I tried Biff's Plant Shack's crispy jackfruit wings - do they work as a vegan alternative to buffalo chicken?
The jackfruit-based wings come complete with a sugarcane 'bone', but could they fill the spicy chicken-shaped hole in fast food lovers' hearts?
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All too often, not eating meat means you have to skip the fast food.
Now this might be good for your health, and probably your wallet too - but sometimes you just want something greasy and satisfying.
But it's more than that. Sometimes you just don't want to miss out on trying something. Food is so much more than just fuel, it's a window into other cultures, into the places and stories of the people who live there. It's a powerful sensory pleasure and a universal human experience, one that spans continents and centuries.
Fast food is a part of that tapestry, and so too are values-driven diets, like vegetarianism and veganism. I stopped eating meat when I was 12 years old, and since moving to the UK in 2022 I've been working my way through the sudden plethora of plant-based meat substitutes, many of which I hadn't realised I would be able to ever try.
Buffalo chicken wings are one of those things. I love a bit of heat in my food, and am an avid collector of hot sauces - including those of the decadent buffalo variety. So, I was excited to discover Biff's Plant Shack's tender jackfruit wings in the freezer aisle of my local supermarket.
The company's founder Biff was a fellow fast food enthusiast, but after going vegan and "eating a fair few bean patties that would never inspire anyone to ditch meat", decided to do it himself - breaking into the London street food scene.
As part of my Animal Bye-Products reviews, I decided to put them to the test.
The taste test
The substitute meat in Biff's Plant Shack's wings is jackfruit, native to South and Southeast Asia. Jackfruit is the world's biggest fruit, and these colossal beauties have been recorded growing up to 55kg in size.
Like most things we consider fruit, the yellow flesh of ripe jackfruit is delightfully sweet, however the younger, 'green' jackfruit has a very mild flavour, which - combined with its fibrous, pulled-pork texture - makes it a popular veggie alternative.
But the innovative use of plant-based alternatives in Biff's wings doesn't end there. Each wing also has its own 'bone' - made from a piece of sugarcane.
We baked our wings in the oven, although the box advises they also do well in an air fryer, then gave them a good roll in Frank's Red Hot buffalo wing sauce - the OG hot wing sauce. I also whipped up a blue cheese dip to dunk them in.
Despite liberal saucing, I was delighted to find the panko crumb held up well, giving each wing a good crunchy bite. The bones were a great addition in that they give you something to hold on to, sparing the cutlery and turning them into a finger food - the way wings are supposed to be!
I quite liked them. They were enjoyable and quite novel to eat, and I can see them working really well as a party snack. For me, they were a solid 6.5 to 7 out of 10.
However, my meat-eating partner wasn't as much of a fan, giving them a "hard pass". He felt they didn't have much taste of their own, and were more a "vessel for the sauce" - with better vessels out there.
The cost at the till
A box of Biff's Plant Shack crispy jackfruit wings set me back £3.50 at my local Sainsbury's, with one box containing four individual wings (weighing 200g).
To compare a similar, ready-to-cook meat-based product, I took a look at House of Chicken's crispy British chicken wings (which come with a Korean barbecue sauce to toss them in). These also cost £3.50, but weighing in at 550g - approximately 10 wings - you're definitely getting more bang for your buck.
Sainbury's own-brand pre-crumbed chicken wings are cheaper still, with a 500g pack of breaded 'firecracker' chicken wings costing just £2.50.
Unfortunately, as often seems to be the case with vegan meat alternatives, the jackfruit wings sit right up at the expensive end of the price range, a factor that may deter more people from considering them as an alternative - as the cost of living crisis continues to bite.
The cost to your body
Let's face it, no one's eating buffalo chicken wings for their health benefits. However, there are a few key differences worth noting.
While meat products are typically a little lacking in dietary fibre, vital for keeping your digestive system running smoothly, this is certainly not something jackfruit has an issue with - with 1.8g of dietary fibre per wing.
They're about on par with their meaty counterparts for salt, with Biff's wings containing 0.62g per 100g, versus 0.65g for Sainsbury's own breaded wings.
The fat content, including saturated fats, is substantially lower. If you eat a 100g portion of Sainsbury's firecracker wings, you're eating 16.5g of fat (2.6g of it saturated), while if you ate 100 grams of Biff's jackfruit wings, you're eating less than half of that at 7.3g (1.2g saturated).
The protein content of the chicken variety is obviously much higher if that's something you're after from your wings though, at 15g per 100 grams versus 3.7g.
The cost to the planet
One of the really cool things about jackfruit, as I discovered from the Biff's Plant Shack website, is that not only is it a drought-resistant crop, but it can help encourage more biodiverse farming.
It's a sustainable crop, and every part of the plant can be used - from its flesh (at all life stages) to its edible seeds, to the natural dyes in its wood - which have traditionally been used to dye the robes of Buddhist monks in Southeast Asia.
The company sources its jackfruit from Vietnam - one of the world's biggest producers of the fruit - which will add some carbon emission from transport. But according to its own calculations, their wings produce an estimated 79% less carbon dioxide than their chicken-y counterparts.
Farming chickens produces less greenhouse gases that farming beef or lamb, but a Griffith University study which considered emissions, nutrient pollution, land and sea disturbance, and freshwater use found it still put a lot more pressure on the environment than plant-based alternatives.
The environmental footprint for chicken in particular comes largely (78%)from the production of their feed, which typically includes both soy products and fishmeal, spanning both land and sea.
Biff's reckons it has saved over 164 tonnes of carbon dioxide so far "and counting", and says its jackfruit burger patty products use 336 litres less than a meat-based patty.
Further, the company steers well clear of palm oil products - also farmed in Southeast Asia - but known to frequently be a hugely environmentally harmful product, linked with the destruction of vast swathes of rainforest.
While the mild taste didn't do much for my meat-eating partner, it worked well for me - especially when paired with some excellent sauces.
Want to throw a vegan-friendly but dietarily-accurate Superbowl party? These wings will be just the thing. However, the somewhat more prohibitive cost means they might be better suited to a party where you are inviting just one vegan, as opposed to an entire family of them.
I personally like the fact they are a bit lower in fat (with no artificial flavourings or 'E' numbers to worry about, and what they trade off for protein, they make up for in extra fibre.
They're also easy on the planet, which is always appreciated, and on top of that, they're just plain innovative. I'm pretty sold on jackfruit as an ingredient in plant-based cooking - it does after all, have a long culinary history in its home countries - and the sugarcane bones are such a fantastic touch.
With products like these, who says vegetarians have to miss out on fast food?