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KFC goes Beyond Fried Chicken with plant-based nuggets

KFC's new plant-based nuggets, dubbed Beyond Fried Chicken.

KFC's new plant-based nuggets, dubbed Beyond Fried Chicken. Credit: KFC

In 1955, Colonel Harland Sanders loaded a pressure cooker and a few bags of seasoned flour into the back of his Cadillac and hit the road, a trip that would prove fateful for him, and even more fateful for fine feathered Gallus gallus domesticus, which soon found itself facing an extinction-level event. Out of a desire to convince nearby Appalachian eateries to sell his fried chicken came an empire for which 850 million birds a year would eventually give their lives. Along the way, Sanders would coax hundreds of franchisees into taking a chance on his Kentucky Fried Chicken, persuade millions of Americans it was safe to eat out of a bucket, and — perhaps most remarkably — turn original-versus-extra-crispy into an actual thing.

Some view Beyond Fried Chicken, the plant-based nuggets that the chain begins offering nationwide starting today, as KFC’s way of atoning for past sins. Others believe that the company is trying — like fellow brand Taco Bell, whose recent bold launch of a hot sauce packet recycling program has stirred the conscience of the industry — to reduce its environmental impact, apparently mistaking Colonel Sanders for Bernie Sanders. Then again, maybe it’s a response to consumers’ alleged growing interest in reducing meat consumption, an assertion belied by the fact that Americans ate more fried chicken last year than ever before, self-medicating their way through the pandemic.

Beefless hamburgers might be everywhere these days, but until the Colonel’s collaboration with plant-based powerhouse Beyond Meat, no national chain had dared to offer chickenless chicken — shocking, as fried chicken is our country’s national dish.

Though creating a pea protein-based nugget flavored with the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices was no small task, mimicking the texture of actual chicken was even harder. "Our plan is to try to replicate that Kentucky Fried Chicken as close as we can, obviously without using the animal," KFC’s president told Bloomberg in September. Two-plus years in the lab came and went before the company declared the result a Kentucky Fried Miracle, the answered prayer of zillions of chickens and a few odd flexitarians in existence.

I’m not up for canonizing the Colonel, but having tried BFC, will concede that it is a clever feat of food engineering, one capable of fooling all but the most devoted nuggeteer. It is not a low-calorie option (each piece contains 80 calories versus about 48 for a McNugget, although KFC’s are somewhat larger) or a low fat one. But gone is the gumminess of most supermarket iterations, and gone too is a taste that betrays any sort of relationship with the plant world. And while the "meat" lacks the juiciness of actual chicken, the breading seems of a piece with the rest of the Colonel’s original recipe edition. To be clear, I am no expert on the genre — generally, I avoid plant-based meat— but BFC’s morsels are certainly the most realistic I’ve tried.

So hats off to KFC. They have fashioned a near-perfect virtual nugget, and a fine-tasting one at that. And yet, it’s beyond me why the company has brought Beyond Fried Chicken to market. Also beyond vegetarians, no doubt, who won’t want nuggets that share the fryolator with actual chicken parts. And perhaps beyond dieters and the health-conscious as well, who might reasonably wonder about the caloric and nutritional value of breaded-and-fried pebbles of pea protein. And certainly beyond chicken lovers, because, duh, it’s not chicken. So, who is the target audience? I can think of only one:

BFC is for the birds.

Six- and 12-piece orders of Beyond Fried Chicken, as well as combo meals, are available for a limited time at all Island KFC locations starting today. Prices vary, but start at around $7.99 for a 6-piece, and $14.99 for a 12-piece. For more information, visit kfc.com.

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