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What labels on real chicken really mean and soy substitutes

It looks, feels and tastes like chicken, but it's made of soy. A Mizzou scientist created a chicken substitute, providing a low-cost, tasty way to add soy to the diet. Sure, some delicacies might taste just like chicken, but they usually feel and look much different.

Chicken labeling explained: And soy chicken products.
Photo by John Parra

Soy meat alternatives, such as the soy burger, have become more popular recently, with increased sales of eight percent from 2007 to 2008. Now, scientists at the University of Missouri have created a soy substitute for chicken that is much like the real thing. The new soy chicken also has health benefits, including lowering cholesterol and maintaining healthy bones.

Fu-Hung Hsieh, a University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) professor of biological engineering and food science in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and the College of Engineering, is leading the project to create a low-cost soy substitute for chicken. His research, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Illinois-Missouri Biotechnology Alliance, has led to a process that does more than just add color and flavor to soy. Hsieh has developed a process that makes the soy product simulate the fibrous qualities of a chicken breast.

"Early tests provided some of the fibrous texture to the final product, but it tasted more like turkey," Hsieh said, according to a February 4, 2010 news release, It looks, feels and tastes like chicken, but it's made of soy. "In order to produce a more realistic product, we had to tweak the process and add extra fiber to give the soy a stringy feeling that tears into irregular, coarse fibers similar to chicken."

To create the soy chicken, Hsieh starts with a soy protein extracted from soy flour

The soy then goes through an extrusion cooking process that uses water, heat and pressure while pushing the mixture through a cylinder with two augers. "This particular soy substitute is different because we are working with a higher moisture content, which is up to 75 percent," Hsieh said, according to the news release. "The high moisture content is what gives the soy a very similar texture to chicken — in addition to the appearance."

Along with pleasing the senses, Hsieh's soy chicken provides health benefits for consumers. Soy foods contain important nutrition components, some of which help maintain healthy bones and prevent prostate, breast and colorectal cancers. Soy foods also are a good source of essential fatty acids and contain no cholesterol. The FDA has approved a claim that encourages 25 grams of soy protein in a daily diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol to help reduce cholesterol that is at or above moderately high levels.

Hsieh's research has been published in the Journal of Food and Agricultural Chemistry, Journal of Food Science, and Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society. The next step in Hsieh's research will be to taste-test various texture combinations and make final refinements to the formula. You may also wish to check out the article, "What is soy chicken and how is it prepared? - Seasoned Advice."

Chicken labels explained

When it comes to understand labels on real chicken, the basic 10 labels include organic, no antibiotics, certified human, no hormones, American humane certified, cage-free, natural, free-range, no GMOs, and Pasture-raised. Here are some definitions as to what those labels mean. You can check out an extensive article on how chicken labels are decoded and what they mean in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports. Find the magazine in your public library. The information on reading and understand how chickens are labeled are on page 33 of the article, "Confusing chicken labels decoded."

Organic

Organic means the chicken was fed vegetarian food. The chicken feed did not contain GMOs or toxic pesticides, or synthetic pesticides, and did not receive antibiotics.

Standards were set for the organic chickens to have access to the outdoors. But there are no standards for the size of the outdoor area. It could be tiny or large. And there are no rules how long the chicken spent outdoors. But annual inspections are required. If a law goes into effect letting employees of a chicken processing plant or farm do the inspections instead of federal inspectors, there's the chance the employees will obey their company supervisors so the processing line won't be slowed down when it comes to dispatching the chickens.

No antibiotics

The chicken and the egg must never have received antibiotics. But no inspections are required.

Certified Humane

Guidelines from the Humane Farm Animal Care organization must be followed. Also see, Decoding "Humane" Food Labels | RedRover. The idea is to minimize the animal's stress by having standards for environments, including during transportation and when the animal is 'dispatched.' The chickens may or may not have the choice to get outdoors. But each year, the farms are inspected.

No Hormones

The chickens must be free of receiving any hormones, such as steroids. Chickens can make their own hormones, they don't need to be fattened up by steroids or other hormones fed or injected by the farmer or anyone else looking after the chickens' health issues.

American Humane Certified

The goal is minimizing stress in the chickens. But the chickens are not required to have access to the outdoors, even though inspections are required. See, "American Humane Certified™ - Humane Heartland."

Cage-Free

Actually chickens are really never locked in cages. And the chickens don't have to access the outdoors either. No inspections are required. If you look at most commercial chicken farms, the chickens are not in cages. What were you thinking? Chickens are not pet birds in bird cages. So the word "cage-free" could mean anything from chickens allowed to run freely outdoors (or not) to chickens cramped in a small indoor building, but not in individual cages all day.

Natural

Too many people confuse natural with organic. Natural can mean derived from nature and can apply to anything from a mountain to a monkey, a flower to a tree. Everything you eat not derived from synthetic chemicals could be labeled as natural. Even a grain of sand is natural. When it comes to chickens labeled as 'natural' it refers to the idea that the chicken is minimally processed. The chicken contains no artificial ingredients is what the 'natural' label refers to. But no inspection is required to verify what 'natural' actually applies to other than the chicken being minimally process without artificial ingredients. It does not mean the chicken feed is not from GMO plants. For that, you'd have to have a No GMOs label on the chicken product.

Free-Range

Outdoors and free-range could mean two different things. When 'outdoors' is not defined, and there aren't any requirements regarding the size of the outdoor space for each chicken, it can be a tiny concrete space, but not a closed cage. And since chickens aren't confined to actual cages on farms, but more likely small spaces, free range doesn't apply to the size of the door that opens to the outside, either. And there's no rule how many hours a day the chicken spends outdoors. It could come down to chickens raised in crowded conditions because no inspections are required to make sure free-range means a certain-size area outdoors for the chicken to wander around all day.

No GMOs

If the packaging label on your chicken product says "Non GMO Project Verified" it means the chicken feed contains less than 0.9 percent of GMO crops. And the verification label is required. So it's not GMO-free, but Non-GMO, which means less than 0.9 percent of GMO crops could be in the feed. That's close to one percent GMOs. Over time, the GMOs could build up, but chances are the chicken may not last that long. Even the chickens used for egg-laying get processed when they no longer can lay eggs or lay eggs as frequently as the farmer decides.

Pasture-Raised

There is such a label known as "Animal Welfare Approved" which applies to animals that are pasture-raised. If you research the term "pasture-raised," you'll find that it is not a legal definition, according to the Consumer Reports article, page 33 "Confusing chicken labels decoded " in the February 2014 issue. The article notes that products with the pasture-raised label are not widely available.

So when you buy chicken, it's wise to understand what the labels actually mean and what the possibilities are, since some labels are vague and other labels require special certification, inspections, and requirements. Then again, there's always a vegan version of soy that tastes like chicken.

On the other hand, soy also has its health issues. And some chickens are fed soy. See, "Soy protein present in egg yolks and chicken tissues" and "The Dark Side of Soy - Utne Reader." Or see, "Why Soy is Not Healthy - Wellness Mama." It's harder for the consumer, especially the vegan to decide on what foods on a long-term basis are the healthiest. Then again, there are articles such as "Health Benefits of Low-cost Soy Chicken." It depends also on how soy in moderation affects your thyroid and other issues and whether the soy is non-GMO/organic.