White meat and your health – what you need to know | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

White meat and your health – what you need to know

The fat question

Many people turn to white meat because of the belief that white meat is lower in fat than other types of meat. However, meat is mostly muscle and muscles are made of protein and fat. Fat is an inherent part of meat and even if you remove the skin and visible fat, you can’t just magic away the fat inside the meat.

Moreover, when numerous samples of chicken meat (including organic) were analysed, it was discovered that it now contains more than twice as much fat as it did back in 1940, a third more calories and a third less protein (Wang et al., 2004). The reason is simple – today’s chicken farming means high-energy feed, little exercise and breeding for rapid weight gain.


total fat content [g/100g]

cholesterol [mg]

Roasted chicken



Roasted duck



Roasted turkey



Grilled pork steak



Beef steak



Food Standards Agency, 2002. McCance & Widdowson’s The Composition of Foods, Sixth Summary Edition. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry

For comparison of fat and cholesterol content in various types of meat, see the table above.

Around a third of the fat in both chicken and turkey is saturated fat. Saturated fat and cholesterol from the diet increase blood cholesterol levels and contribute to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. Human body produces cholesterol on its own and never needs outside sources. Saturated fat and cholesterol in our diet contribute to artery blockages, leading to heart attacks, strokes and other serious problems.

And it’s not just cholesterol but also what happens to it during cooking – high temperatures lead to cholesterol oxidation products (COPs) that are a risk factor for heart disease and may be toxic to our cells and cause DNA damage (Milićević et al., 2014).

To maintain healthy weight, we shouldn’t eat more than 70 grams of fat per day, ideally, we should eat less than that and minimise our saturated fat intake.

In many chicken-based fast food meals, you can get so much fat and calories, they should be labelled as a health hazard. Nando’s Chicken Thighs (one portion) contains 561 calories and over 30 grams of fat, almost seven grams of it saturated. Their Double Chicken Breast Fillet wrap packs astonishing 721 calories and over 23 grams of fat plus 3.2 grams of salt (adults shouldn’t eat more than 6 grams of salt per day).

KFC’s Streetwise Mega Box will load your body with 58 grams of fat and the total of 1200 calories (which is almost two thirds of a recommended daily intake) and the Mighty Bucket for One comes at 904 calories, 49 grams of fat and is laced with 5.6 grams of salt. If you thought that having just a few pieces of chicken can’t be that bad, you should know that just three pieces of KFC’s Original Recipe chicken bumps up your fat intake by hefty 42 grams.

We are what we eat

White meat is a great source of AGEs (advanced glycoxidation end-products also called glycotoxins) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs).

AGEs are toxins naturally produced by the body but we can also ingest them in food. AGEs accumulate in joints and contribute to arthritis (Verzijl et al., 2003), they accumulate in the brain contributing to Alzheimer’s disease (Münch et al.,1998); and in blood vessels, contributing to high blood pressure (Silacci, 2002) and atherosclerosis (Stitt et al., 1997).

When the amount of AGEs in common food items was measured, the highest amounts were found in meat products, including oven-fried chicken, McDonalds Chicken Nuggets and cooked chicken breast (Goldberg et al., 2004).

The other group of compounds, called HCAs, are chemicals linked to cancer in humans (and officially recognised as carcinogens). They are produced when you cook animal products. The longer the meat is cooked and the higher the temperature, the more these compounds form (Knize et al., 1994).

Some of the highest concentrations of HCAs are found in grilled meat, especially chicken. In independent laboratory tests, 100 grilled chicken items from restaurants including McDonalds and Burger King were all found to contain HCAs (PCRM, 2008).

On top of that, cooked meats also contain a cocktail of cancer causing chemicals, including: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, N-nitroso compounds, lipid peroxides, other pro-oxidative agents and fungal products (Cross and Sinha, 2004). All these have the potential to interact with our DNA and cause cancer.

And the award for the food most likely to make you sick goes to…

Poultry consumption is the major cause of food poisoning in the UK. Campylobacter is the main culprit responsible for around 280,000 food poisoning cases per year and around 100 people are thought to die as a result of food poisoning (The Guardian, 2014).

However, most cases are underreported and the actual number in the UK is estimated to be more than 500,000 per year (MacRitchie et al., 2014). Campylobacter causes severe abdominal pain, nausea and bloody diarrhoea and severe cases can be fatal. Complications associated with the infection include Guillian–Barré syndrome, arthritis and IBD (irritable bowel disease).

The temperature required to kill the bacteria (160ºF/71ºC) is the same temperature which produces carcinogenic compounds mentioned above so there is no ‘safe’ way to prepare white meat in that respect.

The Guardian investigation that Viva! was involved in (The Guardian, 2014) revealed that two-thirds of fresh retail chicken in UK are contaminated with campylobacter. Campylobacter is carried in the intestines and faeces of chickens and evisceration is one of the key points in the processing chain at which contamination occurs. Large abattoirs run lines that process 185 to 195 birds a minute (nearly 12,000 an hour) and the investigation exposed problems that come with this speed - a factory floor flooded with guts, carcasses coming into contact with workers’ boots then returned to the production line and other poor practices that increase the risk of spreading bacteria.

Insider sources say this is common across the industry and is even unavoidable given the way chicken is processed.

When researchers swabbed the outside surface of packages of raw meat they found Salmonella, Campylobacter and multidrug-resistant E. coli present (Burgess, 2005). Even your toilet is cleaner and safer than handling raw chicken! Authorities now advise people not to wash chicken before cooking to limit bacteria spreading on the kitchen surfaces – if it’s not safe to touch it, why would we want to eat it?

So, is white meat a good choice for health conscious consumers? Not by any chance! You can get clean lean protein from plants, it’s not only safer but much healthier and the kindest possible choice.

We have a guide, White Meat Myths, providing you with all the essential information you need and tasty vegan recipes AND a report White Meat Black Mark that gives you in-depth insight into the issues mentioned in this article.

The white meat vs. vegan options at the big chains: which is healthiest?

Want help in going vegan? Sign up for our FREE 30 Day Vegan

Do you really know what happens on Britain's chicken farms? Find out more about Viva!'s Life is Cheep? campaign


Burgess, F, et al., 2005. Prevalence of Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli on the External Packaging of Raw Meat. Journal of Food Protection. 68 (3) 469-75.

Cross AJ and Sinha R, 2004. Meat-related mutagens/carcinogens in the etiology of colorectal cancer. Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis. 44 (1): 44-55.

Goldberg T, et al., 2004. Advanced glycoxidation end products in commonly consumed foods. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 104 (8) 1287-91.

Knize MG, et al., 1994. Effect of cooking time and temperature on the heterocyclic amine content of fried beef patties. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 32 (7) 595-603.

MacRitchie, LA, Hunter, CJ, Strachana, NJC, 2014. Consumer acceptability of interventions to reduce Campylobacter in the poultry food chain. Food Control. 35(1): 260–266

Milićević D, et al., 2014. The role of total fats, saturated/unsaturated fatty acids and cholesterol content in chicken meat as cardiovascular risk factors. Lipids in Health and Disease. 13:42.

Münch G, et al., 1998. Alzheimer’s disease – synergistic effects of glucose deficit, oxidative stress and advanced glycation endproducts. Journal of Neural Transmission. 105 (4-5) 439.

PCRM, 2008. Burger King Alerts Customers to Cancer-Causing Chemical in Grilled Chicken. Available from: http://www.pcrm.org/media/online/dec2008/burger-king-alerts-customers-to-cancer-causing

Silacci P, 2002. Advanced glycation end-products as a potential target for treatment of cardiovascular disease. Journal of Hypertension. 20 (8) 1483.

Stitt AW, et al., 1997. Atherogenesis and advanced glycation: promotion, progression, and prevention. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 811 : 115.

The Guardian, 2014. Revealed: the dirty secret of the UK’s poultry industry [online] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/23/-sp-revealed-dirty-secret-uk-poultry-industry-chicken-campylobacter

Verzijl N, et al., 2003. AGEing and osteoarthritis: a different perspective. Current Opinion in Rheumatology. 15 (5): 616-22.

Wang YQ, et al., 2004. Changes in protein and fat balance of primary foods: Implications for obesity. 6th Congress of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids. Brighton, UK.