Spare Parts -- Chicken Breast Is The Most Popular Part Of The Fowl On The Market, But Feet, Crests, Giblets And Dark Meat Find Their Way Into A Dish Somewhere

Take a look at all the chicken breasts crowding the meat counter these days and you might wonder if the rest of the bird has flown the coop.

There still are wings, thighs, backs and drumsticks in the meat case, of course, but the popularity of breasts is forcing flocks of those other parts into new forms or faraway places.

Chicken parts say a lot about the American consumer's quest for convenience, pleasing taste, palatable price and healthy eating - even if these goals are often at war with one another in chicken products.

Once, nearly all chicken was sold whole, to be roasted or cut up at home. Much of it still is marketed that way, but more and more is sold already cut up and separated into different parts.

In a typical week, Northwest Safeway stores sell about twice as many cases of chicken parts as whole-bodied fryers, although whole-bodied birds take the lead when they're on sale, says Bob Eckler, Safeway's regional meat manager.

Breast meat - especially the boneless, skinless kind - is the most popular chicken part, say Eckler and other retailers. Breast, the white meat of the chicken, costs considerably more but has less fat than other parts - a key attraction to health-conscious shoppers.

All of which raises a logical question: Technology hasn't yet invented breast-only chickens, so what's happening to the spare parts - the dark meat - beyond what's sold at the fresh-meat counter?

And while we're wondering, what about the hearts and livers and gizzards? And, yes, even the feet?

Some dark meat is flying off to Asia and even the Soviet Union. Both Pederson's Fryer Farms of Tacoma and Draper Valley Farms of Mount Vernon, the two major local producers, export dark chicken meat to Asia.

Asian countries also are buying American chicken hearts, gizzards and livers, says Sandra Schroeder of Pederson's Farms, although she adds, ``You would be amazed at how many people (here) are buying these, too.'' Often, they are older shoppers long accustomed to cooking with giblets.

And about those feet. You may put your foot down at the thought of using this poultry part, but much of Asia has a different attitude. ``Those are very big in the Oriental market,'' says Schroeder, noting that Pederson's exports chicken feet to Asia.

(Asians aren't the only people who sometimes make use of chicken feet, by the way. In his 1971 book, ``Out of the Stockpot,'' William J. Dunn says chicken feet make an excellent addition to homemade stocks because of their high gelatin content. And another chicken part, the fleshy head crest, or comb, appears in a few French recipes.)

More significant to most of us is the chicken meat that's showing up in new forms at our local supermarkets and fast-food eateries. These days, 1 in every 5 pounds of chicken is sold for further processing - to become ``nuggets,'' hot dogs, sausage, ground chicken, chicken patties, frozen entrees, chicken pot pie and the like - says the National Broiler Council, a chicken-industry organization.

Fast-food fans gobble up millions of pounds of chicken every year in such forms as McDonald's Chicken McNuggets or Kentucky Fried Chicken's famous ``original recipe.''

Chicken convenience foods have become a battlefield for consumers' warring food goals, sometimes pitting convenience against healthy eating. Health experts have told us to eat more chicken - especially breast meat, minus the skin - because it's lower in fat than most red meat.

At least partly because of this advice, national chicken consumption zoomed from about 48 pounds per capita in 1979 to a projected 66 pounds in 1989 (the final figures aren't in yet), surpassing pork's projected 63 pounds and nearing beef's 70 pounds.

But health hype or not, chicken convenience foods can have either a little or a lot of fat. Leanest are those made with skinless white meat and not much added fat. Other products pack lots of fat, especially if they're fried or contain much skin. Sometimes the label tells you the fat content, other times it doesn't.

Take those Chicken McNuggets from McDonald's. According to information supplied by the company, they combine white meat, dark meat, a little skin and are deep-fried in vegetable shortening. The result? They get a hefty 51 percent of their calories from fat - much more than McDonald's regular hamburger (33 percent fat) and even as much as the Quarter Pounder with Cheese (also 51 percent fat). The chain does offer lower-fat Chunky Chicken Salad (22 percent fat). Most health authorities recommend we get no more than 30 percent of our daily calories from fat.

Pederson's, the Tacoma company, recently has entered the processed-food market with several products. Pederson's ground chicken is made with 75 percent white meat and 25 percent dark meat and gets 15 percent of its calories from fat - considerably less than regular ground beef but more than the leanest ground beef.

Pederson's new chicken breakfast sausage crows that it contains 57 percent less fat than pork sausage.

The message for consumers: Chicken products can be low in fat, but you should make no assumptions. Check the nutritional labeling for fat content. If that's not available (and often it's not), note whether the product was fried and whether skin is listed as a major ingredient.

As for plain chicken, remove the skin and you've banished a big part of the fat, as these figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for roasted chicken show: Light meat without skin, 3.8 percent of calories from fat; light meat with skin, 9.6 percent fat; dark meat without skin, 8.5 percent fat; dark meat with skin, 14 percent fat.

Skinless light chicken meat is leaner than virtually all red meat. Skinless dark meat - relished for its moist, rich flavor - is leaner than most red meat and comparable to the leanest, fat-trimmed red-meat cuts.