Chicken is one of this country’s most popular sources of protein. Lean and adaptable, the ubiquitous bird is generally easy to cook, and provides B vitamins and selenium. Half a skinless chicken breast will also provide up to 27 grams of protein with only 3 grams of fat, and only one gram of saturated fat.
But poultry can raise more questions for today’s smart shopper than it may have in the past. Why, for instance, is one type of chicken more expensive than another when they look the same? And what’s the difference between free-range, organic, and certified humane?
- Certified: According to the USDA website, certified “implies that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Agriculture Marketing Service have officially evaluated a meat product for class, grade, or other quality characteristics (e.g., “Certified Angus Beef”).” This is a very basic label that shows the USDA has inspected the product.
- Free-Range or Free Roaming: According to the USDA, this means the producer must demonstrate that the animals have access to the outside. However, the department doesn’t give a minimum requirement for space, or specify the quality of outdoor space. So, the “free-ranging” area can vary from a wide-open grassy yard to a small patch of dirt.
- Natural: The USDA allows the label “natural” to be applied to any “product containing no artificial or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter it.” Because this term is vague, the USDA also requires that the label explain why the product is labeled “natural”. For instance, “no artificial colors or flavorings.” In a nutshell, be ready to grab your bifocals and read the fine print.
- Raised without Hormones: In the United States the use of hormones on poultry is illegal; thus, the use of the label “hormone-free” only states the obvious and is not allowed unless it also says that federal law prohibits the use of hormones in poultry.
- Raised without Antibiotics: This label can be used if the producer verifies that the animals have not received any antibiotics at any point in their lifetime. Because more than half of the antibiotics used to treat animals are the same as those used to treat humans, the overuse of antibiotics in animals can lead to antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria for all of us. Keeping food animals in close confinement without the use of antibiotics can result in deadly mass illnesses, so antibiotic-free chickens are usually those raised with the most space and freedom.
- Certified Organic: In order to receive the USDA certified organic seal, producers must comply with the organic program rules. This seal implies that the chickens were raised without antibiotics in an environment that requires attention to sustainability and ecological accord. It also requires that their feed comes from vegetarian organic sources and that there is no contamination with non-organic food items during processing.
- Certified Humane Raised & Handled: The Certified Humane Program is a third-party certification that is not regulated by the USDA, but rather by Humane Farm Animal Care, an international nonprofit certification organization. This certification ensures that animals are treated humanely during the entire production process. It prohibits the use of crates, tight enclosures, and any growth-hormones.
Use caution when considering deli meats as a quick source of protein. Deli meats are considered a processed meat and the AICR recommends avoiding processed meat as it has been shown to increase the risk of colorectal cancer.
- Farmers’ markets are now available in most cities, and though the prices are often higher than in supermarkets, the advantage is that you can talk to the vendors to learn how the animals were raised. Sometimes it’s too expensive for a small farm to go through the rigors of getting the USDA organic seal, but that does not necessarily mean the chickens are of lesser quality. In fact, chickens from a local family farm may just be your best bet for quality.
- The cost can be higher at organic grocery chains, such as Whole Foods, or even big chains like Safeway, which now offer a variety of labels in its chicken aisles. If cost is a factor for you, remember that the recommended serving size of meat is 3 ounces, that’s about the same size as a deck of cards, or about half a breast of chicken so eating less may mean you can afford to stretch portions while buying a better brand.
- When buying ground chicken, look for lean ground breast meat. Other types may contain dark meat and skin, leaving it with almost as much fat and saturated fat as ground beef.
- Buy chicken and other meats right before checking out at the grocery store and make sure they are cold. Wrap chicken in a separate bag to ensure there is no cross contamination between chicken and fresh vegetables. Most markets will automatically wrap chicken separately, be sure that they do.
When preparing chicken, current USDA guidelines recommend not washing chicken before cooking. Rinsing chicken in a sink increases the chance of cross-contamination in the kitchen.
It’s best to keep a separate cutting board for meat and for vegetables, and chicken should be cooked to at least 165 degrees to ensure safe eating, as color of the meat and juices are not reliable indicators of doneness. And always wash your hands after handling raw chicken.
Always store raw chicken on the bottom shelf of your fridge to prevent raw chicken juices from dripping on uncooked or ready-to-eat foods.