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Science of Food column: Benefits of consuming organic chicken and eggs

The “free-range” label means chickens have been allowed access to the outside (with no space requirement). And while “vegetarian fed” or “grain fed” might sound good, it is not a guarantee chickens are pasture raised.
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Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final column in a monthly series about the benefits of eating organic food. Find the first three articles at http://www.vaildaily.com.

You see more and more labels claiming that your chicken has been “raised without antibiotics” and the words “cage-free,” “natural” or “omega-3” are written on your egg cartons.

What does this all mean in terms of the quality of your food, not to mention the difference in price? In the first three parts of this series on “going organic,” I discussed important reasons why it is worth avoiding antibiotics, pesticides and growth hormones in produce, beef and dairy products. I described the consequences of raising cows on a corn-based diet, and in this column, I will focus on the science of modern chickens and eggs.



Modern commercial chickens are typically “grain fed” or “vegetarian fed” a corn- and soy-based diet, often riddled with additives in the form of cyromazine (an insecticide), mycotoxin absorbers (to control toxins from mold) and antibiotics such as bacitran or chlortetracycline. Although hormones are still allowed in beef and dairy cattle, administration of hormones is not allowed in hogs or poultry. While these additives are intended to facilitate growth and to prevent animals from getting sick, the widespread use of synthetic chemicals and antibiotics is harming human health.

Unfortunately, “organic” chickens often eat corn- or soy-based diets, as well, although the feed must be organic, genetically modified organism-free and antibiotic-free. This is still a diet very different from wild hens grazing in a pasture and has a big effect on the nutrient quality of the meat and eggs. Both organic and non-organic commercially raised hens are often fed extra omega-3 fats in their feed to offset the unnaturally high omega-6 content in their grain-fed diet. So there are U.S. Department of Agriculture organic regulations in place, but the system is not perfect.



The science of fats

Allow me to briefly explain the crucial role of dietary fats in the body. The omega fatty acids all have similar but unique chemical structures, such as omega-6 and omega-3. Fatty acids can also be saturated or unsaturated, and like an orchestra, they act together as signaling molecules in our bodies, controlling processes in the immune system. The notorious but highly beneficial fat cholesterol also plays a major role in overall health, and we now know it is an imbalance in dietary fats that promotes chronic inflammation inside the body. This high omega-6 imbalance is being linked to other disorders, such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and degenerative neurological disorders.

The modern commercial egg itself is less nutritious, with an imbalanced ratio of fats. It is already known that corn and soy have high omega-6 content. Further scientific evidence demonstrating this observation comes from a study published in 2010 comparing eggs from pasture- and commercially raised chickens. “Pastured hens eggs had twice as much vitamin E … more than double the total omega-3 fatty acids and less than half the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids,” said Heather Karsten, of Penn State University, lead investigator of the study. These “fat-soluble vitamins in the diet are readily transferred to the liver and then the egg yolk.” Again, a perfect example of “you are what what you eat eats,” one of my favorite quotes by author Michael Pollan.



What to Buy

Labeling of chicken and egg products is especially confusing. If you are buying at large grocery store chains, it is important that the chicken or egg packaging has the word “organic” or the certified-organic seal printed on it. This should mean the chickens have been fed an all-organic diet and that they are “free range.” The “free-range” label means chickens have been allowed access to the outside (with no space requirement). The term “cage free” is different from “free range.” Neither usually means the chickens spend their time roaming a pasture. “Pasture raised” describes the most natural environment for chickens. And while “vegetarian fed” or “grain fed” might sound good, it is not a guarantee they are pasture raised.

Ideally, your package says “pasture raised” and “organic” on it when buying at the supermarket. Or you can buy from a local and trustworthy farmer or neighbor where you know the chickens have been pasture-raised for their entire lives. These are your best bets for finding the most nutritious chicken meat and eggs for yourself and your family.

When I spend more money on organic food, I know I am reducing my exposure to toxic synthetic chemicals. In addition to effects on human health, I also think about how buying organic food helps to reduce the destructive impact on the environment that pesticides, antibiotics and other man-made chemicals have, damaging the soil, increasing fossil-fuel demands and contaminating vulnerable aquatic ecosystems and our precious water reserves. It is worth supporting organic farming practices.

Lisa Julian, Ph.D., has a passion for organic chemistry — the “molecules of life” — and its application to food and health. She’s the owner of Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health in Frisco and teaches science and nutrition at the University of Colorado Denver and Colorado Mountain College. She can be reached at 970-401-2071 and ldjulian@gmail.com.


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