Taste Test: Gardein Meat-Free Crispy Chick’n Mandarin Orange

Ask any vegan YouTuber which brands produce the best meat substitutes and Gardein will definitely be mentioned. From the videos I’ve seen online, this Canadian-founded company is a favourite on many vegetarian and vegan grocery lists. Here’s what I think of their Mandarin Orange “chicken” as a self-proclaimed meat-lover.

I was pleasantly surprised when I opened up the package and these cute little chicken nugget-shaped pieces were staring back at me. My brain knew they weren’t chicken but my eyes were definitely fooled.

I started by frying the little chicken nuggets from frozen in a teaspoon of oil and once the batter turned golden brown, I added the sauce right there into the hot pan and tossed it around to get everything nicely coated. After cooking it together with the sauce for a few minutes, I cut one in half to make sure it was heated through. Some of the sauce clumped together but I’m pretty sure it was just because I had the heat on quite high. This could probably have been avoided by cooking the nuggets for a longer time on lower heat, but I was very hungry that day and VERY impatient! It also smelled fantastic and I didn’t want to wait even one more minute to try the completed dish.

WINNERS

  • Great Appearance

The appearance was definitely a highlight for me. The mock meat looked just like McDonald’s chicken nuggets and, upon cutting one in half, the cross-section looked very realistic and just how you would expect a real chicken nugget to look. Coated in the sauce, it looked similar enough to the photo on the packaging and to the typical American-Chinese dish you might order for take-out.

  • Convenient

As with all frozen entrees, this dish was super easy and fast to prepare. Having the sauce included was also great because it meant that I didn’t have to add any seasonings or make my own sauce from scratch. I was also not worried about any potential food poisoning if I happened to undercook it. Because it’s not actually real meat, you don’t have to worry about bacteria from handling anything raw which is a bonus.

  • Tasty Batter

The batter was so delicious! It was crispy and each nugget was perfectly coated. The batter really did remind me of McDonald’s, which counts as a huge plus in my book!

  • Great Sauce

The sauce was fantastic; it tasted just like the sauce that I can get from the Chinese restaurant down my street. I’m not sure if regular sauce has any non-vegan components, but I know it tastes very similar to this guaranteed meatless version.

  • Satisfying

I knew going into this taste test that most vegan foods are often meant to be eaten not just on their own, but combined with complementary side dishes to sell the meat substitute as part of a larger meal. So I ate a portion of the “meat” with some stir-fry broccoli and white rice. I found this to be very filling and I wasn't hungry for at least 4 hours afterward. Many people worry about not feeling satisfied on a vegetarian or vegan diet and that was definitely not the case with this meal.

LOSERS

  • The Price

I bought my packet from Loblaws for around $5 but I have also seen it at Whole Foods for a similar price. Originally I thought the price wasn’t too expensive but when comparing the amount of “meat” in the packet to a box of actual frozen chicken nuggets, you can get a lot more real meat for the same price.

  • Not Exactly Chicken

While I think it’s a bit unreasonable to expect the mock “meat” to taste exactly the same as real chicken, there is a noticeable difference in taste and texture. In other words, it tastes pretty good but it just doesn’t taste the same. I do have to admit that the flavour is a lot better than some of the other substitutes that I have tried in the past since it doesn’t have an aggressive soy/veggie/clearly-fake-meat aftertaste. But the other primary difference is that the texture is a lot firmer than actual chicken, which tends to be softer and fattier. However, Gardein does get points for trying to simulate the ground and pressed texture of real chicken nuggets.

  • Non Re-Sealable Sauce Packet

Because the whole packet can be split into 2-3 individual meals, I think it would be a great idea for the sauce packet to also be split up into separate packets or come in a re-sealable pouch. To really get the best flavour, I would recommend only cooking as much as you can eat in one portion. When refrigerated and eaten the next day, the firm texture becomes a lot tougher and the batter isn’t as crisp. That being said, you should avoid making the whole packet if you’re not planning on eating it right away.

  • Lack of Nutrients?

The word is NOT out on if this dish is any healthier than real chicken. The official Gardein website claims 10g of protein, 10% iron and not much else, however, I have seen older packaging that claimed to have as much as 20% iron and notable levels of many different nutrients including vitamin B12. As far as the package that I bought for myself, it claimed to have 12g of protein per serving. It is not clear as to what happened that made them change the nutrition label. They may have re-formulated the recipe but I’m not sure why they would do so if it would make the product less healthy. An important area to be wary of is the sauce which adds more fat, sodium, sugar, and carbohydrates and which they don’t include in the main nutrition label, but in small print at the bottom.

Conclusions

After trying this, I completely understand why vegans are reaching for this to substitute a Chinese take-out style meal. While you might be able to stir-fry some veggies in a similar orange sauce, there’s something more complete about having a dish with “meat” flavour and texture. However, there may not be any particular health benefit from ingesting this meal, so I wouldn’t recommend eating this every day and thinking that you’re making a healthier choice. As a non-vegan, I think I might re-purchase this occasionally in the interest of doing a Meatless Monday or just to help with cutting down on the amount of meat I eat in general. But I will do so with the knowledge that meat substitutes can taste pretty darn good, but can’t be exactly the same as real meat. The Gardein Crisp y Chick’n Mandarin Orange receives a rating of 3.5/5 from me!

 

Sources: Cover

All other photos courtesy of Cheryl Ng.