For the longest time, dieticians and doctors have recommended white meat to their patients as a healthier meat alternative. While there have been studies disputing this, white meat is still highly beneficial.
But what is white meat? Julie Perks, registered dietician and spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), explains. “The difference between red and white meat is obviously the colour, which is achieved through the presence of myoglobin. [Myoglobin] gives the red pigment to meat.” In other words, red meat has a higher level of myoglobin than white.
Perks says that, while white meat has many health benefits, extracting those benefits depends on a healthy, balanced diet. If white meat is “eaten without a varied diet of other food sources, [it] will negate these benefits, which is why it is hard to single out benefits of [specific] foods, instead of talking [about] a varied diet as a whole.”
While the studies around whether white meat is healthier than red are contradicting, Perks finds that, in her experience, white meat tends to be healthier for preventing cardiovascular disease. “However, it really does depend on the preparation method and the processing the white meat may have gone through. For example, chicken sausages fried in a lot of oil would be higher in fats than a lean steak that was grilled.
“So, it really depends on the preparation method and how processed the meats are when comparing the two.”
With this in mind, we unpack the various white meats available and how they can make your life better.
Chicken is the most commonly available and beloved white meat and comes with a variety of nutritional benefits. High in protein and amino acids, as well as an excellent source of vitamin B12, iron and zinc, chicken contributes to the health of your bones. The amino acids help build your muscles, limiting the chance of injuries. The healthiest part of the chicken is the chicken breast, which contains less than 3g of fat per 100g.
Perks says that one of the most important health benefits of white meat like chicken is that it is lower in saturated fats when compared to red meats. “[It] contains higher amounts of poly- and mono-unsaturated fats, which help to lower cardiovascular disease risk.”
This article by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, says that there are certain amino acids we need that are provided almost exclusively by fish. Called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), they are particularly important in the development of children. DHA for instance, is a key component in forming our brain and nervous systems and is critical to our development in the first two years of our lives.
Of course, we can obtain amino acids from other sources too, but in many cases, these sources prove insufficient. For instance, many vegetable oils provide an amino acid called alpha linolenic acid (ALA).
Our bodies convert this to DHA, but the conversion does not provide enough DHA for this critical development period.
Perks points out that white meat like fish often contains less energy than red meats because it contains less fat. “It allows you to eat more of other foods (larger portion sizes of other foods) so you might feel fuller after a meal of white meat, starch and veg compared to the same energy content meal containing red meat.”
On our list of white meats, rabbit meat is perhaps the least popular and hardest to obtain. With their twitchy noses and adorable ears, it’s not hard to see why people prefer them as pets rather than food. Still, rabbit meat provides many nutritional benefits.
In this 2013 study, researchers found that rabbit meat, compared to other types of meat, is richer in calcium and phosphorus, and lower in cholesterol and fat. The study found that “rabbit meat is healthier over other meats frequently used in human nutrition, high in protein and low in fat.”
Daisy Moleko, rabbit farmer and founder of MPBiz Rabbitry, says that rabbit meat is every bit as versatile as chicken. “We can make all meat products that you get in chicken, like burgers, wors, strips, kebabs and fillets. We even get the livers, hearts and kidneys separately packaged, like with chicken.”
Moleko also explained that eating rabbit means an increase in your vitamin B3 and B12 intake, as well as the right amount of fatty acids.
Other white meat sources
White meat is not just limited to chickens, fish and rabbits, but it also includes other poultry like turkey, duck, goose or pheasant. Pork is also often classified as a white meat, as well as other aquatic creatures like shrimp. Even crocodile meat falls into the white meat category.
Perks says that, while she recommends a higher intake of white meat, to be truly healthy, a balanced diet is required.
“I would recommend a balance of both types of meat in a diet, just purely on the individual benefits of both.”
“I [do] try to encourage more white meat based on energy intake, and the fact that white meat is lower in saturated fats, therefore healthier in terms of cardiovascular disease. [Still], in a silo this isn’t a fair [comparison] when not considering other factors of cardiovascular health relating to vegetable and fruit intake, fibre and of course, exercise.”