Grilling season “officially” kicks off this weekend (May is National Barbecue Month), and if recent supermarket point-of-sale data is any indication, grill masters will be turning to the Dark Side… of the chicken.

During the 13 weeks ending March 31, 2012, chicken thighs saw six percent volume growth at supermarkets (11 percent dollar growth) despite a five percent increase in average retail price; chicken legs/drumsticks experienced only a slight volume decline (dollars increased four percent) due to a seven percent increase in average retail price, according to Nielsen Perishables Group FreshFacts® data.

The breast still rules the supermarket roost, however, representing 56 percent of supermarket chicken category dollars, compared to 17 percent for chicken legs/drumsticks and thighs.  Chicken breasts saw two percent volume growth and one percent dollar growth over the same time period, with a three percent average retail price increase.

According to a new nationwide poll by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, flavorful food is a key component to the cookout.  Consumers said they prefer their food tender (57 percent) and juicy (56 percent), which are two key attributes given to dark meat cuts by chefs and home grillers alike.

“The growth in popularity of dark meat cuts can be attributed to four factors, really: an interest in its flavor, its popularity in more globally-inspired dishes, generally a lower price point and its attributes that make it better suited to the direct heat of a grill,” said Tom Super, NCC vice president of communications, in a press release.  “Chicken sausages are also finding their way on to more and more grills, too.”

Sherry Frey, vice president of account services for the Nielsen Perishables Group, noted their data shows many cold-weather categories were lower in the first quarter of 2012.  “We believe that’s due to the earlier spring and warmer weather many people experienced around the country this year. More people started their grilling season earlier than in years past, which could be one factor in dark meat’s rise in popularity during the first quarter,” Frey noted.

White meat like boneless, skinless chicken breast has long been recognized in this country for its nutritional benefits as an ideal lean protein for a healthy diet.  Dark meat lovers received some good news recently, too.  Taurine, a naturally-occurring nutrient found in the dark meat of poultry may provide protection against coronary heart disease  in women with high cholesterol, according to the findings of a recent study by researchers at New York University School of Medicine.

“Whether one’s preference is a breast, leg or thigh, though, you can always buy a whole chicken and you’ll get the whole package,” Super concluded.

Meanwhile, the number of Americans who plan to fire up the grill for Memorial Day is up 10 percent from last year, according to a survey by grill manufacturer Weber-Stephen Products.  Seventy-one percent of survey participants say they plan to grill for Memorial Day. In addition, chicken is the second most popular choice to be cooked on the grill.  Hamburgers are first.  This comes from an online survey of 1,000 grill owners throughout the United States.  All were 21 or older and own a charcoal, gas, or electric outdoor grill or smoker  Survey respondents were evenly split by gender and balanced to reflect the demographics of U.S. households

Recipes for the grill: 

Grilled Honey Mustard Chicken Thighs with Grape and Lime Salsa 

Catalan Grilled Chicken Leg Quarters

Bo’s Chicken Butt