Paul Efland  /  AP
University of Georgia professor Daniel Fletcher, right, has developed a process of turning dark poultry meat into a white meat product.
updated 8/26/2005 4:55:42 PM ET 2005-08-26T20:55:42

Daniel Fletcher has found a way to transform dark meat chicken into white, a scientific advance some purists say has gone too far.

"Leave chicken alone," said Mary Raczka, who's in charge of hospitality at Mary Mac's Tea Room, a prominent Southern-style restaurant in midtown Atlanta that serves more than 500 pounds of fried chicken a week — dark and white meat.

But Fletcher, a University of Georgia poultry science professor, said his other white meat isn't designed to compete with the real thing on restaurant menus or grocery shelves. Instead, it's a filler that can be used to add protein and amino acids to something else, such as chicken nuggets.

The recipe involves adding excess water to ground-up dark meat to create a kind of meat soup, then spinning the mixture around in a tub at high speed. The centrifugal force makes the mixture settle into layers of fat, water, and extracted meat, which can be molded into breast-like patties of all-white meat.

When food specialist Marion Nestle heard about Fletcher's work, she immediately compared the end product to imitation crab meat made from minced fish.

"Surimi! This is chicken surimi! For the purpose of creating chicken-like objects ... yuck!" said Nestle, a food studies professor at New York University.

Fletcher said Nestle's reaction is typical, but he has a ready response: "There's a lot of good eating experiences you may have had in your life that you wouldn't think were as good if you read the label."

Hot dogs, made of minced chicken, pork, beef and other meat byproducts, are a primary example. But millions of people devour these pressed, squeezed and extremely processed food products each year.

"It tastes like something you would use with Hamburger Helper," Fletcher acknowledged after nibbling a sample of his faux white meat. "It's a very neutral flavor. In some ways, it's like tofu. Tofu is something with so little character that if you eat it by itself, it'd put you to sleep."

Why in the world would anyone be interested in fake white meat anyway?

According to Bill Roenigk, senior vice president of the National Chicken Council, Americans have expressed a strong preference for white meat over the last 20 years. Dark meat's color and fat are what make it less attractive, he said, and it's also more difficult to mold dark meat into shapes.

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Right now, most dark meat produced in the United States is exported to Russia and the Middle East. Fletcher believes his faux white meat is a way of applying solid technology to expand the use of dark meat in the States.

"Back when I was in school, one of our goals in food science was expanding the food supply by taking foods that are less valued, and expanding their value," Fletcher said, explaining his motivation. He compared chicken whitening to making sausage out of otherwise unused meat, or making cheese from milk.

Dark meat gets its color from myoglobin, a protein that transports oxygen. It shows up in the muscles animals use most often. Chickens walk more than they fly, so the dark meat is in their legs and thighs.

In the past, researchers have found ways to lighten dark meat, but lessening the fat content has been the challenge.

The project has been a good model for teaching graduate students about the chemistry of meat. Fletcher and his students work to find new ways to supply nutrition because the fight against hunger, he said, is really about producing more calories.

While manipulating food is eye-catching and fun for Fletcher, he says transforming chicken won't change the food industry much right now. But it's a technology that may be adapted in the future.

"Yes, folks are messing with our food, but it's all transparent, it's all up front for the consumer to accept or not accept," Roenigk said. "At the end of the day, the consumer's going to be the one to say this is a good idea or not a good idea."

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