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When you're shopping for chicken breasts or cutlets at the grocery store, you may come across some packages wherein the chicken has a white stripe running through the meat. Just what is that white stripe, and what does it mean to the quality of the poultry? We checked in with the experts.

What Are Those White Stripes on Chicken Breasts?

Todd J. Applegate, Ph.D., a professor and department head in the Department of Poultry Science at the University of Georgia, explained in an interview with Allrecipes that the white striping found in chicken breasts is a naturally-occurring fiber known as a fast twitch fiber.

"From a fundamental evolution standpoint, chickens evolved so that they could fly very quickly up into trees to roost at night," says Applegate of the white muscle. "There's not as much vascular or blood vessels [in the fast twitch fiber, so it's] less dependent upon oxygen.

"That's just chicken anatomy," he adds. "Breast meat doesn't have a whole lot of fat in it," citing one study that shows there's just about one percent to 2.5 percent.

The folks at the National Chicken Council agree, saying, "White striping is a quality factor in chicken breast meat caused by deposits of fat in the muscle during the bird's growth and development. It is similar to marbling in red meat."

As for the commonality of white striping, the council says, "Surveys of commercial chicken flocks show that between 12 and 43 percent of birds are affected by white striping. Furthermore, only three to six percent of the birds affected have severe cases of white striping."

However, a recent report from the Human League suggests that white striping is far more common than that. Indeed, the organization looked at chicken in supermarkets across 29 states, and white striping showed up in chicken at nearly every store.

Furthermore, the Human League contends the striping is problematic, a sign of aggressive growing techniques from poultry farmers. They write, "Standard factory-farmed chickens are bred to grow at an extreme pace, and live in cramped, often dirty conditions.White striping is a muscle disease that is reported to impact 50 - 96% of fast-growing chickens, and is a consequence of fast growth rates."

White stripes are safe to eat, but consumers do seem to mind them. In 2016, a study from the University of Arkansas and Texas A&M University found that consumers were more likely to buy chicken without white striping. This study also found white striping in 96 percent of the 285 birds they inspected.

Raw chicken breast on white plate
Credit: mikroman6/Getty Images

What Does That Mean for Consumers?

"White striping is not a food safety issue nor does it affect the welfare of the chicken," says the National Chicken Council. "'Slow growing' birds, organic birds, and free-range birds can all have white striping, too."

When asked the same question, Applegate tells Allrecipes, "It's not bad for you at all. There's no food safety concern, no inherent disease issues with it. It's just more about appearance; we don't usually think of marbling in chicken meat."

The white striping issue doesn't seem to be slowing down hungry Americans. In 2020, the average American ate 97.6 pounds of chicken. Compare that to 30 years ago, when consumers were eating just over 60 pounds of chicken each.

According to the National Chicken Council, the U.S. has the largest broiler chicken industry in the world, and in 2020, more than 9.25 billion broiler chickens — the same chickens found in grocery stores — were produced. The top five producing U.S. states are Georgia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, and Americans consume more chicken (young meat chicken and fowl) than anyone else in the world.

Do White Strips Affect the Flavor of Chicken?

As far as preparing chicken with white stripes and the subsequent taste, Applegate says, "The biggest thing is, if you were to marinate, it [the chicken breast] may not take up as much marinade. But it's a very subtle, small difference." At most, the difference between chicken with white striping and without is about one percent.

Another subtle difference, according to Applegate, is that the moisture maintained when cooking a chicken breast with striping may be a little bit more than without, and that difference is "very subtle."

Rest assured: "White striping is a quality issue; it is not a 'disease," says Tom Super with the National Chicken Council.

This story originally appeared on allrecipes.com