When “100-Percent Natural” Really Isn’t

2897465409_6b9573e60d_m.jpgI promised I would talk a little more about the chicken that is available in the grocery store and at farmers’ markets, and I hate to tell you this, but chicken is fast going the way of eggs and milk.

Commercially-raised chickens barely resemble — in looks, taste or texture — the real thing. I know that as a child in Harrisonburg, Va., I probably ate only farm-processed chicken. In fact, though we did not live on a farm, I have a rather traumatic memory of seeing my father swing a chicken to kill it at the farm of one of my many farming relatives. And the fresh milk I drank was brought to town straight from the cow by one or more of those same relatives. The vegetables and eggs arrived the same way — at the door, delivered by the “lady man,” called that because he used that same term for all of his female customers.

We enjoyed this luxury because we lived in a small town in the middle of dairy and small-farm country; most of those farmers were Mennonites, as were many of my relatives on both sides of my family. In short, I grew up eating and drinking real food straight from the farm, and I did not know that there was anything different in the store. In the early ’50s, there probably wasn’t that much difference between real food from the farm and what we bought in our small-town grocery store. But now, there is a significant difference between small-farm-raised meat and produce and what we buy in the average grocery store — and even to some extent in the stores that devote more space to “natural” and “organic” foods. Mainly because those terms can be deceptive.

Take chicken: Chicken that is sold as 100 percent natural is nothing like the chicken available at the farmers’ market — and probably not what you think you are buying. Much of this “natural” chicken is enhanced both before and while it is processed. During processing, chickens from most of the major processors are pumped with salt and water. Un-enhanced chicken or “real” chicken will have 45-60 mg of sodium per four-ounce serving. Plumped chicken has 200-400 mg. The chicken did not need all of that salt to grow and mature, and you don’t need it either.

This 100 percent “natural” chicken will also probably contain additional water and sometimes carrageenan, which helps the chicken hold the water. Since those additives are both found in nature, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has taken us into new definitional territory by declaring that processed chicken can still be all-“natural” if these things are added after the chickens are dead!

Not to mention that you are paying for all that water, salt and carrageenan — you might want to refigure the price per pound on the package. The website of the Truthful Labeling Coalition can enlighten you even more. This is a site supported by chicken producers who do not use these additives.

There is also the matter of genetically engineered fowl. I read recently an opinion column by Matt Ridley in The Wall Street Journal that lauded the fact that we have such chickens and that they grow much faster, which means good things for the environment. Ten years ago, a study done at North Carolina State University found that 85 percent of the “improved” weight gain was attributed to genetics and 15 percent to the feed. But the scientists are surprised that the chickens keep getting bigger, and they don’t know exactly why. It seems that it may be due to genetic mutations. We are so worried about genetically modified fruits and veggies, but do we know anything about what this engineering does to the chicken as a food product? And do hormones have anything to do with this?

One last scary point — that feed that chickens are eating in many, though not all, commercial chicken houses contains arsenic, which could be the underlying reason for the fact that the average American (who now eats more than 90lbs per year of chicken) is routinely exposed to an average of five times the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended safety limit for arsenic. People who live in areas where chickens are raised on this feed are also exposed through the soil around them, the air they breathe and the water they drink. And it has been documented that people who work with the feed have health risks from the exposure. I learned this by reading an article by Doug Gansler, the attorney general of Maryland, who wants arsenic banned from chicken feed, as it has been in Europe for more than 10 years.

And I don’t even want to talk about the conditions under which these animals are raised, which leads to the need for serious administration of antibiotics. We also ingest antibiotics when we eat chicken from a commercial grower.

But you don’t have to do that; you have alternatives right here is suburban Washington, D.C. Shop at a farmers’ market near you and learn to love a real all-natural chicken that will not make you or anyone else sick and will only make you smile. The roaster we prepared for the holidays from Sally Holdener’s Rainbow Acres Farm in Prince William County, Va., was the prettiest chicken I have ever seen. It was roasted to a beautiful bronze turn in about an hour’s less time than a commercial chicken and was wonderfully moist and full of flavor. And everything about it was REAL!

My best friend’s Mom used to say that food is cheaper than medicine. She said it best — and that was fifty years ago.

Use chicken from the market in this week’s recipe, Roasted Coriander Chicken Thighs with Bacon, Sweet Potatoes and Turnips.

See you at the market!

Photo by kusabi