Demystifying poultry labels at the grocery store

Young woman

Picking up poultry at the grocery store shouldn’t bring on a panic attack. But when you’re staring down at a dozens chickens all stamped with different labels, it can feel overwhelming. Free-range, organic, grain fed, hormone free? What does it all mean and which label matters most? Take a deep breath—it’s still just chicken. And it’s not as confusing as it seems. There are a few labels worth paying attention to, but many of them are marketing ploys you can ignore. Here’s how they break down. 

Hormone free

If you read this label on a chicken, you might be tempted to scoop it up right away.  Hormones are serious business. Who wants those in their food? Nobody. And that’s why they have been banned in Canadian poultry raising since the 1960s. Some companies still highlight “hormone free” on their packaging, but it’s little more than a sales tactic so don’t let it sway your decision.

Free-range

Free range is a trendy label that consumers but a lot of weight behind. To qualify chickens must have access to the outdoors, but there are no legal standards so it varies from farm to farm. Chickens could be raised completely outside, or they could be cooped up with short outdoor breaks. If you’re particular about the conditions of your poultry, you’ll need to do your own research into the farms. Because free-range chickens eat more grass and bugs, some people claim they have a gamier flavour.

Free-run

You may come across this term, which indicates that the chickens had room to move around inside their barns or coops. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they were able to go outside. Again, there are no legal standards, but with current poultry raising practices in Canada, it’s a safe bet that all chickens are free run 

Grain fed

This is another label that exists purely for marketing purposes. All chicken feed in Canada is over 88% grains, with the rest made up of meat proteins and bone meal for nutrition. There may also be less than 1% antibiotics added to prevent disease.

Vegetarian grain fed

Although chickens are naturally omnivores (they love those tasty bugs!) some people object to the presence of animal proteins in their feed. The end result is that chickens may be slightly lower in fat. But be aware that farmers who raise vegetarian grain-fed chickens may add soy products to their food, which can result in a pale coloured product and affect the texture of the meat.

Raised without antibiotics

Chickens with this label cannot be fed regular doses of antibiotics. They may be treated with medicine when they’re sick, but only when separated from the rest of the population. After any antibiotic treatment they can’t be slaughtered for meat until it’s out of their system.

Seasoned

If you see the term 100% seasoned on any poultry product, you may be expecting an extra tasty chicken, but it actually has nothing to do with flavour. Seasoned chicken has been processed in salt and water to lock in the moisture. This will drastically raise the sodium content.

Organic

This is the big one, folks—the label that basically encompasses everything. Any chicken labeled organic has to be raised according to a set of national standards. It must be free-range, antibiotic free and nourished with organic feed. Most conventional feeds contain corn and other genetically modified organisms. And if the chickens are eating GMOs, so are you. By buying organic, you can steer clear of unhealthy ingredients and choose a chicken that was raised in a more humane environment. Most experts agree that the combination leads to a better tasting bird!