Thursday, July 15, 2010

Versus: Chicken Nuggets

Today we're unveiling a new segment here at No Gluten, No Problem: Versus.  Usually, when we do a product review, we choose one company, and we review a comprehensive suite of their offerings.  But for Versus, we're changing the rules of the game.  Instead, we're choosing a specific product category - in this case, chicken nuggets - and reviewing two or more companies in a head-to-head face off.  We'll tell you how they compare, and we'll declare a winner.

We'll have companies square off in five categories:

1. Taste and Texture - Enough said.

2. Integrity of Ingredients - Does it read like a chemistry kit?  Is it made with familiar ingredients we'd likely have in our own pantry?  Are there trans-fats or artificial sweeteners?  Are plant-based ingredients organic?  Are animal-based ingredients certified humane?  You get the idea.

3. Gluten-free Goodness - Is it made in a dedicated facility?  If not, is it tested to a certain gluten ppm threshold?  What cross-contamination procedures are in place?  Does the company support Celiac and gluten intolerance organizations?

4. Company Ethic - This is a catch-all category that captures other things that are important to us, like a company's environmental commitment and their social philanthropy.

5. Overall - Most importantly, who's the winner?

For our inaugural Versus: Chicken Nuggets, three companies are stepping into the ring - Ian's Natural Foods vs. Applegate Farms vs. Bell & Evans.

Taste and Texture

Despite the fact that all three companies' nuggets are frozen foods that you either re-heat or cook, their offerings tasted remarkably different.  The Ian's chicken nuggets are made with a kind of chicken filling that's then breaded.  The filling is made with chicken meat, canola oil, corn flake crumbs, water, potato flakes and sea salt.  The result is a chicken nugget that feels pasty in the mouth.  It's a weird texture that's contrasted by a quite crunchy breading.  Also, the use of corn in both the chicken filling and in the breading give the nugget the corniest taste of the three.  Applegate Farms also goes the route of a chicken filling that's breaded.  Theirs is made of chicken, water, cornstarch, salt and oregano.  Its taste and texture are both better than Ian's, and reminds me of frozen chicken nuggets I once ate as a kid on Long Island.  Finally, we come to Bell & Evans.  Bless their souls, they make their chicken nuggets from whole pieces of chicken breast meat.  The difference is profound.  On the counts of both taste and texture, B&E wins this category for me, hands down.

Integrity of Ingredients

On a superficial level, all three companies do a pretty nice job with their ingredients.  Nothing is too foreign or unfamiliar.  Ian's uses boneless, skinless chicken, corn (corn meal, corn flakes, cornstarch, etc.), evaporated cane juice, potato, sea salt, and canola oil.  They boast of using no refined sugars and no hydrogenated oils.  Similarly, Applegate Farms uses chicken, corn, salt, rice, tapioca, spices, and vegetable oil.  Finally, Bell & Evans uses whole chicken breast meat, salt, rice, corn, xanthan gum, evaporated cane juice, non-hydrogenated oil, yeast, egg and spices.  Again, nothing out of the ordinary.  Good news.

On the topic of humanely raised and slaughtered chickens, the story changes a bit.  Apart from noting that they use "no skin" from the chickens in their nuggets, Ian's doesn't say much about the topic.  Which is either a gross oversight, or a sign that it's not something they want to talk about.  Applegate Farms and Bell & Evans, on the other hand, are almost two peas in a pod in this realm.  Both companies boast of their chickens' minimal stress environment, fresh air and sunlight, no overcrowding, room to roam, constant access to fresh water, and a vegetarian diet comprised of corn, soy and vitamins.  I was tempted to give the nod to Applegate - for their explicit discussion of humane slaughter, and for their commitment to sustainable agriculture with integrated/cyclical practices (such as using chicken poop to fertilize on-site or nearby farm fields).  On the other hand, I was also tempted to give the nod to Bell & Evans - their commendable practices have made them a chicken supplier to both Chipotle (and the company's Food with Integrity program) as well as Whole Foods.  That's no small accomplishment.  It's a tie between Applegate and B&E on this one.

Gluten-free Goodness

All three companies - which all make both gluten-free and glutenous products - offer up something to love in the gluten-free goodness category.  The Ian's website has a very handy allergen search page, which allows you to filter their products by different allergens (wheat, gluten, dairy, vegetarian, etc.).  This is a handy feature.  (However, it does lack an allergen search option for corn, one of the Top Eight allergens.)  The company tests its gluten-free chicken nuggets to a level of 2.5 ppm to ensure against cross-contamination, and they use a different "Red Banner" on their packaging to distinguish gluten-free foods from the company's traditional product lines.  Applegate Farms, meanwhile, has a great gluten-free info page on their website, which addresses both some big picture questions about gluten, as well as specific ways the company ensures its products are gluten-free (gf chicken nuggets are tested before they leave the facility, and they're held until test results are verified and the food is "cleared" as gluten-free).  Like Ian's, Bell & Evans uses differentiated product packaging - gluten-free chicken nuggets are sold in a black box, versus the company's traditional blue box.  B&E also tests its chicken nuggets to a max allowable gluten level of 10ppm, well below the internationally accepted standard of 20 ppm.  Like Applegate, Bell & Evans has a good gluten-free info page on their website.  Everyone's a winner in this category.

Company Ethic

Each company has nice things to say about their respective environmental commitment.  For example, Ian's uses eco-friendly recycled content packaging and was certified as carbon neutral.  Bell & Evans touts their recycling program, use of eco-friendly cleaners, and their wastewater treatment facility.  But this category goes to Applegate Farms for their support of small family farms and sustainable agriculture.


At the end of the day, it all comes down to a few basic questions: Which one tastes the best?  Which one is the best for your body?  Which one is the best for your soul?  Depending on your priorities, one of those questions may be more important than another.  My guess is that, for the average NGNP reader, what you really want is a tasty product, and if you can get some benefits with respect to questions 2 and 3, well that's an added bonus.  For me, the clear winner is Bell & Evans.  Their chicken nuggets were head and shoulders above the others.

Winner = Bell & Evans

- Pete


Penny said...

I wish the Bell and Evans brand would remove soy from their product. My GF (CFer) is also SF.

peterbronski said...

Hi Penny... Yeah, they do use non-hydrogenated soybean oil. With any prepared food, it's hard to address everyone's dietary restrictions. I know some NGNP readers will have problems with the corn, others with the yeast. That's one reason why we advocate for doing a lot of scratch cooking at home! =)

Cheers, Pete

theMom said...

Perhaps this is not as big an issue with others as it is with our family, but, the reality of our life is that price often ends up being a deciding factor. It would be nice to always think first of how sustainable everything is, but when I read the prices on the more sustainably raised and prepared things, I generally either go with something less optimal or we do without.

But,...we are blessed to live in a rural area and are currently working on our own free-range chickens. They get lots of love and attention and follow my husband around as though he's the mother hen. Eventually we can make our own sustainable GF chicken nuggets.

The trade off there, however, is convenience. Alas!

On yet another hand, those chicken are a pleasure to watch trotting and pecking around the yard.

peterbronski said...

Price is a tough one. For one, price can very from region of the country to another. Also, some people may go for the cheapest price. Others may happily pay more for a better quality product, or for one with more sustainable practices behind it. Still others may appreciate most the value - the ratio of price to quality. Personally, we've made the choice to eat less meat so that we can afford to spend more per pound on higher quality meat that also jives with our ethics. Chicken nuggets, of course, are a convenience food, and you're going to pay for that. Another reason why we love cooking from scratch at can often make the same food for less money (though you do sometimes sacrifice convenience...).

Cheers, Pete

Wendy said...

I think Bell & Evans GF chicken products are by far better by taste, texture, and ingredients than Ian's. I haven't tried Applegate's.

I usually make my own chicken nuggets or tenders, but Bell & Evans is great for convenience every once in a while.

As for cost, in the stores around here Ian's and Bell & Evans cost about the same. I was impressed when I saw that Bell & Evans charged the same thing for their non-GF products and their GF products. Ian's GF product is at least $1 more than their non-GF products.


peterbronski said...

Hi Wendy... Thanks for the pricing info! We're much the same - we usually make our foods from scratch, but every now and then, it's nice to have a convenient option. All the better when it's a quality product like Bell & Evans.

Cheers, Pete

Anonymous said...

For those concerned with price.... check out a food purchasing group called Angel Food Ministries. This is church based ministry that has no required income levels etc. They sell restaurant quality foods at a very reasonable price.
BEST OF ALL Every month they have an ALLERGEN FREE BOX,

Their breaded chicken products are great! I had always thought that they were from Bell & Evans but since theirs have Soy, I am not sure now.

peterbronski said...

Hi Anonymous... Thanks for the recommendation about Angel Food Ministries. However, after browsing their website extensively and perusing the August menu options, I did not see an Allergen Free offering. Every package appeared to contain gluten-ous foods. Do you have more info about the Allergen Free option?

Thanks, Pete

TK K said...

I love this new head-to-head review idea. Great!


peterbronski said...

Thanks TK! Keep an eye out for more Versus posts in the near future...

Cheers, Pete