June 23, 2021 -- Boneless, bone-in, buffalo, extra crispy: Whichever way you like them -- chicken wings have been a constant staple in the lives of many Americans, often tied to fond memories like backyard cookouts or tailgating before a big game.
Amid an ongoing chicken wing shortage in the United States, some companies are suggesting alternatives, some of which are healthier options, such as skinless thighs and breasts.
There have been mixed reactions. For some, nothing can take the place of the beloved chicken wing. For others, replacing regular consumption of wings with a more nutritious part of the bird would be worth added health benefits.
Eating chicken can be helpful when striving to live a healthy lifestyle. Chicken is a lean source of protein and can serve as a great alternative to red meat. Eating it fried or with the skin, however, adds unhealthy fat and can lead to weight gain. Lakeesha Brown, a business owner from Indiana, said that she only eats wings once a week for health reasons.
“I usually eat them on Fridays, when winding down and feeling like ‘cheating’ a little bit,” Brown, 41, said. “When I heard about the shortage, I said ‘ugh.’ But I’ll live.”
The chicken shortage can be attributed to a few different factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Chicken Council dubbed chicken “The Nation’s #1 Quarantine Protein.” Wings have been particularly popular, according to Tom Super, senior vice president of the National Chicken Council.
“Restaurants like wing joints and pizza places were built around takeout and delivery, so they didn’t have to change their business model that much during the pandemic,” Super said in a statement to WebMD. “Each chicken only has two wings and producers don’t raise chickens just for the wings, they have to sell all of the other parts, as well.”
The chicken industry also took two major hits in February. In Texas, a rare severe winter storm resulted in the death of millions of chickens. Even worse, this event took place around the same time as the wing industry’s biggest event of the year: Super Bowl Sunday. This year, Americans ate an estimated 1.42 billion wings, according to the National Chicken Council.
Chicken prices, too, took a hit during the pandemic. The price per pound for a whole chicken averaged $2.80 in April 2020, the lowest price since at least 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After hovering around $3.30 for the rest of 2020, prices began to spike again earlier this year.
The daily price went from $3.99 per pound in January to $5.22 in May, an increase of 87% since April 2020.
Some restaurants are suggesting customers consider alternative options. On Monday, Wingstop launched Thighstop, a virtual brand, where customers can order a thigh meal online for pick up at over 1,400 locations or for delivery through DoorDash.
Jody Spencer, a construction worker from Mississippi, usually enjoys wings twice a week. He said that despite all the discussion around companies suggesting wing alternatives, he’s not getting on board.
“When you want some wings, you want some wings,” Spencer said. “I went through the drive-through this morning and I was told, ‘We’re out of wings, but you can have a thigh or breast.’ I didn’t get anything.”
Spencer, 51, also said that replacing thighs with wings would not be practical, using the example of ordering a 10-piece.
“Ordering 10 thighs? I don’t think that’s going to work,” Spencer said. “Maybe if they cut them in half or in quarters.”
For many people, the wing shortage negatively impacts their social lives. Ken Childs, who is retired, loves to cook and host large gatherings. Childs, 51, said that he prefers going to the supermarket to pick high-quality, non-genetically modified wings as opposed to deep fried wings at fast food joints or even sit-down restaurants like Buffalo Wild Wings. He noted that he also prefers to grill his wings, which can be a healthier alternative.
Childs said that wings are his go-to food to serve his guests because it is the easiest way to please the most people.
“The shortage kind of kills everything in the process because people usually don’t eat pork,” Childs says. “Some people like legs but they’re not big on them. They say breasts dry too fast. There is really no way to substitute wings.”
When asked if wings were also the most delicious part of the chicken, he chuckled a little bit and answered with an unwavering, “Most definitely.”