If beef is red and chicken is white, what kind of meat do we humans carry about on our bones? Of course you want to know.
Top Image via Body Worlds
If you were to base your answer on taste alone, you might be tempted to conclude that human flesh most closely resembles that of swine, making ours the other other white meat. It's been said that cannibals on the Marquesas Islands of Polynesia, for example, referred to human meat as "long pig," on account of its likeness to pork. Infamous German cannibal Armin Meiwes, in an interview conducted from his prison cell, once described human flesh as tasting like pork, only "a little bit more bitter, stronger. It tastes quite good." Similarly, serial killers Fritz Haarmann and Karl Denke – German and Polish cannibals, respectively, of the early 20th century – are both said to have sold the flesh of their victims on black and local markets as "pork." Even robots, for their part, think humans "taste" like pig.
But taste isn't everything. Another way of approaching this question might be to ask what human meat looks like. For instance, is human meat red or white? This line of inquiry warrants a discussion on the meaning of "red meat" versus "white meat," and what those terms really mean. When most of us think of red meat, we think of meat that is visibly reddish in color before cooking. But this traditional definition isn't exactly written in stone, and is a known point of culinary confusion.
When we talk about meat we're of course talking about the muscle of a butchered animal. Muscle's red color can be traced to the presence of a richly pigmented protein called myoglobin and, more specifically, hemes, the chemical compounds that myoglobin uses to bind and store oxygen as a fuel source for active muscles. The more myoglobin a muscle cell contains, the more heme groups it carries; the more heme groups a muscle is packing, the redder its meat appears.
From left to right: Pork, lamb & beef – three meats with different myoglobin contents | Via Shutterstock
It should come as no surprise, then, that myoglobin content varies considerably across the muscles of different species. According to the Meat Science section of Texas A&M University's Department of Animal Science, pork, lamb and beef average 2, 6 and 8 milligrams of myoglobin per gram of muscle (that translates to a myoglobin concentration of 0.2%, 0.6% and 0.8%), respectively. The muscle in chicken breast, in contrast, comes in at an average of just 0.5 mg of myoglobin per gram of muscle, which translates to a concentration of 0.05%. The visual difference between beef and chicken is, of course, a distinctive one; the former tends to be rich and ruddy in hue, the latter rather pale and translucent-looking.
But then what's the deal with pork?
Pork, we can all agree, is red (or, at the very least, dark-pink). And yet, most of us know it as a "white" meat. This non-sequitur can be traced to the United States National Pork Board's longtime slogan, which until 2011 marketed pork as "The Other White Meat." But pork, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, is a red meat. Via the USDA's page on pork:
Pork is classified a "red" meat because it contains more myoglobin than chicken or fish. When fresh pork is cooked, it becomes lighter in color, but it is still a red meat. Pork is classed as "livestock" along with veal, lamb and beef. All livestock are considered "red meat."
It's no coincidence that "livestock" refers almost exclusively to mammals, most of which can be said to yield "red" meat due to the high concentration of myoglobin typically present in their muscles. Humans are no different. Any surgeon or coroner can tell you that human muscle is plainly red. This makes sense, too, as the concentration of myoglobin in human muscle tissues is relatively high – even relative to pigs, sheep and cows, coming in at close to 20 mg per gram of certain muscle fibers, or a 2% concentration of myoglobin.
Having learned all this, you may be unsurprised to learn that New York Times reporter William Buehler Seabrook, in his 1931 book Jungle Ways, describes a hunk of raw human flesh, as closely resembling beef. Arguably more surprising, however, is that Seabrook later roasted the meat and ate it himself, resulting in one of the most detailed culinary descriptions of human flesh ever penned. When cooked, he wrote, the meat turned grayish in a manner not unlike lamb, and while it smelled like cooked beef, the taste, contrary to popular opinion, was not like pork, but "good, fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef." It was a similarity he described colorfully and repeatedly:
It was so nearly like good, fully developed veal that I think no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal. It was mild, good meat with no other sharply defined or highly characteristic taste such as for instance, goat, high game, and pork have. The steak was slightly tougher than prime veal, a little stringy, but not too tough or stringy to be agreeably edible. The roast, from which I cut and ate a central slice, was tender, and in color, texture, smell as well as taste, strengthened my certainty that of all the meats we habitually know, veal is the one meat to which this meat is accurately comparable.
Human meat, being rich in myoglobin, is red. What meat it most resembles in taste, however, remains up for spirited debate.