Whether you’re experimenting with meat-free Monday, embracing a veg diet or just trying to put more fibre on your plate, subbing out chicken for other options is a fantastic move for both your health and animal welfare.
At just six weeks old, well over one hundred million chickens are slaughtered every year. But a growing trend is seeing more and more Kiwis turning away from chooks on their plate while expanding their palates. Last year, New Zealand ranked fourth in the world for searches about meat alternatives and plant-based foods. As a country, we are hungry for knowledge of veg eating. Health science is now resounding that the more meat we eat, the higher our risk of diabetes, heart disease, and strokes. The higher our fruit and veggie intake, the lower our risk for these diseases.
Additionally, with the cost of living ever creeping up, cooking at home is a great way to keep costs down and expand our repertoire in the kitchen.
Why replace chicken meat with something else?
Operated at a mega-farm, industrial scale, chickens bred for meat in New Zealand have miserable, short lives, even on so-called ‘free-range’ farms. These talkative, curious, smart birds are genetically selected to grow unnaturally fast, too quick for their own bodies to cope. Their organs, bones and leg muscles strain to keep up. Many become too swollen and in pain to even walk more than a few steps. The chickens are denied many natural behaviours, deprived of enough personal space and many are trapped indoors their whole lives, never to see the sky until they’re off to slaughter. Most animal-loving Kiwis are appalled to learn the hidden reality of chicken farming in New Zealand. There’s nothing comforting about the big chicken industry.
As well as these serious animal welfare concerns, there are also significant health risks associated with eating chicken meat. Higher levels of ‘bad cholesterol’ (LDL cholesterol), as well as carcinogens and pathogens found in chicken meat all increase the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, urinary tract infections and foodborne illnesses.
In New Zealand, bacteria on raw chicken meat is considered our main food safety problem, leading to cases of campylobacter (which can be fatal) and salmonella. Amongst notifiable diseases, food poisoning cases from chicken are one of the most common reasons for going to hospital.
Thankfully, we don’t have to choose between comfort food and a compassionate meal. With an ever-increasing range of chicken alternatives on offer and clever whole foods recipes, the deliciousness of your favourite chicken meal can be enjoyed with none of the downsides.
What vegetarian food tastes like chicken?
Happily, there are many delicious choices available instead of eating chickens. There are two main categories of alternatives; either ready-to-go meat replacement options or whole foods.
Brands available in New Zealand supermarkets that offer convenience chicken meat alternatives include: Sunfed, Plan*t, Frys, Birdseye, Let’s Eat, Quorn, Naturli’, Pams, Blissful Foods and VBites. They span the range of burger patties, nuggets, tenders, stir fry pieces and shredded chick’n.
These chicken meat alternatives in supermarket chillers and freezers are often called ‘processed foods’. Many common foods have benefitted from food technology improvements – pasta, bread, breakfast cereals, tinned foods, peanut butter and hummus, for example. The term ‘processed’ reflects modern food production technology and is not an indication of health or nutrition value. Many processed foods are universally recommended as important components of a healthy, varied diet. Other processed foods may be higher in salt, sugar, oils or preservatives and should be enjoyed more occasionally.
With foundational ingredients like peas, hemp or soy protein, plant-based chicken can be higher in fibre and iron, and lower in cholesterol and saturated fats. Convenience plant-based chicken is good for you in moderation, as part of a balanced diet.
Chicken meat replacements that are whole foods based tend to showcase ingredients like tofu, mushrooms, chickpeas, cauliflower, tempeh or home-made seitan (a mildly flavoured, high protein meat alternative made of gluten, the protein strand from wheat flour).
What are supermarket plant-based alternatives made from?
Most meat replacements focus on one or two plant-based protein sources, then incorporate some starches, liquids or oils, and natural flavours and colours to round out the veggie meat. Some of the most common ingredients in plant-based meat are:
- Various vegetable proteins (from peas, hemp, soy, tofu or vital wheat gluten)
- Coconut, olive or canola oil
- Herbs and spices
- Beet juice, pumpkin extract or yeast
- Rice or potato starch
- Beans and legumes
- Nuts and seeds
- Various vegetables
- Natural preservatives, binders and emulsifiers
Sometimes scrutinising an ingredients panel reveals complex ingredient names which can throw us for a loop. Everyone wants to know what they’re eating without feeling like they’re back in a science classroom. Despite being a mouthful, many of these ingredients are actually commonplace and once we know what they are, make total sense.
For example, sodium lactate is a naturally occurring liquid mineral salt from fermenting corn and beets. It’s widely used for preserving across food production, including in meats and grains. Methylcellulose is a compound derived from natural cellulose (fibres found in fruit and veg) and is a thickener and binder. Used widely in food manufacture, like in sauces and baked goods like breads and pastries, it acts as an emulsifier, helping ingredients bind that would otherwise separate. Ascorbic acid is…. vitamin C! Often included in meat alternatives, vitamin C assists with non-heme iron absorption and helps the body heal wounds and supports the immune system.
How do plant-based alternatives compare to chicken meat for nutrition?
Different folks are focused on different aspects of eating – for some people, food is a vehicle for functional fuel and for others, meals are primarily an enjoyable experience. Perhaps for many of us hovering in the middle, we want food that both tastes good and is also good for us.
Many alternatives to chicken can be low-fat, high-protein sources with additional benefits that traditional chicken meat doesn’t have. New Zealand chicken brands advertise 22.9 grams of protein per 100g of chicken meat. Chicken meat alternatives can offer similar levels, or in some cases even more protein per gram. New Zealand’s own Sunfed has more, with 36.1g of protein per 100g and Plan*t Pea & Hemp Chick’n boasts 35 grams per 100g.
Eating plants, like chickpeas, over meat is an excellent source of dietary fibre, which promotes a healthy gut microbiome and keeps you fuller for longer. Depending on the ingredients and cooking method, plant sources of protein can be leaner than chicken meat, with lower levels of saturated fat. Whole foods replacements are a great source of antioxidants and a range of vitamins and minerals, while some meat alternatives are fortified with B12 and also have more iron than chicken meat.
How can chickenless meat taste like chicken?
Funnily enough, that comforting, savoury ‘chickeny’ flavour is often actually a clever blend of seasonings, no animals required. Just ask the Colonel about KFC’s signature herbs and spices! Plain, unflavoured chicken meat is bland.
It’s the artful combination of plant-based flavours and cooking techniques that creates the familiar, warming flavour profile many of us think of as ‘chicken’. You may be surprised how many mainstream chicken stocks, chicken-flavoured potato chips and instant chicken noodles are vegan, free from any chicken by-products. This is great news for home cooks wanting to enjoy that nostalgic flavour without involving any actual chickens.
How do I cook chicken alternatives?
Consider the texture of the alternative to animal chicken meat you are going to use. Is it likely to soak up moisture, to fall apart, or go crispy? Can it be over or undercooked? Different recipes call for different approaches. Sometimes, alternative proteins are best cooked separately, right before serving and added in late so they don’t become moisture logged or get overcooked and dry. Some options do well for maximum flavour injection with marinades or simmering time.
Just as plain lean chicken breast can be fairly tasteless, some alternatives benefit from flavour enhancement. Consider what herbs, spices, oils or other tasty notes you can incorporate to make the flavours pop – citrus, chilli, garlic. Sauces and spices are your friend.
Check out the packaging for cooking directions to get the most out of your dish and enjoy experimenting.
How does the cost of alternatives compare to chicken meat?
Alternatives to chicken span the full cost spectrum, with some options being cheaper, similarly priced or in some cases, more expensive. It depends on your cooking habits, portions and shopping preferences. Wholefoods ingredients are generally cheaper than chicken meat and can be convenient to stash in your pantry or freezer. A 400g can of chickpeas is often as low as $1.70 or a 450g block of firm tofu is around $5.50. Compared to 400g of chicken breast costs between $7 – $10. Convenience chicken alternatives are a mix of comparable and more expensive. New Zealand brand Plan*t’s shredded chicken (pea and hemp protein) is around $13 for 250g, which is comparable to the same amount of shredded chicken meat ranging between $10 – $12.50.