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Hi Howard, thanks for your question.
There are a few different ideas about the difference between white and red meat. You may have heard that it depends on the colour of the uncooked meat, or that red meat comes from mammals and white meat comes from other animals (such as poultry and fish). It can even be a purely advertising decision!
At the end of the day, the difference between red and white meat is a simple, biological one.
The purpose of the muscle during the animal’s life will determine the type of meat it becomes. Red meat comes from muscle which is used for regular, steady activity such as walking (slow twitch muscle, for the biologists among you); with white meat coming from muscle used in short, sharp bursts (fast twitch muscle).
The more frequently, and for longer periods of time, a muscle is used, the higher the presence of myoglobin, the main oxygen carrying protein in the body. The red pigments it forms are responsible for giving meat its colour.
The most common type, red meat has a much stronger flavour than white.
It also has a somewhat undeserved reputation for being unhealthy, due to its higher fat content. In fact, trimming the excess often brings the fat content down to only slightly higher than that of chicken breast (though it should be noted that not all fat can be removed from some cuts, particularly those with a high degree of marbling).
Red meat also has high levels of zinc, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, vitamins B6 and B12, amino acids, iron (source: Diet Blog).
Dark meat can be quite stringy, due to the narrower muscle fibres, so longer, moist methods of cooking are often required to tenderise the meat.
A much lighter (some would say “blander”) flavour, white meats are much more versatile ingredients, lending themselves to a wide range of dishes and complementary flavours. Light meat is also leaner, which has led to its continued popularity in dietary circles.
While poultry is seen as the archetypal white meat, it’s really only a few select areas that are white. Spending so much time walking means chicken legs are actually red meat (if you look, especially after cooking, you can see the difference in colour).
The breast, which is used by chickens and turkeys in short sharp bursts for flight (as ineffective as they may be!), is a classic fast twitch muscle and produces the white meat we know and love. On the other hand, ducks, geese and other birds which spend an extended time swimming or flying are almost entirely dark meat – simply compare the uncooked colour of our chicken breast and duck breast to see the difference.
In order to reduce confusion among consumers, the red meat on poultry (commonly seen as white meat animals) is often referred to as “dark meat”. As mentioned above, though, the leg and other slow twitch areas are still technically red meat.
Like poultry, fish is usually thought of as white meat. Due to the water supporting a fish’s weight, there is less need for high levels of oxidation in the muscles, leading to a lighter meat.
However, the same red and white principles remain – you only need look at the variation in colour between a tuna steak (a busy, fast-swimming fish) and plaice (which spends most of the time still on the ocean floor) to see the difference.
With a less intrusive, more versatile flavour and a light colour when cooked, it’s easy to see why the rebranding took root. However, while lighter than beef or lamb, pork remains a red meat at heart.
Pork isn’t as dark as its cousins due to a higher amount of fast twitch (“white”) muscle throughout the pig’s body. This is because although they’re less on-the-go (read: lazy!) than cows and sheep, pigs have a wicked turn of pace when the mood takes them – as any pig farmer will attest!
It’s worth noting that the difference between type of muscle (and, by extension, the type of meat) goes deeper than how a specific animal behaved during its life.
We all know the horror stories of intensively-farmed chickens (and, if you don’t, please visit the Chicken Out! campaign and see why our poultry is free-range), but just because a hen hasn’t made use of her legs doesn’t stop them being slow-twitch (dark) muscle; it takes countless generations of evolution for that kind of change.
Similarly, meat from milk-fed veal raised in crates, while having an incredibly light colour, remains red meat (again, not a treatment we will ever condone).
Red meat from free-range, well-exercised animals of any variety will be darker due to the higher quantity of myoglobin – the protein that both distributes oxygen through the muscle and provides its pigmentation.
I hope this answers your query, and thanks for your interest in our site.