The 7 Best Plant-Based Chicken Nuggets, According to Vegetarians and Omnivores
These nuggets don't contain chicken, but the best among them satisfy all the same.
Updated Sept. 8, 2023 4:00 p.m. PT
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Russell Holly is a Managing Editor on the Commerce team at CNET. He works with all of CNET to assemble top recommendations as well as helping everyone find the best way to buy anything at the best price. When not writing for CNET you can find him riding a bike, running around in Jedi robes, or contributing to WOSU public radio's Tech Tuesday segment.
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They may seem like a universal crowd pleaser, but there are plenty of people who either can't or won't indulge in this iconic American fast food. To cater to that audience, as well as show carnivores it really is possible to switch to a plant-based diet without sacrificing your faves, there are a ton of companies out there claiming you can eat their nuggets and not know they're vegan. As a lifelong lover of chicken nuggets, I felt compelled to put this to the test. Plus it gives our childlike selves a chance to feel young at heart.
Each of the vegan nuggets tested here was prepared both in the oven and in the air fryer, with my favorite barbecue sauce as a dip. The nuggets were taste-tested on the same day by me -- a non-vegetarian -- as well as my girlfriend, who's been vegetarian for many years. Other CNET staff writers were also invited to share their thoughts on which vegan nugget they preferred, which helped set up our options for this test. Happy tasting.
It is not a requirement that the best vegan nugget taste like a chicken nugget you'd get at your favorite fast-food place, but consider it a bonus that Impossible Nuggets do exactly that. If you're a meat-eater looking for an occasional plant-based alternative or just looking for finger foods everyone can eat, you can't go wrong here.
The breading texture is great in both the air fryer and the oven, the filling has a great texture and taste to it and a bag of these isn't that much more expensive than chicken-based nuggets. Like most things Impossible makes, the filling is soy-based with seasonings like garlic and onion powder, and five nuggets make one 240-calorie serving.
These are great all-round nuggets, but if you're a connoisseur of the dino nugg they also come in animal shapes if you buy the Impossible Wild Nuggies made of the same stuff.
Sometimes looking for the right plant-based meal involves checking the box to make sure everything you're eating isn't entirely soy. Quorn has been tremendously successful in Europe and is slowly becoming more popular here in the US. Quorn's plant-based meats are made with mycoprotein, part of the fungi family -- which means you're eating high-protein mushrooms (of a sort). As long as you follow the instructions, the end result is delicious no matter what you're making.
Quorn nuggets are a higher 270 calories per five nuggets, due in no small part to the fantastic exterior texture. It's the perfect dipping nugget, size- and shape-wise, and the interior has an almost fluffy consistency. You don't get a ton of flavor on the inside, which isn't a bad thing for folks who want something that doesn't taste like chicken. With the right dipping sauce, you won't notice anyway.
It's also nice that Quorn nuggets come in varied containers. There's a small box of 12 for someone who wants these as an occasional treat, and multiple larger sizes for families or people who really love nuggets.
Unlike most plant-based brands I've seen in stores, Simulate was the first brand I saw heavily advertised on social media. The company boasted it was impossible to know these weren't made of chicken. I didn't find them to be that exactly, but what Simulate does have is a quality wheat protein and soy protein blend in a tasty shell and more variety than most.
Simulate offers its Nuggs 2.0, Dino Nuggs and Spicy Nuggs in variations of the same white box. And at 200 calories for a five-piece serving, it's a little lighter than most other plant-based nuggets. The taste isn't bad: In fact, the spicy version is great if you like a little heat, but the overall effort to make these taste like chicken falls short of what other brands are doing.
If there was a prize to win for easiest plant-based nuggets to find, Gardein would win it. Where many other vegan nuggets can only been found in specific stores and require hunting around a little depending on where you live, Gardein's nuggets are surprisingly easy to find at least around me.
Like most of Gardein's Chick'n, the filling is a combination of soy protein, pea protein and wheat protein with garlic and onion protein to help flavor the exterior. These don't all look like identically pressed nuggets, in fact most of the time these nuggets more closely resemble big pieces of popcorn chicken. And unlike most of the competitors, six pieces make a single serving under 200 calories.
The biggest thing that drops these nuggets down the list a little for me is the aftertaste. Unlike the top of the charts, Gardein's offering has a distinct aftertaste that even a good dipping sauce can't fully cover up for me.
I've had several plant-based goodies from Alpha Foods before, including the company's breakfast sandwiches and burritos, but it wasn't until CNET's McKenzie Dillon raved about these nuggets that I grabbed a bag. The thing I found most interesting about these nuggets is they were better in the air fryer than they were using the conventional oven instructions. The outside stayed nice and crispy, and the inside dried out a lot less versus the standard instructions.
While the flavor of these nuggets are solid, I found the texture of the filling a little less satisfying. If your goal is to buy something that replicates that fast food nugget, you probably won't be totally satisfied with how chewy this nugget is. At only 10 grams of protein for the recommended four-nugget serving at 180 calories, these aren't as nutritious as many other plant-based nuggets I've sampled.
If you've got an air fryer handy and are just looking for a quick snack, these aren't bad. But there are a ton of other options out there that may satisfy more completely.
My first experience with the Beyond Nuggets was at a pizza place outside of Washington, DC, which Beyond had partnered with as a way of helping more places offer quick plant-based options. While I liked the meal well enough, they didn't come off as chicken replacements to me. The texture was off, and the outside was only crispy where the nuggets weren't touching the tray they were baked on. So I decided to wait until I could make them at home to see what the difference was.
Unfortunately, the home experience wasn't much better. Beyond's nuggets are dense even when put in an air fryer, though that did address the crunchy exterior I was missing from the restaurant version.
Beyond's nuggets are 190 calories for four nuggets and are made primarily with fava bean protein, which is unique for this list. The packaging warns these may not be entirely soy-free, but it's nowhere near as prominent as many others on this list.
Of the many plant-based things Beyond makes, many of which I enjoy on a weekly basis, these aren't my favorite.
If you've been in a grocery store, you've probably seen the name Morningstar Farms before. This brand has been around for a long time and makes plant-based alternatives for those who need them. There's more competition now for plant-based alternatives, especially when it comes to chicken replacements, and as a result these Chik'n nuggets are at the bottom of our list.
The big thing these nuggets have going for them is the great, crunchy exterior. Where the breading for most nuggets are uniform, Morningstar Farms offers some variety. Each nugget in my batch had some uniqueness to the breading, which made some crunchier than others. I actually enjoyed the variety and find it lacking in a lot of other places.
Unfortunately, the inside isn't as enjoyable for me. There's a distinct aftertaste in the dense soy protein nugget, which comes to 190 calories for four. That aftertaste largely goes away with a good dipping sauce, but there are other options out there if you're looking for overall taste.
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.