Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Taste Test: Free Range Chicken vs. Industrial Chicken

Inspired by Real Food: What to Eat and Why by Nina Planck, Chef Sue and I decided to do a side-by-side taste test of free-range chicken vs. mass produced “industrial” chicken.  In her book, Nina goes into great detail regarding the benefits of eating pastured, free range, and otherwise more naturally raised animals without the modern influences of confined spaces, cages, steroids, growth hormones, antibiotics and the feed created for quickly growing and fattening the animals.  She makes a strong case for the health and humane treatment of the animals along with the nutritional benefits of pastured and free-range approach.  With respect to pork and beef, she adds that flavor is greatly improved in comparison to industrially produced meats.  With this in mind, we decided to see if there was a discernable flavor difference between free-range chicken and it’s industrial produced counterpart.

We started by purchasing two skinless, boneless free-range chicken breasts from Chesapeake’s Bounty ( in Saint Leonard, Maryland.  We then went to a big box grocer and bought two skinless, boneless, major brand industrially produced chicken breasts.  Chef Sue prepared the chicken identically; seasoned with salt and pepper, seared over high heat with a little olive oil, then placed in the oven at 350 for 20 minutes keeping the chicken in the sauté pan.  The chicken was removed from the oven and allowed to rest in the sauté pan for 10 minutes.

Now for the tasting.  We found no appreciable difference in flavor.  The only difference we found was a marginally juicier and tenderer consistency with the industrial chicken.  Chef Sue hypothesized this difference was a result of the industrial chicken being younger.  She came to this conclusion in part because the free-range chicken breast was much larger than the industrial chicken (say 50% larger).  We cannot say with any confidence the industrial chicken was actually younger, but it seems like a reasonable guess.

Based on this near stalemate of a taste test, there are several things to consider when making your choice between free-range chicken and industrially produced chicken.  In addition to claims of improved nutritional value of free-range chicken, you may consider the manner in which the chickens are treated; confined cages vs. green fields.  These considerations will likely be balanced with the cost.  The free-range chicken was priced at over three times that of the industrial chicken.

As far as the nutritional claims go, all but a couple of the studies I could find focused on the nutritional value of eggs.  These were led by evidence supporting substantially improved nutrition from free-range eggs.  The studies regarding nutritional value of the chickens were less decisive and marginally favored free-range.

You will need to make your own judgment regarding the full breadth of issues associated with your chicken purchase, but from a flavor perspective, we found no appreciable difference.   For now, if you will excuse me, I’m feeling hungry and am thinking the leftovers are looking good.

In vino veritas, buen provecho.


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Food Movements - In Praise of Eating Well

In recent months I consumed a number of food related books as part of my normal reading diet.  My diet is dominated by fiction, but thanks to the row of book readers on my iPad including iBooks, Nook, Kindle, and Google Play, I forced myself to hide non-fiction behind one of the icons.

My most recent foray into non-fiction was Real Food:  What to Eat and Why by Nina Planck.  I was completely fascinated by the book and recommend you add it to your reading list.  Nina goes into great detail and debunks many food myths relating to fats, oils, industrial food, cholesterol, heart disease, and obesity among many others.  Part of my attraction to the book was the confirmation of things I suspected, and support for the things I love and practice.

Nina’s book is one among many that mark a revolt against industrialized foods.  It is another touch point in the food movement encouraging people to eat better.  Can you remember a time in your life (assuming you have more than 20 years experience at the dinner table) when there were more “food movements” than we have today?  Here is a partial list (no slight intended if your “movement” is not represented here):

Slow food
Real food
Whole food
Nose to tail
Local food (Locavore)
Free range
Community Supported Agriculture
Farm to School
Food Cooperatives
Farmers Markets
Farm to Table
Simple Food

And guess what?  This list doesn’t contain all the others focused on the global politics of food, sustainability, environmental impacts, fair trade and diminishing biodiversity represented in the modern food supply chain.

My intention is not to critique or elaborate on these movements but to highlight some of the commonalities among those listed.  In one way or another, these movements each focus on eating better, eating healthier, forsaking processed industrial foods, and encouragement to eat locally produced meat and vegetables.

In  Real Food:  What to Eat and Why Nina encourages me to continue what I am already doing.  Eat fresh food, buy locally from farmers markets and roadside stands as much as possible, avoid the interior isles of the grocery stores where the processed food lives (well, I do have to wander into no-mans land to pickup my coffee and olive oil), and pay no attention to the naysayers who demonize whole, rich, dairy products, eggs, meat, and animal fat.  Within these broad confines there are also grades of goodness such as free range and pastured animals vs. caged, medicated, and industrially produced proteins.  There are also tremendous issues with industrialized produce, but if you swear off the interior grocery isles filled with cans, jars, and boxes, you are taking a step in the right direction.

Of course, by following this advice you will need to cook – and I mean time at the cutting board and simmering pots, not tearing open cardboard boxes and setting the timer on the microwave.  Real cooking.  Real fun.

In vino veritas, buen provecho.