Most poultry producers in the United States have been able to optimize their farms’ productivity by fattening up their chickens with conventional soy-based feeds. While this kind of feed is relatively inexpensive, it’s not great for the environment.
There are some more eco-friendly alternative feeds, but they tend to be more expensive and there has been some question in the past over whether they affect the taste of the birds they’re fed to. But new research has found that chickens fed two specific eco-friendly alternatives taste just like… chicken!
A new study, conducted by German scientists and published in the Journal of The Science of Food and Agriculture, analyzed the meat of three groups of chickens: Some that were fed black soldier fly larvae, others that were given spirulina algae, and a third group that was fed a conventional soybean diet. They compared the taste, texture, odor and color of the meat and found that for the most part, the chickens fed the alternative diets didn’t taste that differently from those that ate the conventional feed.
Researchers did notice that the larvae-fed chicken had less of an “adhesive texture” when they were chewing the meat, but the taste didn’t differ much. And the algae-fed birds even had a stronger, savory chicken flavor.
Brianne Altmann, the lead author of the study at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, says the recent report is one of the first to outline a “full sensory profile” of chicken meat.
“Think a little bit about how a wine is described on the bottle. This is what we achieved with the meat—we can fully describe the eating experience,” she says. “The good news is, is that the feed source only marginally changes the sensory profile, and when the profile changes, [it’s] for the better.”
As far as how the meat looked, researchers found that the eco-friendly fed chicken differed when it was uncooked from the usual packaged chicken we get at grocery stores. Larvae-fed chicken meat had a slightly yellow tint and the algae raised counterpart had a very distinct orange hue. The panel of tasters did not notice this as the color faded when the meat was cooked, but researchers say the difference could deter consumers from buying the product. Larvae-fed chicken meat also had a higher fatty acid content then the other two samples. However, past research shows that feeding those flies a different diet can alter the amount of fat in the chicken.
As the global consumption rates for meat continue to climb, researchers say that having other feed options that aren’t produced on arable land would be a beneficial addition. Currently, about a third of the world’s farmland is dedicated to crops grown for livestock feed.
In its report on Livestock Solutions for Climate Change, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization found that livestock producers are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than most other food sources. And the cultivation of soybeans, a key protein ingredient in feeds for chicken, hogs and cows, has been a key culprit for deforestation in the Amazon basin. An additional study this year showed that soybeans grown and exported from Brazil were responsible for 223 metric million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions over a five-year period.
“Giving consumers options will change our future food systems,” Altmann says.
She adds that getting farmers onboard with alternative feeds might be challenging given their cost. Growing algae can be expensive. In the US, some farms, like Enviroflight, have started producing feed with a larvae-based protein. Although algae or larvae feeds are not yet considered to be a widespread trend in agriculture, Altmann says that it’s likely that these types of alternative diets will first land in aquaculture due to the promise they have shown.