Home > Health & Nutrition

Chicken Labels: A Free Range of Interpretation

It can be a healthy source of lean protein, but if you’re buying chicken from a supermarket, take a look at the label

If you ate chicken today, you’re not alone. Chickens are cheap to feed and occupy small spaces, making them one of the world’s most consumed meats. As consumers, we’ve started questioning where our food comes from and how animals are raised, putting the pressure on farmers to produce a high volume of good quality meat in environmentally friendly ways.

Depending on your training schedule, you need anywhere from 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Aim for the lower end during high-mileage, carbohydrate-focused periods and the upper end to recover and build muscle during high-intensity speed and weight-training periods. At 10 grams of protein per ounce, just one three-ounce serving of chicken provides about a third of your daily muscle-making needs. If you choose skinless white meat, you’ll also keep your calorie count to a minimum.

But all chicken is not created equal, at least environmentally. You’ve seen the stickers on cellophane-wrapped chicken reading “organic,” “grain-fed” and “free-range.” You would think that these labels – along with their accompanying price differences – would help health-conscious runners make the right selection, but the definitions behind these terms can be surprising.


“Organic” is one of the only environmental terms you’ll see on packaged chicken that carries any weight. Since December 2008, any product with an organic claim must comply with the Organic Products Regulations requirements. At least 95 per cent of a product’s ingredients must be organic to sport the Canada Organic logo. Organic chicken cannot contain artificial ingredients, hormones or antibiotics, and its production facilities are regularly inspected.


The word “natural” might conjure ideas of being pesticide- or additive-free, but the term means nothing on a label. There are no regulations determining when and why a producer can slap it on the wrapper. Naturally, producers hope you assume it’s a healthier alternative, but no one governs whether this is actually true.


The time and area for “free-range” chickens to roam is not regulated. “Free-range” implies the animal pecked grass in the midday sun its whole life, but in fact the chickens may have been let out into an open area only briefly, or the animals may have only had access to the outdoors. Even with access, chickens are not bred for mobility so a bird rarely strays far from a feed trough.


“Grain-fed” is also a questionable term. Grain is the main ingredient of all chicken feed, including seeds and meal made from seeds, such as canola or soybean. All chickens in Canada are essentially grain-fed, but about 10 per cent of chicken feed is meat and fat. Since no one is monitoring whether farmers are giving chickens pure grain and seed feed or feed with animal by-product, you’d be smarter to buy organic rather than grain-fed chicken.


If you see “local” on the label, don’t think you may have seen that chicken crossing your street. “Local” is a relative term. Again, you’re left to your own investigation as to whether you think something is local to you. Scour the label to find the actual location where the meat was produced.

Choosing organic chicken raised within a reasonable distance from your home is the most reliable choice for a healthy, environmentally friendly and tasty source of lean protein.


Chef Bob Blumer’s Mambo Chicken Burger with Mango Salsa

Bob Blumer is the creator and host of Surreal Gourmet and Glutton for Punishment – both on Food Network Canada. He has run five marathons, including the Médoc Marathon in Bordeaux, France, which boasts 23 wine stops and an oyster station. He is currently developing his stamina, endurance and tolerance for humiliation in preparation for season four of Glutton.

Serves 4

The lime juice and tamari sauce naturally tenderize the chicken, while the garlic and fresh ginger infuse big flavour without adding any fat. Top it with dollop of mango chutney and say bye-bye to boring burgers.

4 large boneless, skinless, single chicken breasts or thighs

Salt and pepper

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated (medium grate)

1/4 cup tamari sauce or soy sauce

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice

4 hamburger buns

6 tablespoons store-bought mango chutney (I like Major Grey’s)

Rinse the chicken thoroughly under cold running water and pat dry. Season with salt and pepper.

In a large bowl, combine the garlic, ginger, tamari and lime juice. Add the chicken and turn several times to mix the ingredients. Make sure the chicken is covered by the marinade.

Cover and marinate for 2 hours in the refrigerator.

Grill over direct heat or under a pre-heated broiler for about 5 minutes per side, or until cooked throughout. Avoid overcooking. Serve on toasted buns with mango chutney.