Is organic chicken really better for you? A nutritionist weighs in

From antibiotic-free chicken to free-range poultry, here's what those grocery store package labels really mean.
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/ Source: TODAY
By Erica Chayes Wida

If chicken is on your grocery list — which wouldn't be too surprising considering the average American eats over 93 pounds of chicken each year — it might be time to take a closer look at that package label.

Many people often have a go-to package of poultry, whether it's skinless, organic breasts, pre-frozen tenders or a whole bird for roasting, but with ever-expanding options lining the poultry aisle, it really does pay to pay attention to what you're buying.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietician and nutritionist, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of "Read It Before You Eat It - Taking You from Label to Table," helped TODAY Food decipher the many, many labels popping up on meat and poultry packages and why these labels really matter.

What do chicken package labels really mean?

Since terms like "healthy" and "all natural" are not regulated by the government or any authoritative industry (more on that below), Taub-Dix said consumers should ignore the jargon and look out for the following phrases when shopping for chicken:

  • Antibiotic free: There are stringent Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations that ensure all chickens are weaned from antibiotics well before they're sent to be processed, packaged and delivered to grocery stores and butchers. However, according to the World Health Organization, the use of antibiotics in animals at any time during their lifecycle is contributing to the risk of superbugs and harmful bacteria that can cause deadly illnesses in humans who eat them. In November 2017, the WHO revised its guidelines on antibiotic usage related to animals being raised for food. The new guidelines recommend "that farmers and the food industry stop using antibiotics routinely to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals" and "aim to help preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics that are important for human medicine by reducing usage in animals. If avoiding livestock that have been administered antibiotics is important to you, double check that the package label reads "antibiotic-free" or has a USDA Organic label.
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  • Certified humane: A relatively new label, the "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" sticker may appear on meat, chicken, pork, eggs, pet food or dairy products that meet certain standards set forth by the Humane Farm Animal Care, a non-profit organization "dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals in food production from birth through slaughter." The organization, which is endorsed by the ASPCA and the Center for Food Safety, consists of veterinarians and scientists who conduct regular farm inspections to ensure that the animals are never caged and have adequate space to move around freely. Since the animals' welfare is considered for their entire lifespan, this certification is seen as a step above free range in the pantheon of organic food terminology.
  • Hormone free: Many chicken brands label product packaging with "no added hormones." Sounds pretty good, right? Taub-Dix told TODAY that this is basically a total marketing ploy and doesn't really mean anything since both the FDA and USDA made adding hormones to poultry and pigs illegal in 1952. So, if you're deciding between two types of chicken and the more expensive brand claims that it's free of hormones, you can opt for the cheaper brand here. If you are buying red meat or lamb, however, keep in mind that the U.S. does permit limited usage of certain steroid hormones in beef and mutton production.

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  • Free-range: Taub-Dix told TODAY that "free-range" does not mean that the birds are frolicking outside the barnyard living a life of fun in the sun. "According to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, chicken can be labeled as 'free-range' if the producer can prove to the USDA that the chickens have been given access to the outdoors," she said. "But 'access' doesn’t guarantee that they are actually going outdoors when their food, water and friends are inside." While free-range birds do get more exercise than those quarantined to cages, it's important to note that these birds aren't always free of antibiotics, so they're not necessarily organic — although all organic birds are free range.
  • Organic: The USDA National Organic Program requires that in order to be certified with the organic label, poultry must be raised with no antibiotics, fed 100% organic feed and given access to outdoor space — though the time outside and physical area requirements are unspecified by law. While more and more consumers are opting for organic foods, there's a reason they are still pricier than conventionally raised items. Undergoing the organic certification process costs farmers a good deal of money, and those costs are passed on to the shopper.

What about foods that are "all natural"?

When it comes to food, besides the word "healthy," there is perhaps no greater confusion than what being "natural" really means. It can be a misleading term on snacks, drinks, produce and even meat. The USDA defines "natural" and "all-natural" as a food product that has been "minimally processed and contains no preservatives or artificial ingredients." However, the term does not mean that an animal has been raised with or without hormones or antibiotics, and it provides no details as to how that animal was raised.

While being "natural" isn't a bad thing, keep in mind that it's basically a meaningless label — especially when it comes to meat and poultry — so it pays to do a more thorough label inspection if you're concerned about animal welfare, preservatives and antibiotics.

Cheaper meat can mean better flavor

While chicken breasts are loved by those looking to lighten up their lunches, dark meat shouldn't be totally forgotten.

According to Taub-Dix, thighs and drumsticks have a higher concentration of myoglobin, which is basically the red pigment that makes the meat darker. Myoglobin is found in the muscles that are used more frequently when the chicken is alive and therefore are higher in fat, cholesterol and calories, but these parts are also richer in the essential mineral iron.

While white meat may seem like the better choice because it's pricier, it's not usually the first choice for a flavorful dish.

"Most chefs prefer dark meat," chef Sabrina Sexton, who served as the program director at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, told TODAY. "These parts have a little more fat in them, which helps them stay moist and get a little more exercise, both of which make them more flavorful." Sexton added that white meat is easier to overcook than dark because it's less moist, and this can result in a blander, dry chicken dish.

Whether it's organic or conventionally raised, dark meat poultry will likely be cheaper than its white meat counterpart, so if you're looking for fool-proof, juicy chicken dinner, opt for thighs.

Is organic chicken actually better for you?

"Going organic is a personal decision that is sometimes born out of emotion and not nutrition science," Taub-Dix said. "It has been debated whether organic food, in general, is 'healthier' when it comes to [its] nutrient profile." Ultimately, if you can afford to buy organic chicken, Taub-Dix recommended doing so, citing a variety of reasons including animal welfare and antibiotic concerns. However, she noted that proper preparation of poultry is key and just because something is organic doesn't mean that it won't make you sick if it's not cooked properly.

A recent study conducted in France which surveyed over 68,000 adults found that those who regularly ate organic foods were 25% less likely to develop cancer, particularly postmenopausal breast cancers and lymphomas. This study was not linked solely to poultry consumption, however, and the majority of study participants were women.

But that does not mean conventionally raised food is less nutritious (i.e. more vitamin and/or mineral dense) and pediatricians have routinely stated that the nutritional value of organic versus conventionally farmed foods indistinguishable.

Whatever type of chicken makes it to the table, it's always a good idea to read package labels thoroughly, especially when it comes to purchasing items that are prepared or frozen.

"Even a simple 'grilled chicken' can be loaded with sodium and other additives and preservatives that you may not have thought you were getting because the chicken was not breaded or fried," Taub-Dix advised. "As I always say — you’ve gotta read it before you eat it."