Is Expensive Chicken Worth It? Comparison of Industrial & Pastured Chicken

In early January, I taught a 5 day high school class for 3 hours a day with my good friend and fellow foodie, Diane Loftness. The course title was “Science and Health of World Cuisines.”

Our class was based primarily on the findings of dentist Weston A. Price. He traveled the world in the 1930’s asking the question, “What does diet and overall health have in common?” As a dentist, he took pictures of people’s teeth and facial structures. He found remote peoples in the four corners of the earth with beautiful straight teeth, free from decay. His work is absolutely fascinating. You can find his book, complete with interesting pictures, as a free pdf here.

Dr. Price found that as modern foods were introduced to traditional societies, health began to decline. If nothing else, go scroll through some of the pictures.

The class we taught was simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. Every day Diane and I would empty our kitchens, fill our cars, carry everything to the classroom then teach in a science lab. The kids were eager to learn. We made 4 varieties of sauerkraut, butter, ice cream, whipped cream, smoothies with homemade kefir, ate bone marrow and chia pudding, compared multiple brands of eggs and varieties of yogurt, talked about labels and packaging, and compared nutrient density of organic and conventional produce with a Brix meter.

My favorite activity? Cooking and comparing two whole chickens.

Reason for the Experiment

For at least ten years, I’ve been on an intentional journey to learn more about what goes into my body. It has been eye opening on so many levels.

Early into the journey, I remember cooking two whole chickens simultaneously in separate crock pots. One was for us, the other for a friend. I love sharing good food with others and often take meals to families with a new baby or in distress (or both!)

However, because local pastured meat is so much more expensive I decided to save money and buy a grocery store chicken for my friends. It’s still a home cooked meal and more nutritious than what they would otherwise eat.

The first chicken to be deboned was the smaller, leaner, pastured chicken from a local farm. BUT then, when taking the meat (and globs of fat!) off the bird from the grocery store… I was totally grossed out.

That day an idea spawned for this experiment. I wondered, “Is it really cheaper to buy the grocery store bird when so much fat is being thrown away?”

About the Experiment

In class, we compared two chickens: a chicken from Kroger and a local bird. They were cooked separately low and slow, crock pot style for about 10 hours, each in 1500mL of water. Each bird was weighed in the packaging and again after it was opened and extra liquid drained off. (The Kroger bird lost 8% of its weight before we even started cooking!)

My undergraduate degree is in engineering – I took a fair share of science labs. I’m under no illusion that this experiment is flawless. Rather, please read these results with a grain of salt, knowing more than a few mistakes and discrepancies were made. I have a more extensive spreadsheet if anyone is curious for more details, just contact me.

industrial from Kroger

pastured, local

cost:

$7.20

$17.24

price per pound

$1.49

$4.34

volume of liquid lost (% purchase weight)

8%

4%

volume of broth (%weight before cooking):

31%

18.3%

% usable meat

43.2%

60.5%

Big Picture Takeaways

Industrial chicken – 8% (or $0.58) was poured down the drain as soon as the package was opened. More broth (which is mostly water) was produced from this chicken than the others. Broth accounted for 31% of its pre-cooked weight – almost double that of the pastured bird. We cut off almost a quarter pound of pure fat before cooking.

Pastured – most expensive and also greatest percentage of usable meat; the bones and fat were separated from meat. The color of the meat was vibrant and the fat was not excessive. This bird was not given antibiotics or fed genetically modified grain (GMOs).

Further Explanation

The first chicken we shall discuss in depth is the one industrially raised. Purchased from Kroger under the label of Sanderson Farms, it was $1.49/lb. The package said, “Contains up to 3% retained water.” This bird from Sanderson Farm was decidedly a better option than the cheaper one for $0.99/lb, because that one contained up to 15% chicken broth, carrageenan (which is a name for MSG) and salt. Be sure to read the labels.

I was utterly SHOCKED that this bird produced 31% its weight in broth. Some broth is to be expected. But woah Nellie. That’s a lot of water retention.

A local farmer explained to me that industrial chickens are expected to freeze and thaw at least 7 times before they get to your home. As such, the factory packaging process allows the chickens to sit in a “solution” while waiting to be packaged. This marinating time allows absorption of the solution, which helps the texture of meat that has been frozen and thawed multiple times. This also explains the large discrepancy between the volume of broth in the chickens.

Please know that the Kroger bird is still good. I eat chicken from Kroger. It is still food. It is better than fast food. It is better than no food.

The point I’m trying to make is that when you buy an industrial chicken, you are paying for a lot of water…and definitely chemicals. Did you know that industrially raised animals (beef, pork, chicken) are all given routine antibiotics whether they are needed or not? They are given antibiotics to help them gain weight. (I’m not making this up — Google and read for yourself.)

Did you know when you eat meat that has been given antibiotics that it not only causes you to more readily gain weight but also you are more resistant to antibiotics when they are needed? Read this interesting article from The Atlantic.

Learning this information about antibiotics is one reason that helped me to rationalize paying more for healthier meat. But I digress…

The second chicken I failed to photograph. Indeed, I failed to take very many pictures during class. I felt like the chicken with its head cut off trying to direct 11 high schoolers in a science lab pretending to be chefs.

The second chicken we cooked in class was purchased locally from GrassRoots Co-op. Pastured chickens are raised outside (fresh air and sunshine) and are moved to new grass (and bugs) twice a day. GrassRoots air-chills their meat — as compared to a water bath of chemicals where the Kroger bird soaked up so much solution.  GrassRoots freezes their meat immediately after processing, which significantly reduces the risk of food born illness and bacteria.

As for treatment of their animals while alive, GrassRoots has a non-GMO and no antibiotics policy. In fact, they have crazy high standards for their animals.

If there’s one thing that is a priority when choosing food for my family, it is avoiding GMOs at all costs (most prevalent GMOs are corn, soy & sugar beets aka white sugar). Here’s a short article on why it is concerning to eat GMOs.

Twenty years ago, in college, I worked in an industrial chicken house. The professor I worked with was trying to figure out how to reduce the ammonia in chicken waste by changing the feeding composition and rations. He also worked with fans in the chicken house, trying to increase fresh air for the birds. When there’s too much ammonia, it causes blindness. Blind birds don’t eat. Dead birds don’t make money.

Here’s a secret: if animals are outside and there’s plenty of grass, giant fans aren’t needed to keep the air clean.

When comparing the two chickens before cooking in class, there were obvious visible differences (kicking myself again for not taking pictures). Imagine this: one bird has a rich reddish brown color and tight skin. The other bird is undeniably white with thick pockets of extra fat, especially near the cavity opening.

The color difference was quite pronounced after cooking, too. The top plate of chicken is the pastured bird, who had variation in its diet. The bottom plate is from a bird that never saw the light of day or even a single bug in its lifetime. Its diet consisted of a lot of government subsidized GMO corn and soy (helping to keep prices low). If color is an indicator of nutrient density (think: white bread vs wheat bread), which plate of chicken do you think is the healthiest?

The price of the pastured chicken was more than twice that of the one from the grocery store.  When I buy a whole chicken, whether it was an expensive one or not, I save the bones to make nourishing broth.  Similar quality broth can be purchased for about $8/quart.  So, if you factor the meat and the broth, the pastured bird isn’t that expensive. Broth can be made from both birds; making broth from an expensive chicken helps justify the cost.

But wait! There’s more! Can you hang with me a bit longer?

I wanted to extend this experiment beyond the classroom. A few weeks after this experiment, I bought a third chicken from Natural Grocers – a natural grocery store near me that prides itself on high quality standards. It is similar to Whole Foods in that the meat sold cannot be given antibiotics.

The third whole chicken I bought was labeled organic (never given antibiotics or genetically modified grains) and air-chilled. It was industrially raised like the one from Kroger (never seeing daylight or having fresh air) also never frozen, thus the label air-chilled. Liquid lost from packaging is the least of the three birds – only 2% or $0.29. It had the lowest volume of broth, probably because it had never been frozen.

You will note in the comparison chart below that the percentage of usable meat is the lowest of the three birds because it was boiled instead of cooking it low and slow like the other two. Removing all the meat from the bones proved difficult.

In class we slow cooked two chickens (the good and the best). The third chicken (the better one) was quickly boiled in my kitchen for dinner one night.

Side note: One of the things we talked about in class is the time/money continuum. On the day I boiled the bird for dinner, I didn’t have much time, so I wasted money. There are plenty of ways to save money in the kitchen eating real food if you have the time (like using a whole chicken with bones for $4/lb instead of boneless-skinless at $6-9/lb). Time was of the essence to get dinner on the table so I boiled the bird in about 30 minutes. The reason this is important to note is because when cooking low and slow, the meat simply falls off the bones. Nothing is wasted. As you can see in the % usable meat, the “better” bird had less usable meat. Much of it clung to the bones because I cooked it too fast.

GOOD

BETTER

BEST

industrial from Kroger

air-chilled Nat. Grocers

pastured, local

cost:

$7.20

$14.70

$17.24

price per pound

$1.49

$3.55

$4.34

volume of liquid lost (% purchase weight)

8%

2%

4%

volume of broth (%weight before cooking):

31%

16.9%

18.3%

% usable meat

43.2%

*38.7%

60.5%

*better chicken was boiled instead of cooked low and slow, like the other two chickens. The quick cook time caused the meat to adhere more to the bones making it more difficult to remove.

So which chicken do I recommend you buy? I can’t answer that for you. You have to wade through your priorities.

  • is nutrient density a priority for your family?
  • are you gaining weight from antibiotics in your meat? concerned about antibiotic resistance?
  • what have you read about the health dangers of GMOs?
  • does it matter to you to know your farmer? source of food?
  • are you concerned about the environment? (Industrial farms are terrible for the environment.)

Many people balk at the idea of paying $17 for a whole chicken. I get it. However, one thing I’ve been convinced of in my 10 year food journey: good food isn’t cheap.

How we spend money speaks to priorities. Some people tell me they “can’t afford to eat healthy/organic/etc.” These same people spend a lot on entertainment: Netflix, cable, cell phones, cinema, concerts. Truth be known, our grandparents spent more of their salary on food than we do.

My husband and I have chosen inexpensive cell phone plans, we don’t have TV/cable, or Netflix, and we don’t spend anything on pharmaceuticals. It is our belief that nourishing our bodies now with clean living, eating healthy, whole foods will result in fewer pharmaceuticals and trip$ to the doctor later. Please don’t hear this as judgement if you choose otherwise. One of the beautiful things about being an American is the freedom to choose how to live. Honestly, I do not think less of a person if they eat junk.  It’s your body. (I eat my fair share of junk, too!)

Above I mentioned GrassRoots Farmers’ Coop, who ships directly to your door – to all 48 continental states. If you’re in central Arkansas, Katie of FarmGirl Meats has a delicious meat share program and delivers to Little Rock twice a month. Katie does things right and I whole-heartedly, unashamedly want to promote her too.

If reading this article is the first you’ve thought about food sourcing, and you like to watch documentaries, may I recommend two? The first I tell people to watch is called Food, Inc. It exposes many of the problems in our industrial food system. There is a solution to this problem that can be solved by you and me. Food activist Michael Pollan says, “We vote three times a day with our fork.” Fresh the Movie gives practical ideas of how we can change our food system. Both movies were required viewing for the students in the class.

Above all, I hope this chicken experiment has caused you to stop and think about food. Think about where it comes from and what happens to it before it lands on your table. The longer I’m on a food journey, the more I read and learn, the more I am convinced that I am not wasting money on good food. After all, you are what you eat.

2 thoughts on “Is Expensive Chicken Worth It? Comparison of Industrial & Pastured Chicken

  1. Oh, that was good. I need to reread parts to not get a bit lost, but this was a lot of work and effort to demonstrate that eating good food is worth it! I just paid $20 for a farm chicken that was appropriately raised. I have not cooked it yet. I paid over $100 for two turkeys raised by a farmer. I am going home now to make soup out of the broth from them. I have not gone to a doctor for an illness in 50 years so I guess I will spend my money on $20 chickens! Thanks for sharing this!

    Like

  2. When farm hens get older they have lots of wonderful blubbery fat. I tear it out (if I am butchering the hen) and render it down. Then I use it for baking. Very nourishing and makes wonderful rolls! Love it when I can get a hold of this!

    Like

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