Chicken Buyer's Guide
How to buy the healthiest chicken at the grocery store. Watch: Our Editor Visits a Chicken Farm
In an impressive statistic, reports say that the average American buys 85 pounds of chicken a year . And with good reason: chicken is a good source of protein and low in fat and calories, particularly sans skin and unbreaded. But simple succulence, economy and sheer versatility are the fundamental reasons why chicken is so well loved. Here are some guidelines for choosing the healthiest chicken at the supermarket.
The best way to ensure you're buying the freshest chicken is to look at the fat-it should be white to deep yellow, never gray or pasty. Make sure the package is well wrapped and free from leakage. And don't forget to check the date on the package.
What Labels Mean
Free Range: While this term might imply more, this USDA-regulated term means only that the birds are granted access to the outdoors.
Certified Organic: This USDA-regulated term means that all feed given to chickens must be certified organic, which means no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, animal by-products or other additives. Certified organic poultry must also meet "free range" criteria. Additionally, federal regulations call for "shelter designed to allow for (i) natural maintenance, comfort behaviors, and opportunity to exercise; (ii) temperature level, ventilation, and air circulation suitable to the species; and (iii) reduction of potential for livestock injury," but there is no guidance regarding what chickens require in these areas.
Raised Without Antibiotics: This term indicates that the chicken was raised without antibiotics for health maintenance, disease prevention or treatment of disease. Medications not classified as antibiotics may still be used.
No Hormones: The USDA prohibits the use of hormones in poultry, so while the label "hormone-free" is accurate, it doesn't set one chicken apart from another.
Natural: One of the most widely used labels, the term means that no additives or preservatives were introduced after the poultry was processed (although certain sodium-based broths can be added; read the fine print if this is a concern). "Natural" has absolutely nothing to do with standards of care, type and quality of feed or administration of medications.
Percent Retained Water: To control pathogens like Salmonella, producers must quickly lower the temperature of birds during processing. Most do this by immersing the slaughtered chickens in a cold bath, which causes them to absorb water. The USDA requires producers to list the maximum amount of water that may be retained. Some producers "air-chill" their birds, a process that does not result in any retained water. In a small January 2010 Consumer Reports study, birds labeled "air-chilled" (a term that is not regulated) were less likely to be contaminated with pathogens.
Certified Humane Raised & Handled: Overseen by a nonprofit endorsed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, this label ensures your chicken received basic standards of care. For instance, CHRH producers must provide at least six continuous hours of darkness per 24-hour period (many birds live in round-the-clock light to hasten growth). Feed must be fresh. Original guidelines required producers to provide about 1 square foot of space per chicken; however, this is currently under review. This third-party certification does not have any rules about access to pasture.
Kosher: Some people believe that kosher chickens are raised more humanely and are less likely to be contaminated. Kosher laws insist birds be slaughtered with a single cut to the neck using a special razor-sharp blade. The birds are not stunned, as is standard in most operations. However, one shouldn't assume that all kosher chickens are treated humanely, say some animal-welfare groups. As for the relative food safety of kosher chicken, scientific results have been mixed.
Farm-Raised: The USDA defines a "farm" as any operation that sells at least $1,000 of agricultural commodities, so any producer raising that much chicken to sell is entitled to use this label. It says nothing about how the chickens were raised.
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts, arguably the most versatile cut of chicken, are very low in fat, with only 1 to 2 grams of fat per serving. One 4- to 5-ounce breast yields a perfect 3-ounce cooked portion when you remove the tender-the virtually fat-free strip of rib meat typically found attached to the underside of a chicken breast. Don't throw those tenders away-freeze them in an airtight container until you've gathered enough to make a meal. Tenders can also be purchased separately and are perfect for quick stir-fries, chicken satay or kid-friendly breaded "chicken fingers."
While you might dismiss dark meat, its slightly higher fat content makes the meat more forgiving of overcooking. There's also a little more iron and almost twice the zinc-not bad for a small increase in calories (177 calories and 6 grams fat for 3 ounces of thigh versus 138 calories and 3 grams fat for breast). If you want to serve one thigh per person, buy them at the butcher counter; prepackaged thighs vary dramatically in size. Ask for one 6-ounce boneless, skinless thigh per person. Trim any excess fat (and skin if you didn't buy them skinless) with kitchen shears.
Roasting a whole chicken can save you time and money. Make it a regular weekly ritual and you'll be rewarded with a delicious supper plus healthful leftovers you can use to top lunchtime salads or fill soft-shell tacos. While store-bought rotisserie chicken is convenient and practical, each serving can have more than 4 times as much sodium as the average home-roasted one. Even the unseasoned varieties have been marinated or seasoned with salty flavoring agents. People with hypertension should think twice before choosing store-bought.
Refrigerate or freeze chicken as soon as possible after purchase. If refrigerating chicken, be sure to cook it or freeze it by the "Use By" date on the package. If freezing chicken for longer than two weeks, wrap in heavy-duty foil, freezer paper or freezer bags to prevent freezer burn. Frozen chicken should be defrosted in the refrigerator, never at room temperature, to prevent bacterial growth.