Choice nuggets

As experts on chicken nuggets, students perform taste test

When it comes to rating chicken nuggets, who are the experts? Foodies? No. Adults? I don’t think so.

It’s kids. Chicken nuggets aren’t found on the regular menu. They’re found on the kids menu next to the crossword puzzles, the mazes and tic-tac-toe. They’re found on worn-out white plates sitting on bright red plastic trays in school cafeterias.

Elementary school kids’ prowess and insight regarding this crunchy, mashed up and reconstituted meat product surpasses the most venerated food critic.

But what if the chicken nuggets aren’t chicken?

The vegan food section at most major chain grocery stores has greatly expanded in the last few years, dominated by plant-based imitation meat products. The Impossible Burger has surprised many people (including this food writer) by being a convincing approximation of a juicy beef burger.

So fake beef works. But what about the various varieties of vegan “chicken” nuggets filling the vegan frozen food section? Are they any good? And there are so many different brands. Which is this best?

Enter the experts.

I consulted Brynn McCracken’s fourth-grade class at Fishers Landing Elementary School in Vancouver. Her students, who probably eat more nuggets in a month that most adults have had their entire lives, sampled three types of vegan nuggets from Fred Meyer:


The three types of vegan nuggets sampled for a taste test at Fisher's Landing Elementary School.

(Nathan Howard/The Columbian)

Nugget A: Gardein Seven Grain Crispy Tenders.

Nugget B: Boca Original Chik’n Veggie Nuggets.

Nugget C: Morningstar Farms Chik’n Nuggets.

Not that we told our testers they were going to eat vegan nuggets, mind you. But the motivation for secrecy was less adult treachery than it was scientific rigor to create a truly blind taste test. Honest!

The nuggets were served on different colored plates so students could distinguish them from each other and sample them repeatedly and comparatively during their discerning analysis.

The nuggets were heated in the school cafeteria kitchen to ensure they were hot and crispy (microwaved nuggets are nasty). As I passed a line of children in the hallway carrying a tray of heated nuggets, one child commented, “Those smell so good.” The others longingly followed the tray with hungry eyes.


Food writer Rachel Pinsky prepares to cook chicken nuggets before a taste test at Fisher's Landing Elementary School.

(Nathan Howard/The Columbian)

When I entered the classroom, a wave of excitement bounced around the space. The students knew something special was about to happen. Most of them had heard a bit about the experiment. Some of the kids, reading their parent’s email from the teacher, knew exactly what were doing. Meera, a vegetarian, had been told that the nuggets were vegan, but she was a reliable keeper of secrets and carefully guarded this information from her classmates. As the scent of hot nuggets filled the room, the students got antsy — they were ready to get to work.

I asked the class if any of them had eaten chicken nuggets. The vast majority of the hands were raised. I asked them if they were nugget experts, again most hands were raised. I told them to take their time and use all of their senses to describe and rate the nuggets. Mrs. McCracken told them to use juicy words.

Nugget A: Gardein

Nugget A was the Gardein Seven Grain Crispy Tenders. They are long and oval shaped, not like a traditional nugget, and coated in grains such as oats, amaranth, quinoa, and millet. The ingredients label is cluttered with a bunch of science-y terms. The coating didn’t stick well to the nugget. This nugget left the most grease in the pan compared to the other two nuggets.


Olivia Nguyen, left, and Kana Yamazaki examine a vegan nugget during a taste test at Fisher's Landing Elementary School in Vancouver.

(Nathan Howard/The Columbian)

Kirsten commented, “This is good! They should have this in restaurants.” Kaia found them to be sticky, and she said they tasted like tater tots. She informed me that she doesn’t care for tater tots, but her brother likes them. “My brother likes tots, whatever he likes, I don’t like,” she said. Jasmine noted that the crust falls off easily, but added, “it tastes good, though.” Lucas thought the coating looked like granola. Meera said they were flimsy with a subtle taste. Connor thought they were good, but a bit soft and mushy. Lucas felt that this one was terrible, the skin was all glooby.


Connor Magnussen takes a bite of a vegan nugget during the taste test at Fisher's Landing Elementary School.

(Nathan Howard/The Columbian)

On the comment cards, many of the kids wrote that this nugget tasted like fish sticks. They found them to be soggy, squishy, slimy and greasy. Some wrote that they were peppery. A few of them liked the peppery flavor, many did not.

Nugget B: Boca

The Boca Original Chik’n Veggie Nugget had a traditional nugget shape with a light crispy coating. Like Nugget A, it had a list of ingredients that seemed like something astronauts would tuck into in a science fiction movie. They had a strong garlic flavor — dried garlic and dried onion are listed in the ingredients.


Malcolm Weatherspoon, left, and Brayden Sherriffs compare notes during a vegan nugget taste test at Fisher's Landing Elementary School.

(Nathan Howard/The Columbian)

Brayden said: “This is good!” Jasmine liked that the crust stayed on the nugget. Many of the kids liked that it was shaped like a McDonald’s nugget. Ahilan tasted garlic. Jackson found this nugget to be not as soggy and squishy as Nugget A. But he added, “If you look at the bottom, there’s a lot of sog.” Lucas said that he tasted pepper. Shay thought it tasted like pizza. Connor wanted more.

In the written comments, many of the kids found Nugget B to be too garlic-y, but not as soggy as Nugget A. Many thought it smelled and tasted like pizza. One child wrote, “It smells like pizza, it tasted like pizza without cheese or sauce.” Many wished that it would be juicier, but they liked that the coating stayed on.

Nugget C: Morningstar Farms

The Morningstar Farms Chik’n Nuggets nugget also was nugget shaped. It had a slightly thicker crust than Nugget B. The list of ingredients, like all the others, had a lot of scientific jargon that would not pass Michael Pollan’s rules of eating — eat real food and avoid edible food-like substances.


Olivia Nguyen examines a vegan nugget during a taste test at Fisher's Landing Elementary School.

(Nathan Howard/The Columbian)

Nugget C was placed on a gold plate. Malcolm declared, “The golden nugget!” Ahilan said that it was better than the garlic one (Nugget B). Jasmine didn’t think it tasted like chicken, but like chicken flavored ramen. Connor, again, just wanted more (he had a hearty breakfast of eggs and toast that morning, but he had a very healthy appetite).

Many kids thought this nugget tasted like a tater tot. Some called it a tot nugget. A fraction of the kids found the coating to be too thick and too hard, others liked the crunchy crust. Ahilan summed up what many of the others thought by writing: “This is the one.”

And the winner is …

After the class completed their written comments, Mrs. McCracken asked them to stick the plate of the nugget they liked best on the board. Nugget A (red plate) got one plate, Nugget B (white plate) got six plates, Nugget C (gold plate) won in a landslide — 14 plates. Malcolm (sounding like an ESPN commentator) proclaimed, “C is going for the gold!”


Lucas Fosterman casts his vote for best vegan nugget during a taste test at Fisher's Landing Elementary School. Nugget C won handily.

(Nathan Howard/The Columbian)

After the evaluation cards were completed and the nuggets were rated, Mrs. McCracken told her class that the nuggets weren’t made of chicken and were vegan.

The kids collectively cried out, “What?!”

When asked if they knew these weren’t chicken, only a few said yes. The majority said they would gladly eat these vegan nuggets again, especially the winner: Nugget C.

Lucas summed up the class sentiment. “If she never told me they were vegan, I would’ve thought they were chicken,” he said. “They looked the same and they tasted the same.”


Kaia Heap, right, reacts to the vote count for best vegan nugget during a taste test at Fisher's Landing Elementary School.

(Nathan Howard/The Columbian)

It isn’t surprising that a food scientist could make a fake chicken nugget that tastes like the so-called real chicken nuggets. But why do vegan chicken nuggets taste like chicken nuggets combined with tater tots or pizza? Is this madness or brilliance?

Time will tell if these chicken-tater-tot-pizza nuggets find their way to cafeteria trays and kids menus. Some oddball food combinations succeed, like the Doritos Tacos Locos and others, like the McD.L.T., are an embarrassing mistake.

If only Mrs. McCracken’s class had been around to test them out.

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