You are what you eat, right? So if you’re going to be a chicken, you want to be strong, healthy, and ethically raised instead of fatty, overmedicated, and understimulated.
According to Purdue University, Americans consume 8 billion chickens annually; that’s a little less than half a chicken per week per person in this country. That’s a whole lot of chicken!
The National Chicken Council says that Americans are eating 2.5 times more chicken today than the average citizen did 50 years ago.
To keep up with this demand, farmers have had to change the way they raise these birds.
A Change In The Process
An article in the Guardian provides these chicken facts: “In 1957 the average growth period for an eating chicken to reach slaughter weight was 63 days. By the 1990s the number of growth days had been reduced to 38 and the amount of feed required halved.” The birds also now weigh about twice as much as their ancestors from 50 or 60 years ago.
In order to get these dramatic results, chicken producers selectively breed for these large and desirable characteristics, and the chickens are fed an intense diet of high-energy grains. Many are given antibiotics and other medications to make them resistant to the illnesses that can spread quickly among flocks that are kept in relatively close quarters.
Part of what has made chicken—and chicken breasts in particular—so appealing to consumers is that it is easy to separate the fat from the desirable parts of the meat, leaving a product that is easy to work with, high in protein, low in fat, and a good source of some fatty acids and other essential nutrients.
You may have noticed, however, that some of these modern, giant chicken breasts can come with what look like stripes—lines of white through the otherwise pinkish meat. Simply put, these lines are fat, meaning that these breasts are not as healthful as the lean cuts of meat from half a century ago.
What To Look For
A team of Italian scientists has studied the effect of white striping (WS)—and no, we’re not talking about Jack and Meg White’s blues-punk duo.
“The causes of WS,” the scientists note, “are still unknown and no sign of systemic infections was found, but the histological evaluations showed that WS usually coupled with muscle degeneration and myopathic changes beneath the striation area.”
That means that birds that produce meat with WS are suffering from genetic disorders. The scientists looked into the quality of this meat too, observing that “severe white striped fillets had higher fat and lower protein content when compared with normal fillets.”
The Italian team also revealed that, “Severe white striped fillets had a lower amount of saturated fatty acids, but associated with lower levels of essential long-chain n-3 PUFA such as eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid.” That is to say, this meat is not only fattier, but it lacks the other health benefits prevalent in chicken without white striping.
The scientists point out that this is not a small concern. The “current incidence rate [of WS] under commercial production was around 12.0 percent.”
That means that a good portion of chicken breasts available on the market come from birds that have degenerative disorders, and the meat has more fat, less protein, and less overall nutritional value. Keep your eyes peeled: You may not be getting what you think you’re buying.