Chicken’s Salty Little Secret

Mar 31 - Raw chicken

photo:  courtesy of haneka on flickr

How much do you know about the chicken you buy?

If you’re not carefully reading labels, you might not realize that some brands have been injected with a salty broth.  It’s an increasingly popular practice called “poultry plumping” that  has a lot of people crying foul. You may not even be aware that it’s happening.  Yet, about one-third of the fresh chicken in supermarket meat cases in this country has been enhanced to make the meat  tastier, juicier and more tender.

Read more in my column in the January issue of  Cooking Light.

You know when you’re picking up packaged deli meats that there’s been some processing involved.  You expect bologna and other luncheon meats to contain higher levels of sodium — but fresh, raw chicken?  The juiced up varieties can contain as much as 440 milligrams of sodium per serving, or nearly 500% higher than natural, untreated chicken.   In fact, a  single serving of plumped up poultry can contain as much sodium as a large order of fast food French fries.

To me, the most troubling part of this practice is the “natural” claim that you’ll find on the label of these salt water-injected birds.  Poultry companies have gotten a green light from USDA to call their products “100% natural” or “all natural” even though they’ve been injected with extra salt and water.  Some brands mix in a seaweed extract called carrageenan that helps to retain the added water – which can be 15 percent or more of the meat’s weight.  That means if you buy a 7-pound enhanced chicken, you might get only 6 pounds of meat and end up paying a premium for 1 pound of added water.

The “natural” labeling of plumped poultry has the industry fiercely divided. The major processors who inject their poultry with salt water solutions (including Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride) say consumers prefer it and the enhancements help keep the lean meat juicy and flavorful.  They claim their products meet the “minimally processed” description that’s required for the natural label, and the injected ingredients (including the carrageenan) do not include anything artificial.

That may be true, but seaweed and salt aren’t naturally found in chicken.  You don’t expect a whole food like this to be altered when you buy it.

The poultry processors on the other side of the debate say the practice is deceptive and they want to see the enhanced birds stripped of their “natural” moniker.  They say the industrial needle injections and high pressure vacuum tumbling that are used to enhance the poultry should not be considered “minimally processed.”

Yet most importantly, at a time when sodium consumption has risen to the top of worrisome health issues and we may see new dietary guidelines reduce daily sodium recommendations —  here’s an example when salt is being needlessly added in unexpected places.

Foster Farms, a West Coast family-owned producer, created a campaign called “Say No to Plumping” to raise awareness of the issue and promote truly natural, untreated chicken.   They’re using bloated chicken mascots dubbed the Foster Imposters to mock the use of the “all natural” label on injected poultry products and urge stricter regulations so consumers know what they’re buying.  Their commercials are rather amusing…

Processors are required to disclose the injections, but lettering can be small – just one-third the size of the largest letter in the product’s name.  The words “100% natural” will likely be what you see first so you might not look beyond this description.  During my own visits to the meat case, it wasn’t easy to quickly tell the differences between the various packages of fresh chicken – especially when the dominant visual is the fresh meat peering below the clear plastic.

To know if you’re picking up an enhanced product, you need to go beyond the bold type and look for the fine print, such as “contains up to 15% chicken broth.”  You won’t always see the word “enhanced” used – simply the percentage of added salt water.  You can also check the ingredient list to see if you spot chicken broth, salt and carrageenan, and, of course, look for the sodium content on the nutrition facts label.  If it’s truly natural, with no injections, the sodium content won’t be higher than 70 milligrams per serving.

A group called the Truthful Labeling Coalition is trying to raise awareness of poultry plumping and change the regulations that allow these salty birds to boast about being “natural.”

Did you know about this practice before?  What do you look for when you buy chicken?

See what others have said about the issue…

Center for Science in the Public Interest Pumped-Up Poultry Not “Natural”
Washington Post Crying Foul in Debate Over “Natural” Chicken
Wall Street Journal  The Fine Print:  What’s Really in a Lot of “Healthy” Foods

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