White Meat vs. Dark Meat

People often think light meat is healthier than dark meat. But, honestly, you can’t go wrong with either. They both provide healthy high-quality protein and are rich in vitamins and minerals.

Sheet pan filled with pieces turkey meat
Table of Contents
  1. Dark meat
  2. Light meat
  3. Nutrition comparison

They are also nearly identical in tryptophan content, with a 3 oz serving which provides approximately 90% of the recommended intake. Dark and light meat poultry vary somewhat in their nutritional composition, taste, and texture.  

The color and nutrient composition of chicken and turkey meat – dark or light – is due to muscle physiology. Dark meat is found primarily in the legs and thighs. It is the muscle fiber type found in the legs and thighs that leads to a darker color.

Dark meat

Turkeys and chickens spend a lot of time walking, so they have more slow-twitch or type 1 muscle fibers in their legs. These fibers allow for aerobic energy production. Oxygen is used in this energy system to convert carbohydrates and fat into fuel. A protein called myoglobin stores oxygen in the muscle cells and gives the meat its darker color.

Because the aerobic energy system can use fat for fuel, more fat is stored in the legs and thighs. Dark meat has a bit more saturated fat and calories than white meat because of the higher fat content. Additionally, dark meat contains more iron, zinc, riboflavin, thiamine, and vitamin B-12 than white meat.

Light meat

White meat is found in the breast and wings. These muscles, used for flight, use explosive force. Fast-twitch muscle fibers also called type 2 muscle fibers, support short bursts of movement. These muscles need fast energy production. The anaerobic energy system is primarily used here. It can break down carbohydrates very quickly without an abundance of oxygen.

Therefore, the myoglobin content is lower, leading to a lighter color in these muscles. Light meat is also lower in fat than dark meat. Type 2 fibers make energy from carbohydrates not fat, so there isn’t a need to store a lot of fat. This is why white meat has a dryer texture than dark meat and fewer calories.

Both dark meat and light meat are healthy options. It really comes down to taste and texture preferences.

Nutrition comparison

3 oz (85 grams) of roasted turkey thigh and roasted turkey breast.

NUTRIENT PROFILE THIGH (DARK) BREAST (LIGHT)
Calories (%DV) 140 (7%) 125 (6%)
Fat (%DV) 5.1g (8%) 1.8g (3%)
Saturated Fats (%DV) 1.5g (8%) 0.5g (3%)
Protein (%DV) 23.6g (47%) 25.6g (51%)
Carbohydrate (%DV) 0g (0%) 0g (0%)
Phosphorus, P (%DV) 180.2mg (14%) 195.5mg (16%)
Sodium (%DV) 88.4mg (4%) 84.1mg (4%)
Zinc (%DV) 3mg (27%) 1.5mg (13%)
Selenium, Se (%DV) 26.7μg (49%) 25.7μg (47%)
Riboflavin, Vitamin B2 (%DV) 0.3mg (25%) 0.2mg (13%)
Niacin, Vitamin B3 (%DV) 5.7mg (36%) 10mg (62%)
Vitamin B6 (%DV) 0.4mg (22%) 0.7mg (40%)
Vitamin B12 (%DV) 1.4μgg (58%) 0.3μg (14%)
Tryptophan (%RDI) 251mg (90%) 244mg (87%)

 

DV = Daily Value, DRI = Dietary Reference Intake

Table Source: https://tools.myfooddata.com/nutrition-comparison/

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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