Adding value to chicken leg meat

Legs and thighs are poultry’s unsung heroes


Chicken leg products have so much more potential nowadays than one would think. Worldwide, there’s a growing market for drumsticks, whole legs and thighs (either bone-in or deboned), as the consumer begins to appreciate the tastiness of leg meat.

Chicken leg products have so much more potential nowadays than one would think. Worldwide, there’s a growing market for drumsticks, whole legs and thighs (either bone-in or deboned), as the consumer begins to appreciate the tastiness of leg meat. As the global market leader, Marel Poultry had already developed exactly the right solutions for adding maximum value to leg processing.

Around the world, there are plenty of markets which have always preferred leg meat, such as East Asia, Mexico, India, Russia, Morocco and even countries such as Greece and Hungary, where traditional dishes are based on chicken leg meat. Just think of Indian Tandoori, Moroccan chicken leg tagine or Hungarian Paprikás Csirke.

Let’s take East Asia as an example. Leg meat has long been the chicken meat of choice here. Thigh fillet is more than twice as expensive as breast fillet in Japan. The region’s tasty snacks such as sate from Indonesia and Malaysia and yakitori and karaage from Japan are based on leg meat. In Asia, it's the breasts that end up in bargain buckets.

Chefs prefer leg meat

In the mature markets of the USA and Europe, however, breast meat has reigned supreme both for cooking at home and as an ingredient in further processed products. Leg meat, ground up and used either on its own or mixed with trimmings and MDM, is used mainly in nugget, pattie and sausage products.

Things are, however, changing even in that bastion of white meat, the USA. Quite recently, a survey of professional chefs in the USA showed that they much preferred to work with leg meat when preparing chicken dishes.

In Europe, the gap between the retail price per kilogram for breast and thigh fillet is narrowing and in some markets is now less than 10%. Other markets have just started to discover the potential for chicken leg products to overcome existing preferences for breast fillet. All this proves that leg meat is becoming increasingly popular with consumers.


Thigh Fillet System Deskinner 2500

Global increase

Overall, global chicken consumption is increasing and will continue to increase as the world’s population will reach 9.1 billion by 2050. In order to feed this larger, more urban and richer population, food production must increase by 70 percent. “Poultry is and will remain the fastest growing animal protein worldwide,” said Rabobank analyst Nan-Dirk Mulder at the Marel Poultry ShowHow on November 9th.

“Poultry meat will turn out to be the easiest protein to access for a growing world population living mostly in cities.” Given the popularity of leg meat in markets such as Asia and Africa – exactly the regions where population will increase the most –, it is likely that leg meat products will account for a large share of the projected increase in global chicken consumption.


Because chicken thighs have slightly darker meat, they are often seen as being less healthy and less attractive. Scientific evidence, however, proves that there is not much difference between breast and thigh meat as regards nutritional value, protein, carbohydrates, cholesterol, calories, sodium and iron. Just the fat content tends to be slightly higher in chicken thighs than in breast, due to leg meat’s muscle structure.

Leg meat is, therefore, more succulent and dries out less during cooking. It is an open secret that chicken legs have more flavor than the breast. That is convenient, as for most people flavor is most important of all meat characteristics. Drumsticks and whole legs are well known; thighs too are popular in a variety of different ways. They are sold on the bone with the skin on; off the bone with the skin on; or boneless and skinless. Chicken legs and thighs are poultry’s unsung heroes – juicy, succulent, meaty and highly versatile.

Sustainable production

Sustainability is leading to a greater appreciation of products made from leg meat. For more and more people using just the breast meat of carefully reared chicken and underrating the rest, perfectly edible food rich in proteins, is not making sense. Given the increasing attention being paid to sustainable production, it is entirely logical to add as much value as possible to each and every part of the chicken, especially to such a tasty part as the leg.


Meet the trend

In meeting this trend towards high value leg products, Marel is able to offer the appropriate hardware, software and services, such as the JLR anatomic leg cutter, LegPositioner, Thigh Fillet System and many more. Numerous solutions are available for adding value to leg products and for harvesting the maximum quantity of meat from the product. These start at cut-up.

Legs offer so much potential that it is illogical to condemn them to second-rate status. A good alternative to shipments of deep-frozen legs is to use Marel’s solutions to upgrade them into delicious fresh products. This goes to show that many opportunities are available for adding value to leg products.

Why is poultry leg meat darker?

Leg meat’s brown color comes from a component called myoglobin, which aids oxygen transport to the muscles so that they function efficiently. Chickens spend most of their lives standing, so their legs contain plenty of myoglobin. As chickens don't fly, their breast muscles hold hardly any myoglobin, resulting in significantly lighter meat. Ducks and geese do fly. Their breast meat is therefore much darker.

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