Chicken Basics

Did you know that chicken is the most commonly consumed animal protein in the U.S.? According to the National Chicken Council, the popularity of chicken meat will continue to grow. Chicken consumption per capita has grown every year since 1960 and there is a predicted fourteen pound increase in chicken consumption per capita between 2009 and 2019.   Additionally, chicken makes up the top two growing food trends based on servings in the restaurant industry in the form of chicken strips (+18%) and breaded chicken sandwiches (+6%) (NPD Group, Inc.). Chicken’s popularity makes sense due to its versatility across global and ethnic cuisines and flavors, its taste, cost-effectiveness, nutrition and acceptability across all age groups. Even though chicken is so popular, there is still some confusion around common chicken terms and labels. Here we’ll demystify some of these terms plus learn some fun facts about chicken’s rise to fame.

Chicken History

Chickens were supposedly first discovered on the side of the road in Greece in the first decade of the fifth century B.C. They were first domesticated in China around 5400 B.C. for fighting then spread from modern-day India to the rest of the world 4000 years ago. The Romans were the first people to eat chickens for meat and considered it a delicacy in recipes like stuffed chickens and used the eggs for omelets. They used the whole animal and often stuffed their chicken with chicken brains!  To avoid excess luxury, there was even a law passed in Roman times to limit chicken consumption to one per meal. The popularity of chicken meat fell with the Roman Empire and didn’t become ubiquitous until the advent of large-scale industrial production in the 20th century. Modern breakthroughs allowed chickens to be raised indoors on a large scale. Chicken, like most animals, need sunlight to synthesize vitamin D. By fortifying chicken feed with vitamin D and other nutrients allowed them to be raised indoors and therefore protected from weather and predators using a controlled environment and diet. Up until that point, chickens were mainly used for their eggs. Now we can see chicken meat on menus at every meal across multiple applications.

Chicken Terms and Definitions

Even though chicken meat is so common, there are some terms that can be confusing to chicken-eaters. Here are definitions to some common terms found on packages and menus so you can be an informed chicken consumer:

  • Free-Range: USDA approves this label on a case-by-case basis.
    • Chickens have access to the outdoors for at least some part of the day (chickens decide if they want to go outside or not).
    • If chickens are labeled as organic, they must be free-range; however, not all free-range chickens are organic. A specific free-range label is not required.
    • Less than 1% of U.S. chickens are free-range.
  • Natural: As defined by the USDA, no artificial ingredients, colors or chemical preservatives; minimally processed.
  • Organic: the use of this label requires specific rules set by USDA; does not indicate safety, quality or nutritional attributes above conventional products.
  • No Antibiotics Ever (NAE): a program that raises birds without the use of antibiotics and uses the NAE label.
    • If a bird in an NAE program gets sick, proper actions are taken by trained veterinarians in the best interest of the bird. If antibiotics are used, the bird is removed from the NAE flock and packaged under a non-NAE label.
    • In non-NAE chicken, USDA and FDA have strict monitoring and testing to ensure food does not contain antibiotic residue.
  • No Hormones Added: FDA prohibits artificial or added hormones in any step of a chicken’s life or processing and has done so since the 1950s. All chicken can be labeled “raised without hormones”.
  • All-Vegetable Diet/Vegetable Feed: chicken feed is primarily corn and soybean meal.
    • Composition of animal feed is regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
    • If the feed does not contain animal by-products, it can be labeled as “all-vegetable”.
  • Made in the USA: Most chicken sold in the USA is raised and processed in the USA (only a small amount comes from Canada).
  • Dark Meat: has higher amounts of myoglobin in the muscles that are used more often (the thighs and drumsticks). Dark meat muscles use more oxygen so the meat has more iron.
  • White Meat: has lower amounts of myoglobin so it is lighter in color (breast and wings).
  • Natural Proportion: the final processed product has equal amounts of white and dark meat.
  • Chicken Meat Nutrition

    Chicken is not only popular for its taste, but its versatility too. Chicken is also a nutritious protein source. All chicken meat is a great source of lean protein and the vitamins niacin, B6, biotin, and B12. Due to the higher content of myoglobin, dark meat is also a great source of iron. Dark meat chicken has slightly more fat but this feature gives the meat more moisture, flavor and texture. The fat in chicken is mainly found in the skin so removing the skin makes chicken very lean and nutritious.

    Hopefully you now have more knowledge about chicken meat and labeling terms to share with your students and staff. Make sure to check out our website for our full-line of chicken products and delicious recipes to serve this on-trend protein in your food service.



    By Camden Robbins, R.D., SNS


    How the Chicken Conquered the World:

    National Chicken Council: