With increased consumer concern regarding the health qualities of food, environmental protection and the humane treatment of animals, the demand for natural or organic poultry products has understandably grown in recent years.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), “Natural” is defined to be “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed … in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.”  While many labels in the grocery store may use the terms “natural,” “all-natural,” and “free range” when it comes to poultry and eggs, these words may be interpreted differently by different producers.

For instance, to use the term “free-range,” the USDA states that, “Producers must demonstrate … that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”  In a 2011 food advice column written for Salon.com, Francis Lam, Features Editor for Gilt Taste, writes, “The definition of ‘outside,’ though, is shaky; does that mean there’s a window chickens could theoretically squeeze through? Do the birds actually go through it? And outside could be a gorgeous rolling hill or it could be … a parking lot. Some producers include a fenced-in section of open concrete in their grow-out houses, with enough room for maybe 5 percent of the thousands of chickens in that house, and this may technically satisfy the term.”

Pastured” chicken is probably what most people who see the term “free range” think they are getting.  Chickens who are allowed in a pastured area forage on grass, seeds, worms and other insects.  The birds may be kept in a coop at night and they might also be fed grain, but the fact that they also forage outdoors for food results in richer flavored eggs and meats, higher nutrition, and provides a more humane life for the birds.

One benefit of buying from a local farm, such as the one I have chosen is the assurance of what you are getting.  All you have to do is visit this farm to see that the livestock is, indeed, humanely treated, foraging in pasture and living in good conditions.

Some Health Benefits of Free-Range vs. Cage Raised Poultry

Many studies have been done to determine the nutritional value of our foods.  Eggs from pastured poultry have been found to be higher in omega-3 fatty acids, folic acid, beta carotene, vitamins E, A, D and B12.  Pastured hens lay eggs that are lower in cholesterol and saturated fat than commercial eggs.  Eggs are also a rich source of lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidant vitamins that help protect the eye’s macula.  “Macular degeneration” (loss of vision in the center of the eye due to damage to the retina) is the leading cause of blindness in older adults.

Some studies indicate that pastured chicken provides more protein than commercially-raised caged chickens.  And, meat and dairy from grass-fed, cud-chewing mammals (such as cattle) are the richest known source of a newly discovered “good fat” called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).  Studies have suggested that CLA may be a potent cancer fighter.

According to the Food & Drug Administration, there is evidence that the antibiotics in poultry are causing antibiotic-resistant infections in an increased number of consumers.

And, some large-scale turkey growers add arsenic to poultry feed to speed up growth, make breast meat pinker and kill certain bacteria.  Chronic exposure to high levels of arsenic has been linked with cancer, heart disease, diabetes and a decline in brain function.

Message from Coach Chris:

Buying from a source that raises their poultry free of hormones, antibiotics and other drugs is important to your health.

The local farm I have chosen does not use hormones or antibiotics and allow their chickens to roam on pastured land free of any pollutants and chemicals.  They also treat all of their animals and poultry humanely.  I have secured some “free-range” eggs for our enjoyment!