How America Fell in Love with the Chicken Breast, and Why We're Finally Falling Out of It

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Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal published an article noting the increased demand for chicken legs at grocery stores. The story claims that shoppers have been driven by TV cooking shows that celebrate dark meat's richer flavor and softer texture. Finally, people have realized: It tastes better.

This is old news to the rest of the world. Ask any Indian chef what cut he prefers for a curry and he'll point to dark meat. Ask a French chef what cut he prefers for braised chicken and he'll point to thighs. The best kebob? Bone in leg pieces -- no question. It's the higher fat content and myoglobin, proteins that result from muscle activity and color the meat, that make for better tasting chicken. It makes you wonder how chicken breasts got so damn popular, but that's easy to figure out.

It goes like this:

Americans eat too much processed foods and they get fat. The USDA tells them eating lean proteins is a great way to improve their health. The poultry industry takes that recommendation to the bank. They pump up birds with all sorts of weird things and breed them to have the biggest breasts possible. Demand drives prices up and the move works perfectly. Suddenly everyone thinks a grilled chicken breast is the key to a slim waistline and buy bags of frozen chicken breasts as a turnkey dietary solution.

We're gullible but we're not stupid, though. Some of us have one grilled chicken sandwich too many and we've realized that dark meat really does taste better when it's cooked properly. And it's a lot more forgiving to cook.

Now, it seems, the dark meat lovers are actually gaining momentum and shifting the economics of poultry. Some producers in the story go as far as saying the demand is causing shortages, and that the problem is getting worse.

Here's hoping the poultry industry employs the best response to this increased demand: letting more chickens walk around instead of confining them to cages. Their breasts might shrink a little, but their legs will fill out, and their entire lives will be much less depressing than the tightly-caged, busty birds we're producing now.

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