Due to the combination of selective breeding and diet, flavour has been practically sucked out of the modern chicken – which is why almost all commercially-produced chicken now tastes a little like soaked kitchen paper. Even more expensive or premium free-range or organic chickens would not taste like the chickens of past years as their provenance would be from chickens designed to grow as quickly as possible – and very probably they are also fed the same high-carb diet as battery chickens.
The only difference is that these premium chickens are raised in slightly different environments. It’s a subjective opinion (shared by many) that good-quality free-range chickens do taste significantly better – they would be from older or more original breeds and especially if they are fed a more traditional diet with grass and other greens.
But this lineage and practice of providing green diets is being eroded each year as the demand for chicken increases and farmers resort to using faster-growing breeds and more convenient, cheaper feeds. In the end, the chicken business is mainly about money, like most things in modern society.
In any case, the food industry initially did not really care about the lack of taste in chicken as it was so delighted at the increased meat productivity of the new birds, meaning that they can still sell chicken at prices which made them cost-attractive compared to other meats.
Regarding taste, the simple solution was to promote the use of sauces, stock cubes and other seasonings which made chicken more palatable. Famous chefs around the middle of the 20th century were often commenting about the delightful taste of chicken and how little needed to be done to make an outstanding meal from it – but by the 1990s, modern cooks usually derided chicken as banal and at best, a “blank slate” devoid of any inherent flavour.
In fact, these days, when we taste some bland meat which we cannot quite identify, we tend to say that it “tastes like chicken”. It is a little sad but chicken has become almost a generic way to express blandness in other meats.
The lack of flavour in chicken started to become a problem in the last few decades as people started demanding more quality and better tasting food, while at the same time wanting everything to be as cheap as possible. This conundrum was addressed in several ways, for example, by repackaging chicken as sausages, strips, kievs, burgers, nuggets or coating it with seasoned batter for baking/frying.
Some suppliers even inject plain chicken meat with liquid flavouring to make it tastier and juicier. These techniques are called flavour solutions and creating flavour solutions is now a far more complicated business than raising chickens.
At a basic level, a flavour solution usually involves recognisable seasonings such as herbs and spices (garlic, pepper, tarragon, etc), hidden compounds (monosodium glutamate, disodium guanylate, etc) and secret proprietary additives such as blends of “natural” and synthetic seasonings.
Combine bits of chicken with flavour solutions, add in a few preservatives such as nitrates and you are now looking at the frozen chicken meals section of any modern-day supermarket.
Actually, none of these processes actually improve the inherent quality of the chicken meat, even though most sensible people would demand or prefer such an improvement.
In fact, the unspeakably crowded conditions in which battery chickens are kept meant that they often caught and spread diseases which can wipe out millions of birds at a time. The solution was to add antibiotics into the feed – and as some of these antibiotics are the same as those used for people, it promoted the resistance of germs to antibiotics, which became a rather serious human health issue.
According to the UK’s Review on Antimicrobial Resistance (2013), currently around 700,000 people around the world die each year due to diseases which have become resistant to antibiotics and this number is projected to increase to 10 million by the year 2050.
To be fair, antibiotics are used not only for chickens but also for sheep, cattle and pigs and the problem is now so huge with chickens that some major chicken producers in the United States have begun restricting usage to only a class of antibiotics called ionophores, which are not used for humans.
What we don’t know
But despite all the news, we don’t tend to notice that we are actually eating stuff of rather poor quality and in fact, we notice it less and less each year. This is because of something the food industry calls the “dilution effect”.
It’s the explanation why frozen supermarket pizza tastes much better than it did 10 years ago, and why we often buy and eat food that we know is probably not great for health. And it is simply because the food industry never stops research into means of making processed foods taste better and presented better.
The modern food industry now spans vast areas of the scientific world – covering diverse fields such as advanced organic and inorganic chemistry, engineering, molecular biology, botany, biophysics, physiology, osmology, etc.