Chicken is the most widely consumed meat in America. Many people choose it as a protein source because they are looking for a low-fat, low-cholesterol, healthy choice, so it only makes sense to follow through with that healthy thinking when making your purchase at the market.
These days most chicken comes already packaged, cleaned and wrapped in plastic, with all kinds of words on the label: “Certified,” “Natural,” " Pastured," “Free-Range” or “Free-Roaming” and the now common “Organic”…but what do they all mean? And which, if any, is really worth the extra cost?
To start, USDA Certified is an official sounding term which only means that the chicken (or any kind of meat) has been evaluated. Natural is another catchphrase which is thrown around loosely these days, on everything from meat labels to restaurant menus. Watch for it and don’t be fooled: all it means is that the meat has no artificial ingredients added and is minimally processed; in other words, it’s simplymeat.
When you get to the words Pastured, Free-Range and Free-Roaming, you’re going to likely see an increase in price, but there’s a good reason why.
This is how 'regular' chicken are raised:
Which one looks healthier and more appetizing to you?
The issues go much deeper than the well-being of the chicken. The chickens raised inside a coop are often given hormones to fatten them up, are prone to illness due to overcrowding, and are subject to the general unhealthy conditions which accompany this; therefore requiring antibiotics to prevent disease (labels need to state this). Chickens raised this way have no access to the outdoors, and so cannot eat a diet that is natural to a chicken : green things, bugs, insects. They are instead given a diet of feed mostly comprised of grains, which are surely GMO. And here’s the kicker: even if the chicken you buy is USDA Certified Organic (but not Pastured or Free-Range) all it means is that you are getting chicken which consumed a diet of certified organic feed. GMO-free, yes; but still not a natural diet for a bird.
Even worse, USDA Certified Free-Range Chicken only means that the USDA has confirmed that there is access to the outdoors - via a door in the coop - not that the birds actually ever GO outdoors!
What's the difference between Free-Range and Pastured?
You can feel good about both! True free-range chicken (as well as any other type of poultry) is when the bird is allowed to roam freely on the land to forage for its food. As I said above, USDA Certified Free-Range on the label only shows that the bird has been given access to the outdoors; buying from a farmer or source that you trust will give you a product that you know has actually consumed this natural diet.
Pastured poultry, now very much in demand, is a practice of sustainable agriculture where the birds also go out to pasture, and receive superior humane treatment.
Though reports have been mixed on the benefits of free-range poultry (aside from the obvious health of the bird), there seem to be real nutritional benefits to pastured chicken. These include:
- 21 percent less fat than conventional chicken,
- 30 percent less saturated fat
- 50 percent more vitamin A (Note that removing the skin from the meat equalized vitamin A content between pasture- and conventionally raised birds).(1)
In addition, two 2008 studies out of Portuguese universities and published in "Poultry Science" found that pasture-fed chicken contained significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than chickens raised without access to fresh forage. One study found significantly higher levels of eicosapentaenoic acid, one of the omega-3 fatty acids. The second study found higher levels of four different omega-3 fatty acids in grass-fed birds.(2)
With farmers’ markets and greenmarkets so readily accessible these days, pastured or free-range chickens fresh from the farm might be something you can find close to home. (I recently found a source on the internet for kosher pastured meat and chicken, and have it delivered to my home...talk about a niche market!). These options are becoming more readily available as consumers are demanding them, but you will pay a premium. The supermarket is not barren of choice, however! It is advisable to do your homework on the brand you choose to make sure you're getting what the label advertises.
Whatever you choose, be aware that safe handling and cooking practices are of the utmost importance. Foodborne pathogens (i.e. salmonella) can travel on any type of poultry: organic or conventional, pastured or free-range. The only way to protect yourself from foodborne illness is to keep your hands and utensils santitary, and to cook your meat thoroughly.
1- "Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education; Pastured Poultry Products; Barb Gorski; 1999"