What Do The Labels On Chicken Packages Really Mean?
Let’s face it if your trying to eat healthier buying chicken is every bit as complicated as having dinner your with your ex. When standing at the meat counter at your local grocery store, you are confronted with a variety of chicken product selections. Conventionally raised, organic, beyond organic, pesticide free, all natural, free range and pastured raised. The packaging says “no hormones, no anti-bionics and vegetarian diet” but what does all that mean and which is best for your health? Let’s take a look at what labels on chicken packages really mean.
When you see the word natural on the label it simply means that nothing has been added to the chicken…sort of. No artificial colors, flavors or preservatives and the chicken has been “minimally processed. Sounds pretty good. But some of the the biggest chicken producers have skirted this rule and started injecting the chickens with broth, salt and a seaweed concoction that plumps up the chicken (adding weight that you pay for) and because all those ingredients are “natural” they get to slap the “all natural” label on their chickens. Kind of sneaky and not what I would call all natural. In terms of your health I think most of us get enough salt in our diet without our chickens having it injected into them. I haven’t actually seen any studies about the subject but I would think that eating chicken that had been juiced with sodium wouldn’t be the best idea for people with high blood pressure but that’s pure conjecture on my part.
To me this is one of the most deceptive labels in the food industry. When I hear the term “free range” I envision a beautiful chicken in a large open field, pecking at purslane and chasing down crickets and worms. Living a life in harmony with its surroundings eating what a glorious natural chicken should eat and getting a ton of exercise as it readies itself for my dinner table. The reality is, it’s a bird that’s stuffed into a cramped cage. Once a day they open the door to that cage which leads to a small open area that the chicken can go out of for five minutes, then the door closes. The chicken doesn’t leave the cage because there is nothing in the open space to lure it out of its cage and the chicken is well…chicken, it knows that predators are outside and its food is inside and going out where the predators are really doesn’t make much sense, so it stays in the cage. Basically it’s a conventional chicken that your spending a lot more money for.
Most of us would think that this label refers to the feed that the chickens are fed, but that is not the case. Chicken farms that produce large amounts of product (chickens) are subject to infestations of all kinds (mites, rats, lice etc) thus repeated doses of insecticides are the norm. Can you say ewwww! Chickens with this label have not been sprayed with pesticides.
100% Vegetarian diet
This one is interesting because chickens by nature aren’t actually vegetarians; given the opportunity chickens are fierce hunters…of things like crickets, snails, worms, grass hoppers and other insects. What this label basically says is that the chicken had no access to pasture and the feed it got was made up of grains and maybe some grasses and free of animal by products (ground up icky bits of animals and their feces).
No added hormones
Probably the biggest BS label of them all. Since U.S. law prohibits the use of growth hormones in all poultry, all this label is really saying is the company isn’t breaking the law.
These producers are promising you that their birds did were not treated with any antibiotics. If a bird got sick it was removed from the rest of the birds and was not sold under this label. That’s a pretty big deal. That means you won’t be ingesting any of those second hand antibiotics.
This is the good stuff, according to the USDA to use this label, the farm must meet USDA standards and be officially certified through the USDA. Here’s what the label promises (for the birds themselves) 100% organic feed, no animal byproducts, no hormones, no antibiotics, outdoor access, no irradiation, no pesticides (for the feed), no synthetic fertilizers, no sewage sludge, no synthetic pesticides, and no GMO. Personally this is my bird I want on my table.
This particular bird can be tough to find and is often very pricey. What pastured means is this chicken lived its life in a pasture environment, lots of frolicking in the sunshine and open spaces. The bird got some of its food from the pasture (grass, bugs, seeds etc, usually about 20% of its diet) as well as from chicken feed (usually about 80% of their diet). Often these are small chicken farmers producing top quality product. You may also run across some of these farmers that claim to be “Beyond Organic” what that means is they run their farms with fully organic practices – oftentimes stricter yet than organic – but without USDA certification. Why? Getting the certification from the USDA is time consuming and really expensive so instead they gain the trust of their customers and do business by providing a high quality product that is backed by their word.