Pasture raised Chicken, free-range, organic, antibiotic free and all-natural…
If reading these terms immediately makes you throw up your arms in the poultry aisle wondering what each label means, and if you need to spend the extra cash…
You’re in the right place.
Food labels can be incredibly confusing, and sometimes downright misleading. Which can lead to unnecessary grocery bills.
I am going to define the most common labels, explain how pasture raised chicken differs. Lastly, help you decide what’s the best choice for you and your family.
What is the Difference between Pasture Raised and Organic Chicken?
- A pasture raised chicken is a regulated term by an independent certification body, CertifiedHumane. Their definition means 6 hours of outdoor space, 2 square feet per bird & “quality feed”. Their primary goal is a humane life for animals.
- Organic chicken is USDA regulated, requires 100% organic feed (livestock feed and table scraps), year-round access to organically grown pastures and no use of antibiotics beyond the first day of life.
- Free Range chickens have access to the outdoors, they may or may not use it, and no minimum square footage is required. Essentially meaningless.
- Vegetarian fed chickens are omnivores, this label simply means their livestock feed doesn’t contain animal products. Mostly meaningless.
- No Hormones is a meaningless term since federal regulations have prohibited the use of hormones in poultry since the 1950’s. All chicken is free of added hormones regardless of labeling.
- No Antibiotics is a term used if sufficient documentation is provided proving the chickens were raised without antibiotics. The downfall is that the label doesn't mean the same thing every time it's used, nor is it verified by the USDA.
- All Natural is the most meaningless of all the labels.
Is Pastured Raised Chicken better?
Pasture raised chicken will likely not impact your health in a measurable way. Unless it's a primary source of nutrition for you, here's why.
Fatty Acid Profile
First a look at the fats.
Studies show a statistically significant (meaning not by chance), but small difference in the omega 3 content of conventionally raised versus pasture raised chickens.
To give you some context the general guideline is 1-2 grams of omega 3 fatty acids (n-3’s). A 3-ounce serving of salmon contains 1.5 grams of n-3’s.
The same amount of conventionally raised chicken contains .03 grams. Pasture raised chicken contains about .10 - .15 grams more n-3’s than conventionally raised chickens. Still, only 100 - 200 mg per serving.
Despite that the overall n-3 content was considerably higher, pasture raised chickens do have a better ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids.
Why is that important?
Well, westernized diets have increased this ratio from 1:1 to about 16:1 (mostly with packaged foods). Diets high in omega 6’s have been shown to promote cardiovascular disease, inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.
Vitamins A, D and E
Now, fat-soluble vitamins.
Green grass pastures are rich in vitamin A. So, you'd think the vitamin A content of pasture raised chickens would be more, however that were not the findings. This may be due to lower fat levels of the meat.
Conventional chicken provides about 5 IU, which is 1% of our daily value. Whereas, pasture raised chicken has an average of 20 IU of vitamin D, depending on your needs that may be up to 5%. Not a good source…
Lastly, the Vitamin E of pasture raised chicken is 2-3 times greater than conventional. This amount may be significant as this becomes a “good source” of vitamin E.
Something to note, of the studies reviewed, pasture consumption was at most 50% of the overall intake (the remainder, usually majority, was livestock feed).
Does it Taste Better?
So what about taste, does pasture raised affect taste?
The primary goal of the CertifiedHumane standards is to provide a more humane life to livestock animals. However, I could not find any research that stated this made for better tasting chickens.
One study stated the bird’s diet “had no effect in meat tenderness, juiciness, or flavor.” (6) Instead, the younger, faster growing birds were found to be more tender, regardless of diet.
Despite these results, pasture raised birds scored better. Which may be due to consumers' perception of higher standards.
Are there Processing Variations?
Lastly, let’s discuss the processing of chickens.
The majority of chickens (even organic) are rinsed in chlorine after being slaughtered. This is done to eliminate the risk of campylobacter and salmonella. About 66% of chickens carry at least one of these food-borne illness'.
Although this is a little unsettling to hear, the US has one of the safest food supplies in the world, and the use of chlorine and antibiotics are all in an effort to create safe food.
Buuuut…It makes you question whether the ubiquitous use of chlorine in our food supply may have some effect on our gut health, and research confirms overuse of antibiotics does cause antibiotic resistance.
Find Pasture Raised Chicken Near Me: Questions for your Farmer
With all of that said, when shopping in store USDA organic is likely the nutritionally superior choice.
The other option is to purchase directly from a farmer. Many small farms cannot afford organic certifications, but may implement practices that are equal or superior to certified organic.
If you choose to buy your chicken locally, here are some questions for your farmer.
- What kind of livestock feed do you provide your chickens? In all of the studies I reviewed, the livestock feed provided at least half of the chicken’s diet. Legume based diets seemed to provide the best fatty acid profile.
- Are the chickens given table scraps, and are they organic? Chickens given table scraps tend to hunt and peck which is a more natural way of living.
- How are the chickens processed? Is a chlorine chill down used? Remember, this is for food safety, so forgoing this step requires you to be confident in you and your farmers’ abilities.
- Are the chickens given antibiotics?
To find pastured raised chicken near you, visit EatWild.com. The best part? You get to visit the farm and learn more first hand.
Bottom Line: Is Pasture Raised Chicken Better?
It's important to note that, as with most nutrition studies, comparing results is challenging because there are so many variables. These include season, time on pasture, bird species and testing methods.
Basically, when reading labels at the grocery store, pasture raised and organic are the only meaningful, regulated and consistent labels.
Although the fatty acid profile of pastured raised chicken is slightly better than conventional, it will likely not improve your health tremendously. Instead, I recommend eating a couple servings of fatty fish and 3-4 servings of nuts weekly.
However, if how the chicken is raised is important to you, then pasture raised may be a better choice. Their primary mission is animal welfare.
And, if you want the best of both worlds, buy local and talk directly to your farmer.
If you're interested in learning about the difference between pasture raised and grass fed check out my other article which discusses the difference.
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