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Dark Meat Pork: Is This A Good Sign Or A Bad Sign?

You’re at the butcher case, trying to decide which cut of pork to buy. As you look at the available selections, you can’t help but notice that some are much darker than others. Is dark meat pork superior to the light pink cuts? And how are they different?

In our guide to dark meat pork, we’ll attempt to shed some light on this subject.

Dark Meat Pork

Pork that’s darker in color indicates that the meat is retaining more moisture than cuts that are light pink throughout. This is due in part to higher concentrations of myoglobin in the muscle fibers. As a result, the dark pork will remain juicy and flavorful during cooking.

Is Pork A White Meat?

Although a popular advertising campaign refers to pork as “The Other White Meat,” pork is technically classified as red meat.

The advertisers were attempting to position pork as a healthier alternative to beef, since many people considered it to be a fatty protein. However, because pork contains higher amounts of myoglobin than real “white meats” like chicken and fish, it’s considered red meat.

You’ve probably noticed that cooked pork is lighter than the raw product. That’s because myoglobin, which is responsible for the red color, is a water-soluble protein. When the meat is exposed to heat, it loses moisture, and the chemical reaction causes the meat to lighten in color.

Why Are Some Cuts of Pork Darker Than Others?

There’s nothing wrong with dark pink pork, despite the misleading advertising campaign that would have you believe that lighter meat is healthier. The color differences have nothing to do with quality.

Instead, the darker color only indicates that the meat has superior moisture-retentive qualities. As we’ve pointed out, myoglobin is responsible for the pink and red hues in raw meat. When pork is dark pink, it means the meat contains a great deal of moisture.

You may have noticed that lean cuts like pork loin chops are lighter than fatty cuts such as pork butt. If you’ve tasted both, you’ll be able to appreciate the difference in texture as well.

While lean pork chops are tasty, the meat has a drier consistency than that of slow-cooked pork butt. The ability to retain moisture is one of the factors that contributes to that rich, tender texture.

Understanding The Difference Between White and Red Meat

Poultry and fish are considered “white” meats because their flesh consists mainly of “fast-twitch” muscle fibers. These are the fibers responsible for short, sudden bursts of energy.

Fast-twitch fibers receive their energy from glycogen stores in the muscles. When the meat is raw, it looks nearly translucent, but as it cooks, the proteins coagulate to create a white, opaque appearance.

By contrast, red meat consists of slow-twitch muscle fibers. Fibers that are slow-twitch are built for endurance rather than speed.

Myoglobin is responsible for storing oxygen in the muscle cells, which use this oxygen for sustained activity. The presence of myoglobin, a protein with dark pigment, is what gives red meat its color.

Understanding pH Levels

Scientists have discovered that darker pork has a higher pH level than light pink pork. That means it’s less acidic, which is a good sign. Here’s why.

A low pH indicates high acidity. Since acid wreaks havoc on muscle proteins (including myoglobin), this causes the meat to be lighter in color. It also may have a weaker flavor as a result of the muscle damage.

By contrast, meat products with a higher pH level are tender and flavorful. Their ability to retain moisture contributes to a juicy texture, making them a better choice all around.

These findings have been significant enough for some breeders to attempt to drive up the animals’ pH level before slaughter. Since stress can boost adrenaline, which lowers pH levels, one method has been to keep the pigs relaxed for as long as possible.

Immediately lowering the temperature of the carcass is another technique. If the processors wait too long before chilling the meat, the pH level might drop significantly, thereby resulting in lighter pork.

Does Pork Have Both Light and Dark Meat?

When you purchase a pork loin roast, you’ll often find that the meat is not a uniform color throughout. This probably means that the meat was cut from the section of the loin close to the shoulder, where the meat is darker and contains more fat.

The next time you carve and enjoy a pork roast with these color distinctions, pay close attention to the texture of the dark meat versus the light meat. Chances are, you’ll notice that the dark meat is more flavorful, while the fibers of the white meat are on the dry side.

Is It Safe To Eat Pink Pork?

Pork is considered safe to consume when the internal temperature reaches 145 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, there may still be some pink in the meat, but that isn’t necessarily dangerous.

Back in the olden days, people assumed that pork had to cook to 160 degrees in order to kill off any hazardous bacteria. As farming practices have progressed, however, the risk of contracting diseases as a result of consuming undercooked pork have lessened.

In fact, if you cook lean pork to 160 degrees, it will probably be tough and stringy when it’s time to serve it. For best results, take the meat off the grill when it hits the 145-degree mark.

Note that this rule doesn’t apply to naturally fatty and tough cuts like the Boston butt and the picnic shoulder. These need to cook to at least 185 degrees–usually more–in order to achieve the perfect amount of tenderness.

The Bottom Line

Although we tend to think of white meat as a healthier alternative to dark meat, there’s no reason to be afraid of dark pink pork.

On the contrary, some meat processors are doing their best to guarantee that their product will have a darker color. Once you understand that the color indicates moisture retention and isn’t a mark of inferiority, you might seek out dark meat pork on a regular basis.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!