Ask a group of adults — or kids — what they prefer when the holiday turkey’s being carved up, and the answer is likely to be ‘white meat.’ But that’s the wrong choice, nutritionally speaking.
One of the eternal dilemmas with which meat-eaters have to grapple is answering the question posed by every holiday dinner host: “Would you like white meat or dark?”
I guess that’s one of the benefits of going Full Veggie: Nobody’s ever asked a holier-than-thou vegan whether they’d prefer white tofu or dark tofu. No matter how it’s seasoned, glazed or otherwise sauce, it’s all white, mushy tofu.
In contrast, there really are significant nutritional distinctions between the breast meat and the rest of the meat on a holiday turkey (or chicken). Light meat or dark meat? But it seems that, in general, we don’t appreciate those differences.
Consider the foodservice industry. Virtually every “quality” chicken fingers, nuggets or tenders is marketed with some variation on a “Made with 100% breast meat” slogan. Like the denizens in the novel “Animal Farm,” we patrons of quick-service and fast-food establishments have been conditioned to internalize the mantra, “White meat good, dark meat bad.”
At the end of Orwell’s apocalyptic tale, the animals wake up one morning to find out that the pigs who’ve taken over the farm have changed the slogan, which now reads, “Two legs good, four legs better.”
From a dietary benefits perspective, we’d be better off to consider a similar revision of how we understand “quality” when it comes to poultry products.
Whiter is better
Part of the problem is decades of dumb doctors—referring not to their diagnostic or medical acumen, but to the depth of their understanding diet and nutrition—blandly instructing patients with heart disease to cut down on red meat (allegedly for reduce consumption of saturated fat) and switch instead to “white meat.”
The idea is to skip the beef and substitute chicken.
It was a dumb idea, one borne of bad research and parroted by reactionary dieticians, but it not only gave beef and pork a bad name — to the point that the pork industry pivoted to its iconic “Pork. The Other White Meat” slogan in an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em response, it subliminally identified “good” meat as white.
In fact, one of the earliest consumer complaints encountered by the fast-food chains when the first generation of chicken nuggets was introduced was that they appeared kind of “grayish” in color. That’s because they were formulated partly with mechanically deboned chicken. Nothing wrong with that ingredient, assuming it’s handled properly, but it’s impossible to create a blend that looks pure white when it contains MDP.
Thus, the advent of second-generation breaded poultry products that foodservice operators required their suppliers to source with breast meat only, and that became the standard of quality.
Certainly, that’s not the only reason the majority of Americans prefer white meat chicken or turkey, but it’s a significant factor. We’ve been conditioned to accept only “100% breast meat” as the standard for chicken nuggets and “100% pure beef” as the standard for hamburgers.
Add to that advertising bombardment the doubling down by celebrity and legitimate nutritionists the message that white meat is healthier because its offers fewer calories and less fat than comparable servings of dark meat, and you have a semi-perfect storm driving consumer preferences to what is actually the less healthy poultry choice.
Because of chickens’ and turkeys’ anatomy, their leg and thigh muscles are more active and thus need more oxygen, which requires myoglobin, the iron-carrying pigment that makes blood look red and thigh meat appear darker.
But it’s not just color that makes dark meat different, and better. According to Marisa Moore, a nutritionist writing in Women’s Health magazine, it’s also “an excellent source” of vitamin B6, riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), and such minerals as iron, zinc, selenium and phosphorus. In addition, dark meat poultry is a richer source of pantothenic acid, essential to the synthesis and metabolizing of protein, carbohydrates and fat.
But here’s the bottom line as far as I’m concerned: Dark tastes better and eats better. It’s richer, juicier and doesn’t end up dried out during cooking.
Unfortunately, selling Americans on the value of eating healthy animal fats is way more challenging than convincing them that white is right when it comes to brined and breaded, deep-fried fast-food nuggets. □
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator