Clearing Up the Confusion About Chicken

By David Blyweiss, M.D., Advanced Natural Wellness

June 20, 2014

  • Do you know what’s in your chicken?
  • Clearing up the confusion about misleading package labels
  • How to find the best, healthiest chicken your money can buy

These days meat prices are sky high. And a lot of my patients are on a tight budget.

They like to shave a buck off their grocery bills wherever they can. So, chicken seems to pop up on their menus quite frequently. It’s pretty much the least expensive source of animal protein you can buy any more.

Well, if I’m going to eat chicken, I want it to be the best-tasting chicken my money can buy. I also want to make sure it’s the healthiest chicken I can buy.

But my patients often run into a problem. And I’m sure you’ve experienced it at one time or another.

When you’re standing in front of the poultry case at the supermarket, how do you know what’s the best-tasting, healthiest choice?

That’s a big question!

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Today’s commercial chickens are pumped full of antibiotics and other drugs to accelerate growth to help get them to market faster. They’re fed the cheapest feed available, usually from genetically modified grains. They live in squalid conditions where disease spreads quickly.

This is not the kind of chicken you want on your dinner table. Here are some tips to help you avoid buying this sort of poor-quality chicken.

You might think you can rely on packages labeled “natural” or “hormone-free.” Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. Chicken labels are downright misleading.

Sure. Some of them can be helpful. But a lot of them just add to the confusion. If you know what each of these claims means, it can go a long way to help you make healthier choices.

Hormone-Free. Here in the U.S., it’s against the law to treat poultry with hormones. So, if the label claims this, it’s just a marketing ploy.

Natural. This term fools a lot of people. It doesn’t mean the meat is all-natural, free-range, pastured, organic or free of antibiotics. And it doesn’t have anything to do with any unnatural ingredients they might have received in their food supply. It simply means the meat is minimally processed and contains no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.

100% Vegetarian Diet. Technically, chickens aren’t vegetarians. They eat bugs. So, if you’re looking at a cut of chicken with this label, it means the chicken didn’t have access to the outdoors to forage. They also weren’t fed any animal by-products. Instead, they’ve been raised on grains and grasses. And it’s a sure bet a lot of those grains, like corn and soy, are genetically altered.

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No Antibiotics. It may sound unbelievable, but about 70% of all antibiotics in the U.S. are used on healthy farm animals. And it’s not just the sick animals that are getting them. Commercial farms also add them to the feed supply to prevent possible disease.

This is a big concern when it comes to the development of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. And it’s certainly not something you want on your dinner plate. So, always look for chicken labeled “no antibiotics” or “antibiotic-free.”

Air-Chilled. Most producers immerse their slaughtered chickens in a cold-water chlorine solution. This kills bacteria like salmonella before they’re packaged. But the chicken also soaks up a lot of that water. This affects the weight, taste and texture of the final meat product.

Air-chilled birds skip the chlorine bath. They’re handled separately and then chilled with a blast of cold air. This quickly lowers their temperature to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Because they’re handled separately, instead of being placed in a big vat with other chickens, it’s believed they harbor fewer bacteria from cross-contamination. And it seems to work. A Consumer Reports study tested Bell & Evans organic chickens labeled “Air-Chilled” and found them completely clear of bacteria.

Now that you’ve mastered the jargon, here’s how to find the best, healthiest chicken your money can buy.

Let’s start with “free-range.” When you and I say free-range, we have a vision. We see a flock of chickens pecking happily at the ground on a wide-open sunny pasture. But that’s not what chicken producers have in mind when they slap a free-range label on chicken.

Free-range or free-roaming simply means the chickens aren’t raised in cages. It means the birds have outdoor access. But that could be for as little as five minutes a day.

In other words, it doesn’t guarantee they actually spent any time outside!

And here’s another thing. Free-range doesn’t ensure chicken is organic or antibiotic-free. In other words, it’s a pretty meaningless label.

When chicken is “pastured” or “pasture-raised,” its means the birds lived on an actual pasture a good deal of the time. They get some of their food from the natural environment like grass, seeds and bugs. These chickens are generally higher in vitamins A and D, and healthy omega-3 fats.

They’re also safer to eat. Commercially raised chickens can be caged together with 30,000 animals. This makes them about four times more likely to carry salmonella than small flocks that roam outside.

And, what about poultry that’s labeled “certified organic”?

This means the USDA has inspected and verified that the chickens have outdoor access, are free of antibiotics, are raised on 100% organic non-GMO feed, and aren’t contaminated during processing.

In the end, these chickens can’t be fed anything that uses chemical fertilizers, pesticides, animal by-products or other additives.

What’s my choice?

I recommend buying certified organic, pasture-raised chicken whenever possible. Second best would be chicken that’s at least certified organic. Both of these choices ensure you’re not getting chemicals, pesticides, GMOs or antibiotics with your chicken.

And regardless of which one you choose, try selecting one that’s air-chilled. I’ll bet you notice a big difference in taste and texture. But it’s well worth the price – and still less expensive than many other protein sources.

United States Department of Agriculture

“How Safe Is That Chicken?” Consumer Reports Magazine. Jan 2010.

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