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.


1 comment:

  1. I've been reading Eating Animals and when Foer discusses chicken he points out that while free range is better, they are still the same genetically manipulated breed as the industrial chickens. I wonder how hard it would be to find someone raising some of the really traditional breeds.