The Burning Question: Do I Need to Buy Organic Chicken?

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The food-safety expert says:
Jaydee Hanson, Senior Policy Analyst the Center for Food Safety

The organic label guarantees certain standards. Organic-chicken growers are legally prohibited from using sewage sludge as fertilizer, synthetic chemicals not approved by the National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), or genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—any plant, animal, or microorganism that has been altered through genetic engineering—in the production process. Chickens labeled as "natural," on the other hand, dont necessarily meet those standards.

Buying organic may help prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When you crowd chickens together indoors, the way conventional growers do, theyre more likely to produce infectious bacteria, which is why non-organic chickens are fed antibiotics as a norm. But this creates drug-resistant strains of bacteria. These bacteria are normally killed by the heat of cooking, but they can be spread by people who work with the birds. "USDA Organic" chickens, on the other hand, are allowed access to the outdoors; they are given antibiotics only to prevent pain or death, after which they are no longer considered organic.

Organic is healthier. One study found that organic chicken contained 38% more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Eating organic chicken may also lower your food-poisoning risk: In a 2010 study, fewer than 6% of organic birds were infected with salmonella, compared with almost 39% of conventional ones.

The dietitian says:
Connie Diekman, RD, director of university nutritionWashington University in St. Louis

Theres no major nutritional difference. While some studies do show that organic chicken has more omega-3 fatty acids, chicken is low in fat to start with, so youre not getting much in either case. Beyond that, conventional and organic will give you the same nutritional product—both are good sources of protein.

Organic may contain less salt and other additives. Many conventional and even "natural" chickens—but not organic ones—are injected with water, salt, and preservatives to add moisture and boost flavor. (Check the ingredients label for salt or other additives.) The upshot is higher sodium.

There are other foods worthier of your organic dollar. If you cant afford to buy everything organic, I suggest that you buy natural fruits and vegetables like apples, peaches, spinach, strawberries, and sweet bell peppers, as the treated types often have the highest pesticide residue.

Our advice:
Based on nutrition alone, organic chicken isnt worth the money—but it is if youre worried about food poisoning, GMOs, or how the chicken was raised. To make sure any kind of bird is safe to eat: Note whether its plump (which is good) or dry (bad), and check to make sure its not close to the "sell by" date. Chicken is the most perishable meat, so when in doubt, sniff it—and put it back if anything smells off.