We eat a lot of chicken

Chicken is everywhere. It’s a popular high protein food, it tastes good, it’s affordable and can be prepared in dozens of ways. What’s not to like?

It wasn’t always this way. Believe it or not, until about 100 years ago, chicken was not a common food item. In the early 20th century, one US presidential campaign featured the promise of “a chicken in every pot..” as a sign that voting for that candidate would bring prosperity, so everyone could afford chicken once a week. Now I’m sure there are people who think nothing of eating chicken in some form once or twice a day without even thinking about the cost.

A recent article in The Economist (subscription required) had some amazing facts about our love of chicken:

  • Chickens account for 23 billion of the 30 billion farm animals on the planet. That’s over 2/3 of the farm animal population!!!
  • The mass of farmed chickens is greater than the mass of all other birds on the planet!!!
  • In the last 60 years, the types of chickens raised for meat have more than quadrupled in size per bird. That could help explain why the mass of chickens is more than all the other birds. Not only are there a lot of chickens; they’re a lot bigger.
  • Thanks to breeding, it now takes less than half as much grain to produce a pound of chicken as it did 35 years ago. Well, that’s good news.
  • Thanks to all this production, chicken is the world’s most widely traded meat. Different countries prefer different parts of the chicken, right down to the feet.
  • Chicken consumption is up 70% since 1990.

Yes chicken is high protein, easy to cook and versatile. But the enormous growth in chicken production has a downside: filthy, over-crowded indoor factory-farms and the widespread use of antibiotics to counter the effects of overcrowding. The lives of chickens raised in these conditions are pretty miserable. They may never see sunlight or get a breath of fresh air. Thanks to animal welfare activists, consumers are increasingly looking for chicken that’s raised more humanely or organically. Producers and food companies are responding to this demand. This raises the cost, but more and more people are willing to pay for that.

One reason we’re eating so much more chicken is the anti-saturated-fat heart health campaigns that began in the mid-20th century. Lower fat chicken has been promoted as the healthier meat choice for decades. True, it’s generally lower in fat than red meat, but that’s only if it’s cooked simply, such as grilled, roasted or broiled, and eaten without the skin. A lot of the chicken people actually eat is fried (fat) with the skin on (more fat). You can choose from chicken nuggets, deep fried chicken tenders, chicken wings, fried chicken sandwiches and buckets of batter coated fried chicken pieces. But it’s chicken! It’s healthy. Plenty of people are happy to use the health halo to rationalize their 5 piece fried chicken dinner.

Chicken is a great example of the concept of nutrient density. Consider boneless, skinless chicken breast meat vs. breaded/fried chicken breast:

4 oz chicken breastplainfried/breaded
calories130250
protein24 gr13 gr
fat3 gr11 gr

As you can see, you get more protein for your calories from plain chicken, and much less fat compared to the same weight of fried/breaded chicken breast meat. Another way to look at this is by comparing calories per grams of protein. To get 24 grams of protein from 4 oz of fried/breaded chicken, you’d have to eat almost 500 calories vs. just 130 from plain chicken.

Choosing chicken

I like chicken as much as the next person, and I admit to indulging in the occasional serving of deep fried chicken tenders. But I also prefer to buy higher quality chicken. There are a lot of confusing labels for how chickens are raised, which may or may not have anything to do with actual quality. Here are some you might see at the grocery store:

  • Organic: no pesticides in the feed, no antibiotics or other growth-enhancing treatments. They can also be free-range.
  • Free range: the chickens are allowed to roam in a yard outside the chicken coop during the day. They’re enclosed at night for protection more than anything. However, the chickens are not forced to leave the barn (or wherever they live), so it’s possible your free range chicken never actually went outside. Keep in mind, free range does not necessarily equal organic. It also says nothing about where the chickens are roaming during the day. It could just be a gravel patch or a dirty yard.
  • Non-GMO: the chickens were not fed any GMO-derived grain, such as soy meal. Organic means non-GMO by default, so if that’s important to you, just buy organic.
  • Vegetarian: yes I’ve seen this, and I did a double-take, since chicken itself is not vegetarian. But basically it would mean the chicken ate a vegetarian diet. It wasn’t fed any animal products. Yes sometimes that actually happens. On the other hand if your free range chickens are eating bugs and worms, are they really vegetarian?
  • Cage-free: the chickens didn’t live in cages. They may or may not have had access to the outdoors. Cage free chickens could happily roam around a large barn if that was where the food and water supplies were located.
  • All Natural: this is a feel-good label that officially means nothing when it comes to meat. It refers to the addition of additives or colorings, which are not added to chicken anyway. The same goes for hormones, which are not permitted in any chicken.

My preference would be organic, just to cover the bases. It helps if the chicken is local, or if the producer shares other pertinent information about how the chickens live. Organic is more expensive, but that’s where my other advice comes in: eat less chicken.

If you’re following a more plant-based diet, large slabs of meat should not be the focus of your meals. Meat is served in smaller portions, which means you can buy higher quality meat, such as organic or happy local chickens and just eat less of it. For example, chicken breasts these days are ginormous! One person does not need to eat a whole 8 oz chicken breast at one meal. That’s enough for 2 adults (or 3-4 small children). So go for quality, use smaller portions and fill your plate with plant foods like grains, pasta, vegetables, legumes and fruit.

If enough people start doing this, chicken producers will have more incentive to use better methods of chicken farming. You’ll be eating a healthier diet and the chickens will be healthier. It’s a win-win!

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