What Do The Labels On Chicken Packaging Really Mean?

As most moms I know I want to feed my kids only the best, fresh and wholesome foods. And the companies providing our food know that too. Sadly they also do their best to confuse us with great sounding food labels that all too often are deceptive and misleading. So how do we know if the food we are buying is really all that it’s cracked up to be.

Today’s post by guest contributor Kent Burden will help you decode those labels and shed some light on what really goes into our chicken.


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Let’s face it if you’re trying to eat healthier buying chicken is every bit as complicated as having dinner your with your ex. When standing at the meat counter at your local grocery store, you are confronted with a variety of chicken product selections. Conventionally raised, organic, beyond organic, pesticide free, all natural, free range and pastured raised. The packaging says “no hormones, no anti-bionics and vegetarian diet” but what does all that mean and which is best for your health? Let’s take a look at what labels on chicken packages really mean.



When you see the word natural on the label it simply means that nothing has been added to the chicken…sort of. No artificial colors, flavors or preservatives and the chicken has been “minimally processed. Sounds pretty good. But some of the the biggest chicken producers have skirted this rule and started injecting the chickens with broth, salt and a seaweed concoction that plumps up the chicken (adding weight that you pay for) and because all those ingredients are “natural” they get to slap the “all natural” label on their chickens. Kind of sneaky and not what I would call all natural. In terms of your health I think most of us get enough salt in our diet without our chickens having it injected into them. I haven’t actually seen any studies about the subject but I would think that eating chicken that had been juiced with sodium wouldn’t be the best idea for people with high blood pressure but that’s pure conjecture on my part.


To me this is one of the most deceptive labels in the food industry. When I hear the term “free range” I envision a beautiful chicken in a large open field, pecking at purslane and chasing down crickets and worms. Living a life in harmony with its surroundings eating what a glorious natural chicken should eat and getting a ton of exercise as it readies itself for my dinner table. The reality is, it’s a bird that’s stuffed into a cramped cage. Once a day they open the door to that cage which leads to a small open area that the chicken can go out of for five minutes, then the door closes. The chicken doesn’t leave the cage because there is nothing in the open space to lure it out of its cage and the chicken is well…chicken, it knows that predators are outside and its food is inside and going out where the predators are really doesn’t make much sense, so it stays in the cage. Basically it’s a conventional chicken that your spending a lot more money for.


100% Vegetarian diet

This one is interesting because chickens by nature aren’t actually vegetarians; given the opportunity chickens are fierce hunters…of things like crickets, snails, worms, grass hoppers and other insects. What this label basically says is that the chicken had no access to pasture and the feed it got was made up of grains and maybe some grasses and free of animal by products (ground up icky bits of animals and their feces).

No added hormones

Probably the biggest BS label of them all. Since U.S. law prohibits the use of growth hormones in all poultry, all this label is really saying is the company isn’t breaking the law.


These producers are promising you that their birds did were not treated with any antibiotics. If a bird got sick it was removed from the rest of the birds and was not sold under this label. That’s a pretty big deal. That means you won’t be ingesting any of those second hand antibiotics.


This is the good stuff, according to the USDA to use this label, the farm must meet USDA standards and be officially certified through the USDA. Here’s what the label promises (for the birds themselves) 100% organic feed, no animal byproducts, no hormones, no antibiotics, outdoor access, no irradiation, no pesticides (for the feed), no synthetic fertilizers, no sewage sludge, no synthetic pesticides, and no GMO. Personally this is my bird I want on my table.


This particular bird can be tough to find and is often very pricey. What pastured means is this chicken lived its life in a pasture environment, lots of frolicking in the sunshine and open spaces. The bird got some of its food from the pasture (grass, bugs, seeds etc, usually about 20% of its diet) as well as from chicken feed (usually about 80% of their diet). Often these are small chicken farmers producing top quality product. You may also run across some of these farmers that claim to be “Beyond Organic” what that means is they run their farms with fully organic practices – oftentimes stricter yet than organic – but without USDA certification. Why? Getting the certification from the USDA is time consuming and really expensive so instead they gain the trust of their customers and do business by providing a high quality product that is backed by their word.




About Kent:

KentHeadshotKent Burden is a certified personal trainer, master wellness coach and has more than 18 group fitness certifications. He is an award winning author and is the creator of the “Workout at Work” e-book series. The first two books in the series are “Workout at Work: 25 Upper Body Strength Exercises with Resistance Bands to do at Your Desk,” and “Workout at Work: 25 Lower Body Strength Exercises to do at Your Desk.” Other recent books include “Exercise Sucks! The Secret to Losing Weight Without Really Trying” and “Is Your Chair Killing You?” All of Kent’s books are available at www.amazon.com


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I hope you feel that you are now perfectly equipped to make the healthiest choices for your family. What was the most surprising or shocking thing you learned?  Thanks for sharing your thoughts by leaving a comment below!


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  1. Very informative post! Now I know a few things about this. Thanks!

  2. This is such an important post. Food labels don’t do much more than confuse people, especially when the companies can use words like natural that aren’t regulated and advertise hormone-free when NO chicken can contain hormones anyway.

    • Thank you Kim. It’s amazing how manipulated we are by food producers who put lining their pockets ahead of providing top quality, healthy foods.It angers how the FDA turns a blind eye on all of this and allows words like “natural” to be used on foods that are anything but wholesome. The lack of regulation is mind boggling!

  3. I knew to be wary of “natural” because it really holds no meaning. However, there’s a lot I didn’t know. Thanks so much for sharing. I’ll be able to make some much more informed decisions now.

    • I’m so glad you found this post educational Crystal. I was flabbergasted when I first learned how frequently “natural” is mis-used.. And I tend to stay away from foods that have “natural flavors” in their list of ingredients as I know that is really a term allowed by the FDA when you don’t want to reveal your “secret ingredients” and all too often these ingredients are anything but natural 🙁

  4. Thank you for the information. It is incredible what they can get away with. People need to be informed about what these words really can mean.

  5. Thanks for the insight. Marketing will often spin things in a way that confuses an uninformed consumer. You have to know what the labels mean.

  6. Thanks for this information. I shared it on Facebook today when i saw your link there. I really had no idea of the differences.

    • You are welcome Robyn and THANK YOU for sharing! The more people know what labels really mean the more food producers will realize they need to be honest and completely transparent if they want to keep us as consumers of their product.

  7. I’m a vegetarian, but I always buy my son organic chicken since he loves chicken. He doesn’t like mock meat much as I do! He wants the real deal. ~lol~

    • I have to admit Lesha, I love the real deal too! But labeling problems are just as concerning with non-meat items. You may not have to worry about your food’s diet but terms in the list of ingredients for vegetarian products are all too often misleading as well.

  8. Right now we have chickens for eggs. I have over 40. We also have goats for milk. My next goal is meat chickens. They will free range with my layers 🙂

    • How fabulous! I would love to have chickens but my husband’s not as excited about it as I am. Luckily we have a nursery down the street with chickens running around and crazing on all the organic stuff they have.. so I get my eggs from there. Goats? I would love those to too! I’m a huge fan of goat milk cheeses and yogurts. Good luck getting your meat chickens. Your little ones are very lucky!!!

  9. Thank you for this information. I had no idea what all of those labels meant. I’ll be looking closer the next time I purchase chicken.

  10. Thanks! I learned quite a bit because of this post.

  11. Lots of information to absorb! If you have a local food co-op or farmer’s market, the people who frequent will probably have the best information on where to purchase better poultry and meats. That’s who we asked and had a ton of information!

  12. Very interesting. I had no idea that free range chickens really weren’t free range at all. My husband and I just raised and butchered 50 pastured chickens. Before I read this, I would have said “Free Range”. Our chickens didn’t run all over the pasture exactly (because of coyotes and other threats), but had a huge coop on wheels that we moved several times a day so they could be in the fresh “tall” grass to find bugs, etc. We noticed that though the meat has a good taste, the texture is a bit different since our chickens actually had muscle.

    • Wow Tonya that sounds amazing! I love that pasture system for chickens! It’s a great way to let them eat nutrient dense grasses and peck at the worms and other bugs they love, while keeping them safe. I would love to be able to do this at home but we’re not quite in the right place for that. It is so sad to me to know how “free range” chicken are really raised.. so inhumane!

  13. Wow, this is really interesting. I just assumed that the label meant what it said.

    • I find it really sad Mellissa that these days labels rarely mean what they say and that we have to do a lot of digging around to educate ourselves about how the various terms are used. But I am grateful that the information is out there and that it is getting more and more easy for us to know how manipulated we are. The more we know, the more likely those rules will have to change. I’m happy you found this informative!

  14. Reading this about free range makes me ill. We’re totally being duped. I’m also ticked off about the injections. That is incredibly deceptive.

    • I know Liz, it’s so irritating to know how manipulated we are!! I hate finding out that a term I’ve trusted has lost it’s value because food producers and the FDA have completely abused my trust. And I get sick to my stomach when I think of those poor “free range” chicken. Truly disgusting!

  15. Thanks for sharing all of this. I want to get our own chickens and a coop. That way, I’ll know they’re the best!

    • You are most welcome Mel! I would love nothing more than having my own chickens. Yet it’s sad that raising our own food is the only way we can have true peace of mind about what really goes on our plate!

  16. *highfive* Love every single word you wrote! I hate labeling and the way companies try to glaze over the truth about things. Like seriously who in the world would believe a chicken is a vegetarian? Hmms sadly my children did thanks to the labels until I taught them better.

    • Heehee Chelle, you just put a huge smile on my face! Yep, we’re being shamelessly duped left and right and the FDA no qualms about it! I’m so glad your chickens are no longer vegetarians! let them eat those little bugs… delicious!!

  17. It is scary for me to think that I could be misled by the labels on food and be feeding my children things that aren’t good for them.

  18. That’s really good to know! I’m glad you shared these tips.

    • You are most welcome Sarah! Happy to share. I want what all moms want — to feed my family food that is actually good for them, truly good for them and I hate feeling like I am being taken advantage of by food producers that could care less about our health.

  19. I didn’t know the label”Free run” actually means 5 minutes out of the cage. Thanks for explaining it. Nice to know the real meanings on the labels of chicken packaging

    • It’s so sad Bindu how deceptive labeling is. We all want to believe that a “free range” chicken actually gets to enjoy a lot of exercise… To know they barely get any at all in some cases none is quite disheartening. And so disrespectful of that poor animal.

  20. Ug…but thank you. I had no idea Free Range simply meant that they had the opportunity to be free (for a while) if they so choose.

  21. Oh wow. Thank you for sharing. I had NO clue.

  22. Chicken is a tricky one because most people perceive it as a healthier meat option. The problem is that so much has been tinkered with, as you’ve pointed out. Thanks for sharing this. It was very informative.

    • You are welcome Carl. Chicken that is pasture raised and fed only organic product to compliment it’s natural diet of slugs and bugs is quite healthy. But as you said, so much of the chicken meat that is commercially available has been manipulated to the point where it is in fact more toxic than healthy.

  23. This was very enlightening! I also thought that free range meant that these chickens roamed free. I also read an article in the NYT not long about the label “organic” and how it’s meaning is being stretched by some of the larger producers; that the USDA has caved to some of their demands and made the criteria less stringent. So it’s buyer beware!

    • It is so aggravating Jacqueline, the way the USDA keeps caving in to big money and turning a blind eye on deceptive labeling. There is a growing list of non-organic and often toxic ingredients that is allowed in foods labeled USDA organic, as long as they are found in minuscule amounts. The problem is that in order to meet those standards producers are changing portion sizes to be allowed to use the term organic when they really don’t deserve it… and people consume regular sized potions so they are in fact consuming amounts of these non-organic substances in greater quantities that what is USDA approved.

  24. I have cut down on all animals that have a mother, but with that said I do eat chicken. I buy only organic. The difference you can really see is that an organic chicken and a chicken that is natural, etc is larger and have more fat. I think it is great you shared this so more people understand what they are eating.

    • I find that I have cut way back as well Arleen, not because I don’t like meat but because I won’t eat it unless I know it comes from a good source. You are so right about the obvious difference you can see when you put an organic chicken next to one that is not, I think the color is also a dead giveaway. An organic or pasture raise chicken will have nice pink flesh, whereas a mass produced chicken that is mostly grain fed will be orange or yellow, reflecting their diet high in corn.

  25. I have heard of and understood the meaning of all of those except pastured. I’ve never seen that one.

    • Pastured is a fairly new term Val, although chickens have been pasture raised for decades. With the widespread misuse of other labels that would lead us to believe that the food we are buying is actually healthy producers who are committed to being fully transparent and raising their chickens in these ideal conditions are using that term to set themselves apart and give a clear understanding of their commitment to a truly healthy chicken.

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