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Understanding Meats: Why Red Meat is Red and Why White Meat is White

Animal muscle turns to meat after slaughtering. Meat is surrounded by a layer of connective tissues, consisting almost entirely protein collagen. Meat tissues are composed of three main factors, water, protein (connective tissue) and fat. Carbohydrate also appears in meat as it gives the browning effect of meat when cooked. Without this carbohydrate, the desirable flavor and appearance of browned meat would not be achieved.

Meat are mainly referred as red or dark and white meat. Red or dark meat is mainly made up of muscles with fibers that are called slow fibers. These muscles are used for extended periods of activity, such as standing or walking and need a consistent energy source. The protein myoglobin stores oxygen in muscle cells, which use oxygen to extract the energy needed for constant activity. Myoglobin is a richly pigmented protein. The more myoglobin there is in the cells, the redder or darker, the meat is. Red meat is red because the muscle fibers that make up the bulk of the meat contain a high content of myoglobin, which are colored red. Myoglobin, a protein similar to hemoglobin in red blood cells, acts as a store for oxygen within the muscle fibers.

White meat is made up of muscles with fibers that are called fast fibers. Fast fibers muscles are used for quick bursts of activity, such as fleeing from danger. These muscles get energy from glycogen, which is also stored in the muscles. White meat as in fish has a translucent “glassy” quality when it is raw. Animal such as calf and pigs are also categorized as white meat. Veal meat is white because it is slaughtered after the calf been milk fed, approximately up to one year old. Pigs are lazy animal; they are not as active as cows, so their body contains more fat than any other animal. White meat is white because there is less usage in the muscle. Myoglobin content is low in these muscles. This is why chicken breast, pork and veal are slightly pink or white, before or after cooked. Fish is white because it lives in water and does not need to support its own body weight. Basically, there are no myoglobins in these muscles.

The difference between meat and fish muscle tissue is that there is no tough connective tissue between the muscles and bones.

Cows and pigs are both sources of dark meat, though pig is often called “the other white meat.” Pigs muscles do contain myoglobin, but the concentration is not as heavy as it is in beef. Chickens have a mixture of both dark and white meat, and fish is mainly white meat. Chicken spend a lot of time walking around and standing. Their thigh and leg muscles are used constantly, so the meat from these parts is slightly darker than its breast. Since they rarely fly, and then only for very short distances, the meat that comes from the breast and wings is white. In contrast, wild birds such as ducks fly a lot; the meat from their breasts and wings is dark. Same goes with their legs, as they use them for swimming.

Cows spend a lot of time standing, walking and so their muscles are constantly being used. Therefore, beef has a fairly high concentration of myoglobin and is dark red. Pigs also can spend quite a bit of time standing and roaming around. The pink color of pork is due to myoglobin, but because the animals used for pork and veal are young and small, their muscles are less developed and do less work. Therefore, pigs and calf have a lower concentration of myoglobin in their muscles than cows. The only similarity between these four animals is that they are mammals on land. Fish float in water and do not need constant muscle energy to support their skeletons. Most fish meat is white, with some red meat around the fins and tail, which is used for swimming. The pink colored of some fish, such as wild salmon and trout, is due to astaxanthin, a naturally occurring pigment in the crustaceans they eat. Fish such as sharks and tuna has a dark or red flesh because it contains more myoglobin as they are fast swimmers and a

migratory fish.

Juiciness and tenderness are two very important factors when it comes to meat quality. Both factors are influenced by the cut of meat and how long the meat is cooked. The more a muscle is used, the stronger and therefore tougher, the cut of meat will be. In contrast, the longer meat is cooked, the more liquid it loses and the tougher it becomes. Factors that also influence tenderness and juiciness are: The animal’s age at slaughter, the amount of fat and collagen (connective tissue) contained in particular cuts and to a small degree, brining.

Collagen is a long, stiff protein that is the most prevalent protein in mammals. It’s made up of three separate molecules composed of amino acid chains, twisted around each other, something like the way fibers are twisted around each other to form a rope. This structure is what makes the collagen so strong; this strength is also what makes it more difficult to break down. The more collagen there is in a piece of meat, the tougher it is to cut and to chew. Skin is mostly collagen, as are the tendons that connect muscles to bones. For cuts that are high in collagen, cooking with methods that use slow, moist heat, such as stewing or braising, are the best. Collagen is soluble in water and when it is cooked slowly with moist heat, it becomes gelatin.

Collagen can be less tough by slicing up the meat into smaller pieces, which makes the fiber smaller and easier to break apart. Weight-bearing muscles and muscles that are constantly used contain higher amounts of collagen than muscles that aren’t used for support or aren’t used as frequently. Cows and pigs have higher amounts of collagen in the legs, chest, and rump. Pork is generally more tender than beef, because pigs are usually slaughtered at a younger age than cows and so their muscles are less developed and have less collagen than those of cows.

Fish muscles are quite different from those in mammals. Fish float in water and so don’t need muscle to support their weight. Their muscle fiber are very short called myotomes and are held together by connective tissue called myocammata, which is much more delicate than collagen and breaks down much more easily when cooked. The only muscles that most fish use extensively are around the tail and fins (areas that aren’t eaten as often by humans), which are used for constant cruising around in the water. Once caught, (dead) fish are stored in an ice room with standing temperature of 1-3°C.

Farouk Othman

15 thoughts on “Understanding Meats: Why Red Meat is Red and Why White Meat is White

  1. NeoJoe says:

    How can (some) vegeterians still consider themselves vegeterians if they still eat white meat?
    Why would they even bother being a vegeterian if they still eat white meat? I mean, meat is meat and they’re (for whatever reason) still "helping" the cause by continuing to eat (white) meat.

    They still had to kill the chickens, fish, etc. for white meat just like they have to kill cows, pigs, etc. for red meat.

    Do you see my point? I don’t understand.
    I mean "I don’t understand" why some vegeterians still eat white meat and yet still consider themselves vegeterians?

  2. boredashughhefner says:

    Vegetarian and eating white meat don’t fit together. Vegetarians don’t eat meat I’m afraid, of any kind.

    If somebody is saying they’re a vegetarian and they’re eating white meat, then they’re a liar, sorry to say.
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  3. Kitty Kat says:

    They are not vegetarians, but I wouldn’t look down on them for eating white meat. And I know some on here hate the concept of flexitarian, but I really think the flexitarian attitude is "helping" the cause. The American diet is saturated with meat. Any diet that encourages more plant based meals than meat based is healthy and helping in my book.
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  4. thesightofoneself says:

    they dont understand definitions
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  5. Drew says:

    I don’t understand either. It makes no sense like you said. If you stop eating red meat but keep eating white, you’re still going to kill the same number of animals. I find it VERY annoying when people eat fish or chicken and still say that they are vegetarian. I have no idea what is wrong with these people.
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    I’ve been vegetarian for 2 years, and vegan for 6 months.

  6. sugar_rush_x3 says:

    I totally hear you!
    Its discusting.
    Anyway, they treat the chickens worse then other animals!
    Ugh, its disgraseful.

    Well, I totally understand you! :]
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  7. ♥RAE♥N.Y.♥ says:

    If they eat white meat, then they are not vegetarians. Vegetarians don’t eat meat.
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  8. noitall says:

    because they think it’s cool to say they’re vegetarian and aren’t thinking of the underlying ethics of the matter. I totally agree with you – it’s lame, immature and unethical.
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  9. The Guru says:

    This is the real meaning of being vegetarians.
    people who exclude from their diets animal flesh and possibly other animal products such as milk, or eggs.
    Some vegetarians don’t know the meaning of it.
    So they aren’t vegetarians if they eat white meat.
    Hope it helped.
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  10. Kirbyish says:

    I can call myself a refrigerator until my voice gets hoarse, but that doesn’t make me a refrigerator.

    Vegetarians don’t eat meat. Period. Those people who claim to be vegetarians but eat white meat are not vegetarians, and you’d be hard pressed to find a veg*n who thinks they are. I don’t really have a problem with a red-meatless diet, but don’t call yourself a vegetarian.
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  11. donna l says:

    because they just like to be a"something". they want to sound vaguely interesting and hippylike I guess. Ive been a vegetarian for 10 years and i get sick of people saying …….. "i could be a vegetarian coz i only eat chicken and fish" . arrrgggh. then theirs us unsufferablls who spend ages scoring ingredients of packets of sweets and crisps to ensure we don’t get gelatin or rennet in our diet… to have these none vegeatrians making a mockery of our believes.Meat eating vegetarians are just as pointless as born again virgins!
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  12. Katie says:

    Vegetarianism is the practice of a diet that excludes all animal, including poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustacea, and slaughter by-products.
    I don’t see anything about being "allowed" to eat white meat. They aren’t real Vegetarians… If you want to cut out red meat, then do it, but don’t lie and call yourselves Vegetarians..
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  13. Matt says:

    because they dont eat red meat.
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  14. The Great Leap says:

    Simple. They just are n o t vegetarians. Vegetarians don’t eat meat or meat byproducts…It’s as simple as that.
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  15. kmcryer says:

    Because they failed 5th grade biology! ;P

    Seriously, they probably say this because they associate being a vegetarian with making healthy food choices. The world has told them that red meat is bad and therefore white meat is healthier for them. They combine the marketing they’ve been exposed to and their misunderstanding of what a vegetarian is and come up with their own conclusions.

    So, just set them straight. Tell them that vegetarians don’t eat fish, flesh, or fowl. Tell them pescatarians eat fish. And tell them that people who eat chicken are basically meat-eaters, health-conscious though they may be.
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