Free-Range vs. Organic: What Do Chicken Packaging Labels Mean?

Know what labels indicate quality and what labels are simply marketing tricks.

So many people use chicken as their go-to source of lean protein. If that sounds familiar, you probably want to make sure you're buying the healthiest chicken out there. Appealing labels like “organic" or “free-range" sound like a good idea, right? But how do you really know if you're making the healthiest choice for you and your family? Here's everything you need to know about understanding packaging labels.

Free-Range

While you might think that “free-range" means chickens are running through open fields, that's not always the case. All it means is that they are allowed access to the outdoors for a certain amount of time throughout the year. So, does it matter whether your chicken is “free-range" or not? If the ethical treatment of your poultry is important to you, then yes. But free-range chicken doesn't mean it's healthier for you.


Natural

If your chicken says “natural" on the package, that means that it was minimally processed. However “minimal processing" is undefined by the USDA, so there's some ambiguity as to what this really means. But, you can rest assured that your chicken hasn't been fundamentally altered from its raw state — the chicken does not contain artificial ingredients, coloring ingredients, or chemical preservatives. So, yes, the term “natural" is something you should look out for when buying chicken.

Hormone-Free

In today's world, it goes without saying that products with added hormones are not (we repeat, not) good for you. In fact, according to The Poultry Site, federal regulations state that poultry and any form of pork cannot have any added hormones (but beef can, so look out for that as well). In chicken and pork it doesn't matter whether your packaging says “hormone-free" or not, because they're prohibited either way. Chances are it was put on the packaging just to convince you to buy it.

Humanely Raised

The term “humanely raised" is undefined by law, so there's no national standard for what that means. Instead, look for labels that specifically read "Certified Humane" when you shop for chicken. This label, endorsed by the ASPCA and 70 other humane organizations, indicates that the chicken was not kept in a cage or crate, and that the producers had to meet very specific Animal Care Standards. So, if the treatment of the animals is something that matters to you when buying chicken, look out for this label.

Organic

This is perhaps the most common label you'll see on packaging for chicken and probably the most widely recognized. This term can be used to label any product containing a minimum of 95% organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Consequently, this means that up to 5% of ingredients may be non-organic. And just because a product is organic, doesn't mean that it was not raised in a factory. But they likely were raised in better conditions than a non-organic product.

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