Attendees stand outside the Impossible Foods booth at CES 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada, the US. Picture: BRIDGET BENNETT/BLOOMBERG
Attendees stand outside the Impossible Foods booth at CES 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada, the US. Picture: BRIDGET BENNETT/BLOOMBERG

New York — Impossible Foods plans to debut a plant-based chicken nugget, the latest imitation meat maker to jump into an already crowded market.

The offering will be unveiled to potential customers at a trade show next week, the company said, and uses textured soya protein and sunflower oil to replicate the bite and fatty mouthfeel of nuggets. Notably, it does not include heme, the ingredient that gave its burgers and sausages that fake meatiness, but also kept them from being sold in Europe and China because it is genetically modified.

Impossible, along with rival Beyond Meat, revolutionised the “veggie burger” category with their beef-like burgers that came closer to the real thing than other options. They inspired a whole new category of copycats, but despite that first-mover advantage have been late to offer chicken. Beyond began selling its “chicken tender” last week.  

“We’ve been busy with other things,” said Impossible president Dennis Woodside, explaining that the company has been focused on expanding its retail offerings. “We’ve been working on chicken for some time.”

Since debuting its eponymous burger at David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi in New York in 2016, Impossible has increased its customer base to national chains such as Burger King, about 20,000 US supermarkets and five international markets. Its faux sausage, launched in 2020, is now available in a Starbucks breakfast sandwich. The company has raised $1.5bn, according to Pitchbook. It is now valued at about $10bn and is planning to go public in the coming months, Reuters reported in April. Impossible declined to comment on that report. 

The new Impossible and Beyond offerings face stiff competition from alt-chicken products made by established manufacturers, such as Maple Leaf Foods’s Lightlife and ConAgra Brands’ Gardein, as well as newer entrants Daring Foods and Livekindly Collective. But there could still be plenty of room with Americans spending $110bn on chicken last year, by far the most of any meat.

In a similar distribution strategy to its faux burger, the nugget will launch with restaurants first, but is slated to go to retailers shortly thereafter. Restaurants are already taking advantage of the available options. Plant-based chicken substitutes shipped to US commercial restaurants have increased 15% by volume from last year, according to NPD Group’s SupplyTrack.

A new plant-based nugget from a big name company could add fuel to the recent chicken sandwich wars, said Joseph Szala, founder and MD of Vigor, a restaurant marketing firm.

“We’re about to see the same competitive antics happen with chicken nuggets,” he said. “A plant-based alternative could up the ante.”

When it comes to heme, the molecule Impossible has called its “magic” ingredient, the company realised that it did not need to use it because chicken nuggets are a white meat product, and in real chickens most of the heme is in the dark parts.

“In prototypes, we did include a small amount of heme and tested without,” said Laura Kliman, Impossible’s senior flavour scientist. “We found in a nugget format, which is breaded and has some seasoning, it really wasn’t that necessary.”

While the soya used as the main ingredient is still genetically modified, the product could potentially be made with a non-GMO soya as well, according to Woodside. That could give it an advantage over Beyond as its newly unveiled product includes titanium dioxide, an additive frequently used in the US as a bleaching agent. In May, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded the substance “can no longer be considered safe as a food additive” because it still had concerns about its potential to damage DNA. A full European ban on the ingredient could follow.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing the data and findings of the EFSA report, an FDA spokesperson said. In a statement, Beyond Meat noted that titanium dioxide is FDA-approved and is “commonly used” in the industry.

In another development that could expand distribution, Impossible recently secured the Child Nutrition Label from the US department of agriculture for its burger, easing its way into public school meals. The nuggets have been designed with schools in mind.

“One of the first things they ask is, ‘when are you going to have a nugget?’” Woodside said of the K-12 public schools that could soon be serving his alt-burgers.

Plant-based nuggets offer healthier, unsaturated fats, said Lindsay Moyer, a senior nutritionist for the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy organisation. But, similar to other nuggets — both from plants and animals — these come with high sodium levels and are breaded in refined flour, not wholegrain. That also puts them out of step with some nuggets designed specifically for schools, she said.

“Many chicken nuggets formulated for school meal programmes are now wholegrain rich,” Moyer said. “These are not.”

Bloomberg News. For more articles like this please visit Bloomberg.com.

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