Chicken Packaging Labels Are Confusing — Here's What They Really Mean

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?

In the past few years, labels have gotten more and more complicated. There are so many keywords jumping out in big text on packages. If you think chicken packaging labels are confusing, you’re not alone. Shopping can feel intimidating when you’re unaware of what certain labels mean, especially when it comes to products that go bad quickly, like produce and meat. To make sure you get the best quality chicken for you and your family, we’re here to separate fact from fiction and give you all of the chicken buying tips you need to shop smarter. 

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Let’s break down some terms you might have seen on your chicken that might be confusing to you:

Free-Range

The Dr. Oz Show medical unit looked into what free-range on a chicken label means. While you might think that “free-range” mean chickens are running through beautiful, open fields ⁠— that’s not the case. All it means is that they are allowed access to the outdoors for a certain amount of time every day. 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 it’s better to buy. 

Humanely Raised

The term “humanely raised” is undefined by law, which means it’s up to the discretion of the chicken producer in question. When you shop for chicken, try to look for the label that specifically reads “Certified Humane” instead. 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 curated, careful treatment 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 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Consequently, this means that up to five percent of ingredients may be non-organic. According to LiveScience.com the ingredients making up that specific percentage aren’t commercially available as organic or nonagricultural products on a list approved by the USDA. Just because a product is organic, however, doesn’t mean that it was not raised in a factory — but they likely were raised in better conditions than a non-organic product. 

With all that being said, the “organic” label is definitely something to look out for when shopping for chicken. Not only does this guarantee your chicken is, at minimum, 95 percent organic, but it also means there’s a good chance that your chicken was raised in good conditions.

What You Should Know About Fast-Food Chicken

Speculation around chicken packaging doesn’t just exist in grocery stores. Fast-food restaurants can also use keywords to trick you into thinking your chicken is healthier than it actually is. This is a consumerism trick that food documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock calls the “health halo.”

The term “health halo” refers to the way consumers perceive food based on the type of food, branding and packaging, and consumption. According to Spurlock, one term that fast-food joints will often use to trick you into thinking their chicken is healthy is “crispy” instead of “fried.” Some other things that fast food restaurants will do to contribute to this “health halo” is put sodium-packed veggie toppings on sandwiches and even paint grill marks on chicken (yes, this is real).

Now that you know what all of these confusing chicken packaging labels really mean, you can shop smarter when you head to the poultry section of your grocery store (or when indulging in a fast-food meal). By knowing what all of these chicken packaging labels mean, you can look out for the food regulations that matter most to you when grocery shopping and consuming foods.

 

Related: 

The Secret to Paying Less for Quality Chicken

Chicken Cheat Sheet

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