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I’m not going to lie, I like a good ol’ 10-piece Chicken McNugget meal. Something about those hot and crispy gems dipped in those little barbecue or honey mustard sauce containers just hits the spot. So when I heard there was a company using next-level engineering to make a plant-based alternative, I was intrigued, skeptical, and excited.
After over a year of development, NUGGS launched its first version of plant-based nuggets last summer. The business—now branded as a family of products called SIMULATE—was started in early 2018 by then-18-year-old entrepreneur Ben Pasternak. Pasternak, who has been called “the next Mark Zuckerberg,” dropped out of high school, moved to New York, and created several apps before starting the food company.
I Can’t Believe It’s Not Chicken!
Plant-based foods have been all the buzz in recent years as Beyond Meat went public at a $1.5 billion valuation and Impossible Foods has partnered with mainstream restaurants like Burger King and QDOBA Mexican Eats. Venture capital dollars in meat and dairy alternatives have also skyrocketed, especially this year.
In July, Bloomberg reported that 20 faux-meat companies raised roughly $1.4 billion in the first seven months of this year—and with good reason; a recent IPSOS Retail Performance study showed that the number of Americans turning to vegan diets has reached 9.7 million. NUGGS also got in on the action this summer, raising $4.1 million to expand their product offering and take a more technical approach to recipe creation.
NUGGS may be the first company to treat food like software; in addition to rebranding as SIMULATE, they hired a chief technical officer from yogurt-maker Danone to oversee product research and development. Instead of using the typical food slogan “new look, same great taste!” it’s new taste, same great look. NUGGS releases version notes every time they change the formula. The latest release improved the texture, emphasized the chicken-like taste, and took out ingredients like gelatin substitute konjac.
Welcome To The Simulation
As much as I love opening that flimsy cardboard container from McDonald’s with my valuable nuggets falling into the bag, NUGGS blows that away. The checkout experience is easy and they’ll even send you status updates via email. The unboxing much more resembles setting up a new laptop than tearing open a frozen midnight snack.
NUGGS ship with padding and dry ice and typically takes around a week to deliver. Each retail package weighs in at two pounds and has 50 nuggets. I opted for the combo box with both original and spicy flavors.
They’re extremely easy to prepare as well, simply preheat the oven to 425° and bake for 13 minutes. I put a piece of parchment paper on the baking sheet as well. The version 1.3.1 instructions say to preheat the oven to 375° and keep them in for 12 minutes, but I think that the higher temperature is the perfect way to get a crispy outer coating.
This isn’t in the official instructions, but I’m pretty sure that NUGGS wants you to check out their Instagram page while you’re waiting. It’s a good time.
Looks and Feels Like The Real Thing
The engineers and food scientists at NUGGS deserve major credit. They did an incredible job of imitating the form of traditional chicken nuggets—based solely on the appearance, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The first thing I noticed after biting into a nugget is how nice the crunch was, and the inner texture felt like a classic nugget as well.
The best way to describe the flavor of NUGGS is “close-tasting.” Traditional chicken nuggets already don’t have the most ~elevated~ flavor profile, and the fact that NUGGS are, for all purposes, made in a scientific laboratory, gives them a bland and cardboard-like taste. There’s simply something off with the flavor.
In order to get you a wider range of opinions, I gathered some of my siblings to join in a family roundtable taste test. My brother-in-law Nick thought that the more you know about NUGGS, the better: “I think knowing that they’re not real chicken is better than acting like they’re a chicken nugget… it’s nice that they’ve gotten the flavor close to what an actual chicken nugget is. I think you need sauce.”And my brother Andrew summed it up pretty accurately as well: “They’re good, but if I’m going to eat this, I’m going to eat a real chicken nugget.”
The spicy version was fairly mild and the extra kick was a welcome addition to an otherwise neutral-tasting profile. What’s true about traditional chicken nuggets is true about NUGGS: they’re not meat, they may not be the healthiest option, and they definitely need sauce.
What’s true about traditional chicken nuggets is true about NUGGS: they’re not meat, they may not be the healthiest option, and they definitely need sauce.
The Last Bite
NUGGS offers a great experience: they’re super easy to order, the packaging is premium and aesthetically-pleasing, and they’re easy to make. That being said, it’s hard to find a reason to buy these over traditional chicken nuggets or other vegan brands. A box of 50 NUGGS is priced at $34.99; if you were to purchase four bags of Whole Foods’ plant-based nuggets on Amazon it’d cost you $15.96 and that would include 56 nuggets.
I was curious how NUGGS stacked up against McDonald’s chicken nuggets. Surprisingly, there isn’t that much of a difference.
After seeing this analysis from Harvard Health Publishing on the difference in nutrition between real-meat and plant-based burgers, I was curious how NUGGS stacked up against McDonald’s chicken nuggets. Surprisingly, there isn’t that much of a difference. For every 10 NUGGS, there are 410 calories and 20 grams of fat. A 10-piece McNugget meal has 410 calories and 25 grams of fat. And while NUGGS have more protein than other plant-based brands, McDonald’s nuggets have almost double the protein.
Despite the health and taste hurdles, I do think that SIMULATE has an opportunity to design the future of food. They recently launched their patty product called DISCS, and DOGGS are in the pipeline. This Silicon Valley-esque methodology of continuous testing and reinventing gives me great hope and I have no doubt that NUGGS will continue to be improved.
While I still may go through the drive-thru to cure my chicken nugget craving, I could see a scenario in which NUGGS will eventually replace the thiamine-mononitrate-and-sodium-aluminum-phosphate-filled McNuggets I’m used to.
5 More Things to Nibble On:
- The packing and unboxing experience makes for a great gift: NUGGS could be a great change-up if you’re tired of giving tchotchkes
- Great for vegans: if you’re currently on a plant-based diet, NUGGS have more protein than animal-based nuggets
- You can become a beta tester to save money and get exclusive access to products before they release
- Their website allows you to send five free nuggets to a friend
- Their Instagram will give you endless entertainment and even special giveaways