Why Chickens Aren’t Vegetarians
We’ve all seen the labels in the grocery stores, touting eggs or meat from “vegetarian-fed chickens!” These labels are advertised proudly and to the average consumer, it may seem like purchasing eggs or meat from vegetarian fed chickens is the right and ethical thing to do, for the animals, for the environment, or for the consumer. Kudos to the advertising industry, because they do a great job of greenwashing a practice that in reality isn’t healthier for the chickens OR the consumers! In fact, feeding chickens an all-vegetarian diet does more harm than good.
A chicken’s natural diet contains animal products, and however well-intentioned, feeding chickens a diet containing zero animal products actually deprives chickens of essential nutrients such as the amino acid methionine. Methionine is so important to chickens’ health that a methionine deficiency can cause chickens’ feathers to be underdeveloped, become infested with mites or parasites, and also causes them to attack other chickens, which can spread disease. When chickens attack each other, they are likely attempting to obtain animal protein and essential nutrients that their bodies crave.
Oftentimes, you’ll see organic chicken with this vegetarian-fed label. Since we are programmed to assume that organic foods are always better for us, it may come as a surprise to learn that in the case of chicken and eggs, you’re not necessarily getting the best bang for your buck when you purchase organic. To obtain the organic label, chickens are required to be fed a vegetarian diet, containing no animal products whatsoever. Because many factory farms lower costs by feeding animals low-grade feed containing animal byproducts, this requirement was implemented to avoid such harmful ingredients being fed to chickens. However, chickens are natural omnivores, and for them, a well-rounded, wholesome diet is one that includes both plant matter and insects, worms, and small animals. While many organic chicken farmers substitute their chickens’ feed with synthetic methionine, substitutes are not the same as the real thing. Just as humans can’t reach optimum health by taking multivitamins but eating a poor diet, synthetic nutrients don’t offer the same benefit to chickens either.
Education is Key
We get it. It can be really difficult to make sense of all the information out there, especially when it comes to deciding the healthiest and best ways to feed ourselves and our families. In this regard, a little education goes a long way. When you compare pasture raised chicken to other options, including “vegetarian-fed”, you’ll learn that when chickens are raised on pasture, they obtain a nutrient dense diet naturally, by foraging for insects, worms, plants, seeds, and grasses. They obtain plenty of animal protein from natural, whole food sources rather than synthetic additives, and because they also have ample access to fresh air, sunshine, and nutrients that they obtain from a pasture raised lifestyle, pasture raised chickens are healthier overall. They have stronger immune systems which eliminates the need for routine antibiotics, and as a result, their meat is much healthier than that provided by their conventionally raised counterparts.
How is Pasture Raised Chicken Different?
At Pasturebird, our chickens live outside on pasture 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They have constant access to fresh air, sunshine, and exercise, and instead of spending their lives confined to one spot in a crowded barn, they are able to use their beaks to peck and scratch the land as chickens were meant to do. Through this foraging process, they obtain bugs, worms, grains, grasses, seeds, and even small mammals which provide them with wholesome nutrients that are essential to their health and wellbeing.
We also feed our chickens a supplemental diet of non-GMO corn and soy produced from a local mill. Now, before you think “wait a minute, aren’t grains bad for chickens and humans?” hear us out. Not all chicken feed is created equal, and this is where educating yourself about farming practices and food choices comes in handy. We can understand the frustration and confusion - after all, mistrust of food labels and farming practices is what inspired us to start Pasturebird in the first place.
Some factory farms feed their birds pellets or ground mash as their sole source of nutrients. This feed is likely full of GMOs (because it’s cheaper), and rather than being supplemental is the only nutrition factory farmed birds get. This obviously isn’t better for the chickens, and chickens that aren’t receiving a wholesome diet aren’t going to produce wholesome meat. However, when whole grains are fed in the correct ratios, they can help to supplement a nutrient-dense natural diet obtained on pasture. As far as passing that grain on to human consumers - since chickens are monogastric animals, they have a special organ called a gizzard which sprouts and stone grinds grains prior to consumption to make them nutritionally available. This means that even those with gut sensitivities are able to consume our pasture raised chicken without fear that the grains our chickens eat will have an adverse effect on them. Our supplemental feed is just that - supplemental - meant to fill in the gaps, if necessary, of a pasture raised diet.
Because pasture raised chickens are provided such a well rounded and wholesome diet, their meat has been shown to be nutritionally superior. Our Pasturebird chicken has three times the omega 3s of conventionally raised chickens, as well as 50% more vitamins A and E. Because our chickens are active and constantly moving on pasture rather than being confined to a small and crowded pen, their meat also has over 20% less saturated fat. Moreover, this varied diet doesn’t just result in nutritionally superior chicken, but it makes the chicken taste better too.
Our family follows a paleo diet, because we believe that it helps sustain us nutritionally and obtain energy in the way our bodies were meant to do; from fresh, wholesome, natural food sources rich in protein, healthy fats, and lots of fiber. Similarly, we feed our chickens the way THEY are meant to eat: obtaining nutrients from a varied, nutritionally dense, pasture raised diet - NOT solely from vegetarian chicken feed, because chickens are not vegetarians!