyond Fried Chicken" is 100% plant-based, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's healthier.
Ni'Kesia Pannell
  • Kentucky Fried Chicken is testing new meatless, plant-based meals in partnership with Beyond Meat. Its tasting event in Atlanta sold out in less than five hours.
  • Although people are turning to plant-based food as a healthier option, the highly-processed meat substitute isn't actually much healthier than KFC's regular fried chicken.
  • However, a shift to plant-based protein overall could be better for the environment.
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage.

Kentucky Fried Chicken is the latest fast-food company to dive into the plant-based "meat" market, launching its first-ever Beyond Fried Chicken products at its Atlanta test kitchen this week.

Although the plant-based options are slightly lower in calories and fat, they're still not much better for you than the traditional meat option, a nutritionist told Insider.

Strict vegetarians and vegans may be out of luck, too. Although the trial run used a dedicated fryer for the meatless items, it's not clear if they'll be prepared alongside real chicken if KFC makes them a permanent addition to the menu.

But there may still be reason to swap out your chicken dinner for a plant-based version - it's healthier for the planet.

Here's what else you need to know about whether it's worth going meatless for your next chicken run.

Beyond Fried Chicken replaces the poultry with pea protein

Although it's not clear what the exact recipe for Beyond Meat's proprietary KFC collaboration is, the new meatless "chicken" is a blend of soy protein, pea protein, rice flour, and carrot fiber, plus a bunch of seasonings and food additives like yeast extract, vegetable oils, salt, onion powder, and garlic powder, according to Today.

These ingredients alone can be healthy. Pea protein, derived from yellow peas, contains all nine of the essential amino acids your body needs. It's also high in iron. And, although some people worry that soy can interfere with hormones like testosterone or estrogen, research doesn't back that up - it's fine for most people.

Vegetable oils can be OK too, especially in moderation, although some are better than others based on how much saturated fat they contain.

But the fact that the faux chicken is processed and fried means it's not exactly a health food.

"Processed foods, whether they're meat-based or plant based, aren't a nutritional need in our diet, especially when they involve low-quality oils," Whitney Stuart, a board-certified and licensed dietitian-nutritionist, told Insider. (It's not clear what kind of oil KFC uses in its products.)

If calories and fat are your concern, going with the Beyond Fried Chicken isn't going to help you much, either. It only has 10 fewer calories and one less gram of fat.

One of the meatless nuggets weights in at 60 calories, 3 grams of fat, and 5 grams of protein, Marketwatch reported. A comparable serving of KFC extra-crispy chicken tenders is about 70 calories, 4 grams of fat, and 5 grams of protein, according to the company's website. Both the chicken and plant-based meals have similar levels of sodium.

"Our goal for nutrition in plant-based food is whole vegetables, fresh or frozen, in their natural form, not in processed patty," Stuart said. "At the end of the day, we're aiming for a natural, whole food, and this isn't it."

Producing chicken uses more land and water than producing crops.
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images

Swapping out chicken for plant protein could be better for the planet, however

Research has shown meat production to be a major threat to the environment. Animal farming produces large amounts of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide, and farmland competes for space with natural ecosystems like forests. Although chicken and other poultry isn't as damaging as red meats like beef, it's still a part of industrial agriculture.

A major study from the Lancet has found that shifting toward a plant-based diet could make a huge difference. "Food is the single strongest lever to optimise human health and environmental sustainability on Earth," according to a summary of the research.

But research isn't yet clear on how meat substitutes, especially highly-processed ones like Beyond Fried Chicken, play a role. Research on the Impossible Burger has found that it generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions and requires 46% less energy, 99% less water, and 93% less land use that beef burgers.

Chicken is considerably better for the environment than beef, however, producing fewer greenhouse gasses. So, opting for a meatless chicken is likely less impactful than going for faux beef.

Still, producing chicken uses more land and water, and produces more emissions, than crops, and the average American could cut their impact in half by eating less meat and dairy overall, according to the World Resources Institute. Going meatless when you can, then, isn't a lost cause.

Moderation in both real and faux-meat meals is key to health

Stuart said that the bottom line it won't hurt your health to occasionally indulge in fast food, whether it's plant or animal based.

This is in line with advice that beef substitutes, like the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat, are a fine choice in moderation, as nutritionists previously told Insider.

"There is absolutely room for all types of foods in your diet. Choose the one that most satisfies your craving at that time," Stuart said.

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