White Meat vs. Dark Meat Chicken: What's the Difference?

    
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

Chicken has long been celebrated as a health food staple - touted as an affordable lean protein, high in important vitamins and minerals. Along with its unwavering ability to pair with just about every flavor and seasoning you can imagine. But at some point along the way you may have been told to avoid dark meat chicken for health reasons. Perhaps you never really understand exactly why it is so "bad"... is it?

Is there a big difference between dark and white meat? And what about chicken skin vs skinless?

Here's the full breakdown on this popular protein, along with everything you need to know about choosing dark meat, white meat or both! 

Chicken Meat 101

In basic terms, the chicken meat you eat is made up of mostly muscle. And there are two main types of muscle fibers in animals - red and white, or also known as slow and fast twitch. 

The main difference between the two is that red muscle fibers (aka slow twitch) contain more capillaries for increased blood flow and oxygen to the area, whereas as white muscle fibers contain fewer capillaries.

The reddish tint is primarily due to a richly pigmented protein called myoglobin - which helps to store oxygen in the muscle for quick use. The more myoglobin, the redder or darker the meat is (1).

Depending on how the animal uses a certain muscle can determine how much oxygen and blood flow (aka myoglobin) is needed to the area. If the muscle is used regularly, like for standing, running, moving about, it likely requires the ability to react quickly. 

Whereas if the muscle is used less frequently, like a chest/breast muscle or back muscle, it requires less oxygen and blood flow. 

In short: the color and flavor of dark meat is due to a protein called myoglobin that promotes more oxygen and blood flow to the muscle. 

What is White Meat Chicken?

White meat refers to the breast and wing portions of the chicken (tenders or tenderloin meat is a section of the breast, so this is also white meat). This cut of protein tends to be incredibly lean and has a notable pale (white) color when cooked without seasoning. 

What is Dark Meat Chicken?

Dark meat comes from the thigh and drumstick (the legs of the bird). Because chickens stand most of the time and use their legs quite often, these two cuts of meat tend to contain he highest amount of myoglobin, making them redder in pigment.

When cooked, the reddish color turns more brown. 

Skin On vs Skin Off

Unlike other types of meat, poultry can be consumed with or without the skin portion of the animal. You can enjoy both dark meat or white meat skinless or skin on. 

Not only does keeping the skin on provide a juicier, richer flavor to the meat, but it's also can be an additional source of nutrition like healthy fats.

However, keeping the skin on can add a small amount of calories to the meat (~90 calories per 1-ounce piece of skin), and this may be an important consideration for those looking to control their calorie and fat intake (2). 

Dark Meat vs White Meat: Which One is Better?

Now that you've got a basic understanding of where the terms dark meat and white meat come from, let's put these two types of poultry beak to beak on the following potential benefits: 

Nutrition

You might be surprised by the difference in nutrient breakdown between these two types of meat. While darker meat seems higher in fat and calories, it is still a fairly lean protein source.

Additionally, dark meat tends to be higher in iron and zinc.

                                    Nutrition

4-ounce Skinless, Boneless Chicken Breast 4-ounce Skinless, Boneless Chicken Thigh
Calories 140 190
Fat (grams) 3 9
Carbs (grams) 0 0
Protein (grams) 26 27
% Daily Value of Iron 4% 7%
% Daily Value of Zinc 6% 15%
% Daily Value of Riboflavin 6% 11%
% Daily Value of Niacin 36% 59%
% Daily Value of B6  27%  27%

 

Bottom line: If you're are looking to cut calories and fat, chicken breast (or white meat) may help you cut a few calories. However, chicken thigh (or dark meat) is a better source of healthy fats, iron, niacin, riboflavin and zinc. 

Health

Both white and dark meat chicken are an excellent source of nutrient dense protein that supports weight loss, muscle growth, and overall good health. 

Additionally, chicken is naturally low in saturated fat compared to some other types of meat - even the higher fat, dark meat has only 2 grams of saturated fat per 4-ounce serving. 

But, when looking at the difference between the cuts of chicken meat, there aren't any notable health benefits of one type over the other. 

Bottom line: Any type of chicken can be included in a balanced, healthy diet and provide beneficial nutrition. 

Flavor

When it comes to flavor, the winner boils down to personal preference. 

Because of the higher fat content, many find that dark meat is more tender and flavorful. While white meat tends to be more mild in flavor but is easier to dry out while cooking. 

Chicken breast or white meat cuts tend to cook best in a sauce, broth, or stew to prevent drying out. Whereas dark meat is easier to bake, roast, broil, grill, and pan fry without sacrificing on flavor. 

If you tend to favor more rich tasting foods, dark meat is a sure winner for you! And if you enjoy simple, lean options, white meat may be best.

Bottom line: It's a draw! This one depends on personal taste. 

Easy Chicken Meal Prep

Looking for easy ways to include more chicken in your diet? Add some healthy protein and cut back on cooking time with pre-cooked chicken for your weekly meal prep

All our proteins are organic, made with simple ingredients (no fillers!), cooked without oil, and seasoned only with fresh herbs.  

MAKE ME CHICKEN

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