Thigh meat is excellent for being processed into chicken jerky, according to NCC's Tom Super.

Flavor factors

Super says demand for the back of the bird is increasing for most market segments.

“Traditionally, in the US and Canada, consumers prefer white breast meat,” Super says. “But dark meat is catching on more and demand has continued to rise in the last five years.”

Demand can be attributed to several factors, beginning with flavor.

“Some consumers seek out dark meat because they prefer the unique mild taste, the extra moistness, and the way dark meat can be prepared in so many ways,” Super says. “Also, consumers benefit from the economic value that dark meat provides. Generally, it has a lower price point than other cuts of chicken and red meat.”

Chicken processors are marketing dark meat recipes on their websites. For example, Pilgrim’s Pride offers recipes for chicken thighs made with sautéed radishes, and pan-roasted maple Dijon chicken, which is prepared with thighs and drumsticks.

A dark chicken product that is especially finding favor with consumers is boneless/skinless thigh meat, Super says.

“Cooks find it convenient, easy to prepare and a very acceptable alternative to boneless/skinless breast meat. With the skin/fat removed, the calories compare very well to breast meat,” he says.

More grillers are also discovering dark meat’s virtues.

“[Dark meat’s] attributes make it better suited to the direct heat of a grill,” Super says. “Leg quarters, drumsticks and thighs are perfect for the grill with their flavor and moisture.

Super says dark chicken’s popularity in ethnic cuisine, including Mexican and Asian dishes, continues to increase among mainstream US consumers as it does among those native groups who have traditionally enjoyed it.

“Some companies are deboning leg quarters and sending them to foodservice to be marinated and grilled, and to be cut up for use in burritos, enchiladas and other Mexican dishes,” he adds.

Dark chicken continues to be used in chicken sausage and ground chicken, which continue to gain favor.

“Although chicken sausages made from dark meat have been a well-accepted alternative to red meat sausages for a number of years, the variety and flavors continue to expand both at retail grocery and foodservice,” Super says. “Chicken sausages, from breakfast links to upscale gourmet portions and products in between, are finding increasing popularity.”

Indeed. At sausage shops like Gibbs Butcher Block in Columbia Station, Ohio, consumers can choose from basil parmesan chicken sausage, roasted red pepper Italian chicken sausage, spinach and artichoke chicken sausage, chicken cordon bleu sausage and other flavors.

More grillers are discovering dark meat’s virtues.

Another product that is quietly gaining in market penetration is chicken meatballs, Super says.

“Whether Italian, garlic, sage or other spices, chicken meatballs deliver outstanding eating enjoyment while saving money and calories, especially with beef becoming increasingly more expensive,” he adds.

On the retail side, Super says Jack Links recently introduced chicken jerky. “It’s just another example of a company taking dark chicken meat and being innovative with it,” he adds. “Thigh meat stands well to be processed into jerky.”

The popularity of chicken wings also continues to grow. At Tom Friday’s market in Pittsburgh, chicken wings sales continue to soar.

“We sell three different types,” Friday says. “Our wing business grows every year. I’m sure that’s not only here, and that it is a trend across the country.”

Super notes that a recent report from Technomic, a Chicago-based research firm, revealed that the top five restaurant chains launched 55 new chicken products in the first two months of 2015. “You can bet some of those are dark meat offerings,” he adds.

Dark meat chicken offers healthy benefits, such as more zinc, vitamins B6 and B12, amino acids and iron. Should companies and the industry in general market dark meat’s healthy attributes to consumers?

“Leg meat does have certain beneficial attributes,” Super says. “But to really educate consumers about these virtues would take a tremendous program involving considerable time and budget. It is unlikely such a program is within a company’s or industry’s resources at this time. It is a good idea, but the payback is likely too long to sustain an effective, move-the-needle undertaking.”

Overall, NCC predicts that per- capita chicken consumption will reach 100 lbs. within the next several years. “Dark meat chicken parts and products will be a most important part of that growth,” Super says.