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January 22, 2019

When it comes to eating chicken wings, let's all take a bird's eye view

From the city of Nairobi, fly west along the edge of the Great Rift Valley and if you are flying just below the cloud cover you can observe some interesting patterns. The main road that links more than half the population of Kenya to the capital is a narrow, single lane road. For the first 30km it seems to cling to the edge of the Rift Valley before descending down into the basin of the valley.

To the north of the road are a series of ridges, like a carpet that has been pushed back into folds, small peaks and valleys that run parallel from east to west. On top of almost all of these ridges, maintaining the same pattern of east to west, there are shiny rooftops, a few at a time, surrounded by clear patches, then a few trees then more denuded patches, then a few more trees. Looking north this goes on for as far as the eye can see, but south, once the Rift Valley starts the terrain changes to a dry savannah, there are neither trees nor many homes. It seems that humans cannot do without trees, but at the same time they must chop them down. If instead of a bird’s eye view, you come back to the ground, then a different picture emerges, as the pattern then is not so obvious. And that perhaps is the problem that the chicken has.

When we think of a bird, for most of us the obvious one is the chicken. There are three or four times more chickens than human beings on earth, so it is quite hard to avoid meeting a chicken in one form or another. Most of us today meet just parts of a chicken, not the whole thing. The major reason perhaps is due to just one part of the chicken, the chicken wing. Search online for the term ‘chicken wing’ and what will pop up first are likely to be recipes on how to best cook that part of the chicken. Only if you refine your search a little bit will you get to any information about what the chicken — the bird — needs the wing for. The original chicken, that is one not bred to grow in six weeks, can fly very short distances, perhaps over a short fence, so the wings are useful in escaping from a predator that is short-sighted or unable to jump more than a metre high. It seems like the chicken has traded what appears to be a fairly weak defence against predators, for the safety of living with human beings. Unfortunately for them, humans then discovered that the very weakness of the animal is also a tasty snack, so today we eat billions of chickens a year. Is this a good thing?

Recently, the World Health Organisation published a report that recommends that we limit the amount of processed meat that we consume because there is an association with cancer. Many people on hearing this reacted in the manner of “Now what! You doctors, is there anything we are allowed to eat”? The answer is yes, you can eat anything that you want to eat, but moderation and reason are important. In the case of processed meat, that is meat that has a fair amount of salt, sugar, perhaps chemicals added to it, there is an association with development of various diseases. Such foods originally were developed to preserve fresh food for use when the particular food was scarce. What has happened over time is that technology, increased wealth has made the foods available every day, all the time so what might have been a treat in times of scarcity now becomes an everyday thing. With relentless marketing, you appear to be losing something if you do not take such 'rich' food all the time.

The other important point to remember is that we now, on average, live so much longer. In the early 1900s, the average life expectancy in Kenya was about 32 years. Today it is more than 60 years, so chances of you living longer are so much greater, giving time for you to eat more and develop these cancers that 100 years ago, most of you would have died before you got them.

Given these dangers, should we embrace the chicken? The same way the chicken has come to us? After all chicken meat is classified as ‘white’ compared to that dangerous ‘red’ meat. The answer is, in moderation. In the same way that chicken, in making the decision to stick close to human beings, has meant that they are now eaten every six weeks. The chicken wing, which is made up of a little meat, quite a bit of fat and gristle, that is not the healthiest combination ever but very tasty, should warn you of what could go wrong. The solid advice is to take a bird’s eye view and take in all the evidence not just what is waved at you over the weekend.


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