Dinner Table Queries: Chicken for Dinner

With all the nutritional challenges living in today’s world, dinnertime often brings practical questions of what to put on the table. Most families can’t afford to pay 3 to 5 times the conventional price for everything to be organic, non-GMO, or whatever label du jour. Choices must be made. If something doesn’t “need” to be organic, why not buy conventional? The Environmental Working Group has provided a great resource for deciding which fruits and veggies can be accepted less than perfect. However, what about chicken? You have “natural”, “cage-free”, “free-range”, “hormone-free”, “antibiotic free”, and “organic” choices among the primary designations. Does it matter?

One of this week’s dinnertime queries was exactly this choice: “Natural” chicken for around $1.50 per pound versus “organic” chicken for $2.50. We already ruled out the $8 option from the high end health store and the nearly $5 option from the high end farmer’s market. With 5 kids, the multiplication factor of paying $5 to $8 per pound of chicken adds up fast. We were left with $1.50 versus $2.50. That’s where I began the research project. I will share my discoveries with you.

Punch line for the impatient: The jury is out and a variety of opinions exist. They agree for the most part that organic fruits and veggies are most important than chicken choices however.

The Rest of the Story

What do some of these designations really mean? There are several good sources out there for more specifics, but here is a summary.

Free-range: animals have outdoor access with a shelter and access to food and water, but may be fenced or covered.

Cage – free: no cages. Period.

Natural: minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients.

Grass – Fed: only that the primary source of diet comes from grass.

Organic: greater than 95% organic materials with no synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, preventive antibiotics, or hormones.

What do studies show about these various designations?

Pesticides: The Annals of Internal Medicine published a meta-analysis by Smith-Spangler, et al in September 2012 showed that pesticide residue was higher in conventional than organic foods (not specific for chicken).

Nutrition: Several internet sources claim that the nutrition value between conventional and organic chicken is negligible. While grass fed chickens have a higher percentage of omega 3 fatty acids, the fact that chicken is naturally low fat means that these increased omega 3’s probably don’t contribute much to total omega 3 intake. A Stanford University study reported no obvious health benefit to organic chicken.

Resistant Bacteria exposure: A Consumer Reports study found that although the organic chicken had fewer antibiotic resistant bacteria, the difference was not great. This would seem to contradict a 2011 University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins, and Penn State University study which found 4 to 5 times higher rate of Enterococcus in conventional poultry houses verses organic poultry houses. The answer may lie in the fact that the Consumer Reports study measure store shelf chicken whereas the latter study looked at the poultry houses themselves.  Often organic and conventional chickens are processed in the same plants, thus allowing bacteria to cross contaminate.

Hormones: Obviously, if organic chickens are not given hormones for growth, we won’t get any of those hormones. We do not know for sure what effects conventional chickens with their additional hormones may have. Some believe it may explain some of the increasingly earlier age of puberty for girls. Others are looking whether it increases cancer risks. In short, logically they may be harmful, but no studies have shown levels in the meat to be high nor shown that they cause negative effects. This does not mean that they don’t, just that we are not sure yet.

Where does that leave us? While the question for fruits and veggies is clearer, the question about chicken needs a lot more research. For those consumers who already have chronic health problems or a family history of them, maybe organic is better. We are going “natural” for now. Our goal is to find locally “grown” chickens and buy from a “friend” whom we trust rather than a big company mass producing chicken meat. That goal is still in process.

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