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KFC Is Going ‘Beyond Meat’ — but Is It Healthy?


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KFC is launching a faux-chicken menu item. Getty Images
  • The restaurant chain KFC has partnered with the company Beyond Meat to create chicken-free “fried chicken.”
  • But fake fried “chicken” may not be much healthier than the real thing.
  • Experts say that fried and processed food, even if it’s not meat can negatively affect your health.

With the growing popularity of meat-free eating, U.S. restaurant chain KFC has partnered with Beyond Meat to test a new plant-based “fried chicken” offering.

Only available as part of an exclusive one-restaurant test that started August 27 in an Atlanta, Georgia, location, customer response will determine if the new item becomes a fixture on KFC menus nationwide.

But as a heavily processed food, is fried, plant-based “meat” actually healthy to eat?

Meat alternatives are becoming an increasingly popular option in supermarkets and restaurants across the United States as people grow more concerned about health and the environmental impact of meat consumption.

According to KFC, the taste will be indistinguishable from real chicken.

“KFC Beyond Fried Chicken is so delicious, our customers will find it difficult to tell that it’s plant-based,” said Kevin Hochman, KFC U.S. president and chief concept officer, in a statement. “I think we’ve all heard ‘it tastes like chicken’ – well our customers are going to be amazed and say, ‘it tastes like Kentucky Fried Chicken!’”

And on its website, California-based Beyond Meat claims its plant-based products are better options that come without the health risks associated with some kinds of meat.

But there is controversy regarding whether or not plant-based meat substitutes are healthier than meat sourced from animals.

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KFC released the “Beyond” Fried Chicken in one location in Atlanta. Getty Images

“While there are many positive benefits to choosing vegan/vegetarian protein choices, like no cholesterol, lower total fat, animal rights issues, and environmental impacts, it’s important to note that plant-sourced proteins don’t provide all the essential amino acids. Plant sourced proteins are not considered complete proteins in the world of nutrition,” Leslie Young, MA, RDN, and professor of nutrition at Purdue University Global School of Health Sciences in West Lafayette, Indiana, told Healthline.

Young pointed out for a balanced diet without meat, vegans or vegetarians need to find multiple types of protein sources to ensure they don’t miss out on key nutrients.

“However, if the consumer seeks this out as their new, sole source of protein or if portions sizes aren’t kept in check, then some nutritional risks may need to be assessed,” Young said.

A recent study published in May in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found a link between eating “ultra-processed” food and the risk of cardiovascular conditions. Researchers defined these foods as including baked goods, soft drinks, ready-made meals, and even dehydrated vegetable soups.

The findings suggested that for every 10 percent increase in the quantity of ultra-processed foods participants ate, their risk of cardiovascular disease rose by 12 percent, with similar increases in risk of heart and cerebrovascular disease.

Beyond Meat products contain a broad range of food additives, including preservatives and a coloring agent, placing them squarely in this category.

“These compounds are extractions from soy and pea, which is a refined food to some degree. Nevertheless, despite it being refined, there remain some benefits in plant foods which may still outdo meat products,” said Julianne Penner, MS, RD, from the Loma Linda University International Heart Institute in Loma Linda, California.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), eight foods or food groups account for 90 percent of serious allergic reactions in the U.S. These are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts.

“If somebody has a soy allergy, they would have a reaction to any product with soy. Since peas are in the peanut family and also a legume (like soy), there is a possibility that those allergic to peanuts or soy may be allergic to pea protein, so should be cautious,” Penner said.

Additionally there have been concerns about the potential for soy products to affect certain hormones, although research is still ongoing.

The reason for the concern relates to the component genistein.

Genistein is a major component of soy that was found to disrupt ovary development in animal studies. Research published in 2009 added to increasing evidence of the potentially adverse consequences of genistein on human reproduction.

“Although we are not entirely certain about how these animal studies on genistein translate to the human population, there is some reason to be cautious,” said Dr. David A. Schwartz, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in a statement.

“More clinical studies are needed to determine how exposure during critical windows of development can impact human health,” Dr. Schwartz said.

Although soy has been considered a food that can help reduce heart disease risk since 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering revoking that status.

“For the first time, we have considered it necessary to propose a rule to revoke a health claim because numerous studies published since the claim was authorized in 1999 have presented inconsistent findings on the relationship between soy protein and heart disease,” said Susan Mayne, PhD, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in a statement.

The association between fried food consumption and heart disease has been confirmed by numerous studies. Asked if this impacted KFC’s new Beyond Meat chicken offering, Penner was emphatic.

“I wouldn’t consider it healthy, but it may be somewhat less harmful. I’m not sure what kind of oil KFC uses for frying or if it’s the same oil that will be used for the Beyond Chicken, but I would assume that it’s unhealthy oil,” Penner said.

Young also added that breaded chicken means there’s a significant carbohydrate component to the dish.

“Also, people with certain forms of diabetes need to be aware of the carbohydrate content of these meat alternative products. Most people associate fried meats as having little to no carbohydrates,” Young added.

Beyond Meat chicken itself also contains a small amount of canola oil. In some animal studies researchers have associated the oil with increased risk of memory problems and weight gain, although this research is not conclusive for humans.

“The data presented in the current paper demonstrate that chronic administration of a diet enriched with canola oil results in significant deficits of working memory and synaptic pathology,” the study authors wrote.

KFC has partnered with Beyond Meat to test a new plant-based, fried chicken in one location in Atlanta, Georgia.

Of the listed ingredients in Beyond Meat chicken, three may be concerning for the health conscious. These are soy and pea protein isolates and canola oil.

The new menu item will also be fried — a cooking method associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.



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