Big Chickens, Little Nutrition

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Compared to CAFO chicken, pasture-raised chickens were higher in vitamins D3 and E and had an average omega-3-to-6 ratio of 1-to-5, compared to the USDA’s value of 1-to-15 for CAFO chicken
  • You’d need to eat six CAFO chickens to get the same amount of omega-3 fats found in a chicken from the 1970s
  • Poultry is the biggest user of crop-based feed globally and, in turn, 60 percent of the loss of global biodiversity can be tied back to the food we eat, particularly crop-based animal feed

By Dr. Mercola

Most people would agree with the assessment "you are what you eat," yet many overlook the fact that this holds true for the food you eat, too. If the chicken on your dinner plate was fed an unnatural diet of genetically engineered (GE) soy and grains (or worse) — what essentially boils down to junk food for birds — it can't be expected to be optimally healthy, nor optimally nutritious.

Because most poultry in the U.S. comes from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), The Guardian went so far as to state, "In 50 years, poultry has gone from being a health food to a junk food," pointing out a study from London Metropolitan University that found, compared to 1940, chicken in 2004 contained more than twice as much fat, one-third more calories and one-third less protein, the latter being the main nutritional reason most people eat chicken.1

Levels of healthy fats in chicken, namely beneficial animal-based omega-3s including DHA, have also changed considerably. The London Metropolitan University study, written by professor Michael Crawford of London Metropolitan University, found that eating 100 grams (about one-quarter pound) of chicken in 1980 would give you 170 milligrams (mg) of DHA, but that same amount of chicken in 2004 would provide just 25 mg.

Omega-6 fats, on the other hand — the kind most Americans get way too much of, courtesy of highly processed vegetable oils — increased, rising from 2,400 mg in 1980 to 6,290 mg in 2004.

If you're not familiar with the importance of the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, the ideal ratio is 1-to-1, but the typical Western diet may be between 1-to-20 and 1-to-50. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a ratio of 1-to-5 for general health and 1-to-2 for optimal brain development. CAFO chicken, and for that matter CAFO anything, certainly isn't helping anyone achieve that goal.

Nutrition Declines When Animals Are Fed Grains Instead of Grass

Crawford told The Guardian that a large part of the problem with declining nutrition in chicken and other animal foods is the fact that nearly all livestock is fed grains instead of grass and other species-appropriate foods:2

"Animal husbandry started with grass and green foods, which are rich in omega-3. That is the beauty of [some] fish and seafood because it's still largely wild, it's still living in an omega-3-rich environment.

The same used to be true of livestock animals — even chickens used to roam free and live off seeds and herbs — but that is no longer the case. It really is a question of redesigning our food and agriculture systems so they are more keyed in to the pivotal priority of human physiology — namely, our original genome being shaped by wild foods."

The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) also published a study that compared the nutrition of chickens fed on pasture with the USDA's National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference values for CAFO chicken. The pasture-raised chickens were higher in vitamins D3 and E and had an average omega-3-to-6 ratio of 1-to-5, compared to the USDA's value of 1-to-15.3

Bigger Chickens Were Made Possible by Antibiotics

You might consider the plump chicken breasts at your grocery store to be the norm when it comes to chicken sizes, but as recently as the 1920s, most people did not consider raising chickens for their meat — they were far too scrawny. At that time, chickens were raised for eggs only, but that changed around 1923, when a farmer in Delaware accidentally placed an order for too many hatchling chickens (500 instead of 50), so she sold them for meat.

In her book "Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats," journalist Maryn McKenna explains how this one mistake led chickens to become big business. Part of the story, unfortunately, was the discovery that feeding chickens antibiotics made them grow about 2.5 times faster.

Around that same time, in 1948, a national "Chicken of Tomorrow" contest, seeking to develop a meatier chicken, was sponsored by A&P supermarket and supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The major lines of chickens sold in the U.S. today can all be traced back to the contest's winner. Between the use of antibiotics for growth promotion and the genetic selection of chickens that grow faster and larger, the average chicken today is four times bigger than chickens in the 1950s; chicken breasts are also 80 percent larger.4

'The Hidden Cost of Cheap Chicken'

As noted by the Cornucopia Institute,5 the price of chicken has dropped dramatically over the past few decades, becoming the cheapest meat available in the U.S. As a result, consumption has doubled since 1970.

Seeing how chicken is supposed to be a healthy source of high-quality nutrition, the fact that it has become so affordable might seem to be a great benefit. But there's a major flaw in this equation. As it turns out, it's virtually impossible to mass-produce clean, safe, optimally nutritious foods at rock-bottom prices, and this has been true since the beginning of "industrialized farming." McKenna wrote:6

"Chicken prices fell so low that it became the meat that Americans eat more than any other — and the meat most likely to transmit foodborne illness, and also antibiotic resistance, the greatest slow-brewing health crisis of our time."

In their report, "The Hidden Cost of Cheap Chicken," the Cornucopia Institute pointed out three primary issues with the CAFO chicken that accounts for 99 percent of poultry sold in U.S. grocery stores:7

Ethics: Chickens are intelligent and deserving of access to the outdoors where they can express their natural behaviors. Sadly, in CAFOS, "The National Chicken Council, the trade association for the U.S. chicken industry, issues Animal Welfare Guidelines that indicate a stocking density of 96 square inches for a bird of average market weight — that's about the size of a standard sheet of American 8.5-inch by 11-inch typing paper … They are unable to move without pushing through other birds, unable to stretch their wings at will, or to get away from more dominant, aggressive birds."

Environment: CAFOs are notorious polluters of the land, air and water, with problems reported across the U.S. The report noted:

"In Warren County, in northern New Jersey, Michael Patrisko, who lives near an egg factory farm, told a local newspaper that the flies around his neighborhood are so bad, 'You literally can look at a house and think it's a different color.' Buckeye Egg Farm in Ohio was fined $366,000 for failing to handle its manure properly.

Nearby residents had complained for years about rats, flies, foul odors, and polluted streams from the 14-million-hen complex. At the same time, [former] Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson was threatening to sue Arkansas poultry producers, including Tyson Foods, saying that waste from the companies' operations is destroying Oklahoma lakes and streams, especially in the northeast corner of the state."

Human Health: The spread of infectious disease and antibiotic-resistant superbugs is a fact of life at CAFOs. In 2015, a bird flu outbreak among U.S. poultry led to the destruction of millions of chickens and turkeys in three states (Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa) before spreading elsewhere in the U.S.

Even though there were supposed safeguards in place to contain deadly disease outbreaks from spreading, poultry veterinarians noted that those strategies failed, as the bird flu managed to spread across 14 states in five months.

Not to mention, one study by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) found that chicken samples gathered at the end of production after having been cut into parts, as you would purchase in the grocery store, had an astonishing positive rate of 26.2 percent contamination with salmonella.8

Growing Soy to Feed Chickens Is Also Devastating the Environment

Allowing chickens to roam freely is better for the chickens, the planet and nutrition, yet another reason being because it could cut down on the staggering amount of soy and other crops grown as chicken feed. A report by wildlife group WWF noted that poultry is the biggest user of crop-based feed globally and, in turn, 60 percent of the loss of global biodiversity can be tied back to the food we eat, particularly crop-based animal feed.9

Further, the report estimated that if demand for animal products continues to grow as expected, soy production would need to increase by nearly 80 percent to feed those animals, which would strain already vulnerable areas:10

"Feed crops are already produced in a large number of Earth's most valuable and vulnerable areas, such as the Amazon, Cerrado, Congo Basin, Yangtze, Mekong, Himalayas and the Deccan Plateau forests. Many of these high-risk regions already suffer significant pressure on land and water resources, are not adequately covered by conservation schemes.

The growing demand for livestock products and the associated intensification and agricultural expansion threaten the biodiversity of these areas and the resource and water security of their inhabitants, as well as the stability of our food supply."

Again, the research shows that feeding CAFO animals an unnatural and environmentally expensive diet does not yield a superior product. On the contrary, you'd need to eat six CAFO chickens to get the same amount of omega-3 fats found in a chicken from the 1970s.11

Eggs From Pastured Hens Are Also Healthier

It's not only chicken meat that benefits nutritionally from pasture. Not surprisingly, chicken eggs do too. A study by researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences revealed that eggs from pastured hens had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fats compared to eggs from CAFO hens. The eggs' omega-6-to-3 ratio was also less than half that of the commercial hens' eggs.12 Study co-author Paul Patterson, professor of poultry science, said in a news release:13

"The chicken has a short digestive tract and can rapidly assimilate dietary nutrients … Fat-soluble vitamins in the diet are readily transferred to the liver and then the egg yolk. Egg-nutrient levels are responsive to dietary change … Other research has demonstrated that all the fat-soluble vitamins, including A and E, and the unsaturated fats, linoleic and linolenic acids, are egg responsive, and that hen diet has a marked influence on the egg concentration."

You can usually tell eggs are from pastured hens by the color of the egg yolk. Foraged hens produce eggs with bright orange yolks, and this is what most people who raise backyard chickens are after. Dull, pale yellow yolks are a sure sign you're getting eggs from caged hens that are not allowed to forage for their natural diet.

Chicken Can Be at the Center of Large-Scale Regenerative Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture focusing on grass fed beef is a popular topic, and a worthy one at that, but chickens also have an important role to play in regenerative agriculture. Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, an innovator in the field of regenerative agriculture, has developed an ingenious system that has the potential to transform the way food is grown. According to Reginaldo, regenerative agriculture needs to be centered around livestock in order to be optimized, and adding chickens is an easy way to do that.

Reginaldo's program has generated a system that has regenerative impact both on the ecology and the economy, meaning it restores the ecology that produces food, and the economic flows necessary for that food to be economically sustainable and resilient. It also addresses the social conditions of food production in the U.S (and elsewhere), which is important considering the fact that farmworkers are typically poorly paid immigrants.

The chickens are completely free-range, with access to grasses and sprouts as they are rotated between paddocks. This system significantly reduces the amount of labor involved as compared with other ideas out there.

Further, in a poultry-centered regenerative system, tall grasses and trees protect the birds from predators instead of cages — in addition to optimizing soil temperature and moisture content, extracting excess nutrients that the chickens deposit, bringing up valuable minerals from below the soil surface and being a high-value perennial crop. It's the opposite of CAFOS — regenerating the land instead of destroying it, raising chickens humanely instead of cruelly and producing nutritionally superior, not inferior, food.

Choosing Safer, More Humane Chicken and Eggs

Choosing food that comes from small regenerative farms — not CAFOs — is crucial. While avoiding CAFO meats, look for antibiotic-free alternatives raised by organic and regenerative farmers. Unfortunately, loopholes abound, allowing CAFO-raised chickens and eggs to masquerade as "free-range" and "organic."

The Cornucopia Institute addressed some of these issues in their egg report and scorecard, which ranks egg producers according to 28 organic criteria. It can help you to make a more educated choice if you're buying your eggs at the supermarket.

Ultimately, the best choice is to get to know a local farmer and get your meat and eggs there directly. Alternatively, you might consider raising your own backyard chickens. Backyard chickens are growing in popularity, and many U.S. cities are adjusting zoning restrictions accordingly. Requirements vary widely depending on your locale, with many limiting the number of chickens you can raise or requiring quarterly inspections (at a cost) and permits, so check with your city before taking the plunge.

You might be surprised to find that your city already allows chickens, as even many large, urban cities have jumped on board (Chicago, Illinois, for instance, allows residents to keep an unlimited number of chickens, as "pets" or for eggs, provided you keep a humane and adequately sized coop). However, even if you don't want to raise your own chickens but still want farm-fresh eggs, you have many options. Finding high-quality organic, pastured eggs locally is getting easier, as virtually every rural area has individuals with chickens.

If you live in an urban area, visiting the local health food stores is typically the quickest route to finding high-quality local egg sources. Farmers markets and food co-ops are another great way to meet the people who produce your food. With face-to-face contact, you can get your questions answered and know exactly what you're buying. Better yet, visit the farm — ask for a tour. If they have nothing to hide, they should be eager to show you their operation.

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