What Do All the Different Labels on Chicken Packaging Mean?

A handy guide to decoding the poultry counter.

Published July 24, 2023.

Walking through certain aisles of the grocery store can make me feel like I’m reading a different language. The poultry case is the worst offender: all-natural, enhanced, air-chilled . . . what does it all actually mean? Here’s a handy cheat sheet for your next market trip.

  • USDA Organic is a legit term that is regulated and monitored. In order to receive the label, the animals must have been fed an organic diet without animal byproducts, raised without antibiotics, and given access to the outdoors.
  • Raised Without Antibiotics, Natural and All Natural, and Vegetarian Fed and Vegetarian Diet can be misleading and are not strictly enforced; it’s best to ignore these and just look for the organic label.
  • Hormone-Free is particularly meaningless, as the USDA doesn’t allow hormone usage in poultry production at all.
  • Look for air-chilled rather than water-chilled chicken for the best flavor (you can easily identify water-chilled birds by the phrase “contains up to 4% retained water” on the packaging).
  • If the chicken is “enhanced,” move on; that means it’s been injected with broth and flavoring, which gives the meat an unpleasant spongy texture.

I hope this guide is helpful for your next grocery trip! In particular, I hope you’ll use it to pick out chicken for one of our oh-so-delicious recipes. Grab boneless skinless breasts for our Grilled Chicken Fajitas with Cilantro-Lime Sour Cream, bone-in thighs for Roasted Chicken Thighs with Asparagus, Arugula, and Walnut Salad, or a whole bird for Skillet-Roasted Chicken with Garlicky Spinach and Beans.


Grilled Chicken Fajitas with Cilantro-Lime Sour Cream

A quick rest in a lime juice– and chili powder–infused marinade makes flavorful chicken for fajitas.
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