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Local chicken your best bet in free-range category

Chicken is a favourite meal item in Canada in its various forms—the deep-fried breaded type widely available in restaurants (perhaps the most popular), roasted whole with stuffing for holidays and breasts or drumsticks with a glaze or sprinkled with herbs for regular suppers any day of the week. Consumption of chicken has increased over the last few decades—also true for fish—as people change their diet to decrease red meat intake, associated with saturated fat. Are there any health benefits to including chicken in your diet on a regular basis (thus perhaps limiting other meats) and how does one choose the healthiest chicken?

There is no doubt, chicken generally is a source of high quality protein—one four-ounce serving offers 35 grams which is about 70 percent of recommended daily intake. Stating the protein is “high quality” means it is made up of a variety of amino acids important for the support of cardiac and skeletal muscle. Chicken meat contains all B vitamins as well as the minerals selenium, zinc, phosphorus and iron.

Decided preference

The main area of interest is fat content since this has implications for cardiovascular health. Most consumers appear to have a decided preference for either light or dark meat—and without playing favourites, it must be stated that dark meat (e.g. leg) has significantly more saturated fat and cholesterol than white (e.g. breast) although calorie count is similar.

To remove skin or not is the question; it is no secret that the skin contains extra fat, but then, it also contains nutrients (similar to those in the meat) and adds flavour and succulence. Your choice should be made in the context of your overall meal plan—especially as related to fat intake. A skinless chicken breast with less than 4 grams of fat and 1 gram saturated fat is your best bet if you are trying to minimize intake of animal fat—easy to see when the breast is compared to a chicken leg with skin on which contains 9 grams of total fat and 2.5 grams of saturated fat. Note also that while saturated fat in red meat is higher than in poultry, it contains a high quality of protein as well, plus a significant amount of iron—in moderate amounts, pork and beef have a place in Canadian diets.

Now we face the issue of the differences among free-range, organic and conventional chicken. The latter two categories are quite straightforward. You can be assured that chicken marked organic has not been fed growth hormones or antibiotics. However, it does not guarantee a “natural” lifestyle for the fowl, but like conventionally-raised chicken, organic chicken may be kept in rather tight cages. For information on environment chickens have been raised in, you need to look for designations such as “free-range” or “pasture-raised.” Unfortunately, labelling laws allow products to use these terms when chickens have access to the outdoors, but may have spent very little time in a pasture setting. If you are concerned that poultry you buy is truly free-range, purchase it from a local farmer who will tell you exactly how the birds were raised.

Mobile structures

Authentically pasture-raised chickens spend most of their time outdoors (from spring to fall) pecking, foraging and moving around. They are often fenced in—with a large area to roam around in—with a barn nearby for shelter. Other poultry farmers keep their flock in a large mobile structures that have walls but no floors—these are moved around frequently to provide fresh grass and soft bedding. Most of the time, pastured chickens are organic with diet consisting seeds, grubs, worms, insects and vegetation (note chickens are omnivores). In addition, the fowl gets plenty of exercise as it moves about and manure is spread around.

All chicken on the market is safe to eat since Canadian regulations are very stringent. It should be noted that raw chicken meat—including conventional, organic and pasture-raised—may contain measurable populations of potentially problematic bacteria. The way to address contamination concerns is to use extreme care in storing, handling and cooking chicken (it should be fully cooked to an internal temperature of 74C or 165F).

Nutrient content of the three types of chicken are similar. If you are worried about antibiotics and hormones making their way into the meat (antibiotic resistance due to constant antibiotic use may well be cause for concern), seek out a shop that sells organic chicken. If humane treatment of the birds is also important to you, buy locally grown chicken where you can find out how the flock was treated. And whatever type of chicken you choose to eat, wean your tastes away from deep-fried meat.