How much is that chicken in the window?
Maybe more than it should be, if you prefer to pay only for meat, not soup.
Thanks to a fairly new poultry industry process called Enhancing, consumers buying chicken today may also be paying for up to 15 percent "broth," a solution of water, salt, and phosphates. Arkansas poultry producer Tyson Foods began offering "enhanced chicken" about a year and a half ago, and is now a major producer. A Tyson spokesman said broth is added to meet consumer demand for birds that cook up plumper and juicier. And while juicier chicken has been the goal of cooks ever since someone first stuck an open beer can up a fryer's hind end, critics claim factory-made enhanced chicken is just a modern day version of the old "thumb on the scale" trick, one that's making the poultry industry up to $2.9 billion a year.
Much of the grumbling over enhanced chicken is being generated by a Tyson competitor, Sanderson Farms. Based in Laurel, Miss., Sanderson is the nation's sixth-largest chicken producer. The company has undertaken a PR campaign to work on the angle that they don't enhance their birds. Less water, they say, means more chicken.
Based on the fact that the average American eats around 48 pounds of chicken annually, Sanderson points out that if you bought only enhanced chicken, you'd pay for more than six pounds of water annually. For a family of four, that's a lot of pricey water. Nationwide, Sanderson says, that's about 229 million gallons of water annually, at chicken prices that can range from cents to dollars per pound. Too, they point out, the brine used in the enhancing process adds a considerable amount of salt to raw chicken - as high as 540 mg of sodium in a 4 ounce cutlet, where an unenhanced cutlet has around 73 mg.
Tyson Foods spokesman Ed Nicholson calls the added saltwater an "ingredient," and said it helps keep chicken from drying out when being cooked to the USDA-recommended temperature. While he couldn't say much of the company's 147 million pound per week production is enhanced (that's a figure, he said, that has not been reported for proprietary reasons), Nicholson said that the company started producing enhanced poultry after extensive testing.
"We did quite a bit of consumer research," Nicholson said, "taste testing among consumers, preference testing with this chicken, which doesn't lose as much of this moisture as typical chicken does. It remains moister and juicier. A lot of what you're paying for stays there. It works toward making a better end product."
It's an idea that gets a thumbs up from UA Poultry Sciences professor Dr. John Marcy. A poultry processing specialist, Marcy said that most of the chicken sold by Wal-Mart is enhanced with salt, water and phosphates. Like Nicholson, he said that while consumers are indeed paying chicken prices for water, what they get for that extra weight is better chicken.
Marcy - whose department at UA, we should point out, uses a building named after John Tyson thanks to the company's generous contributions over the years - did his dissertation on the affects of phosphates on pork, which behaves similarly to chicken when injected with or allowed to marinate in saltwater and phosphates. Phosphates, Marcy said, are generally mined from the earth, and then altered to meet certain criteria: (usually, in the case of chicken processing, the desired configuration is a phosphorous molecule and three oxygen molecules). When introduced in chicken through injection or marinating, phosphates touch off a chemical reaction in the muscle fibers, causing a change in the meat's pH-factor. This, Marcy said, in conjunction with the chloride ion in the saltwater, causes the iso-electric point of the meat to increase, opening up gaps in the protein at the microscopic level. This allows the meat to hold more water. More water means a juicier bird.
"The salt and phosphates enable the muscle to retain that moisture through the cooking, more of it," Marcy said. "You can still overcook it, but that product compared to non-enhanced will be juicier."
(Avid cooks have known this for years. The beer can chicken recipe, popular among backyard chefs recently, generally calls for soaking a whole chicken in a mixture of water and Kosher salt for several hours before cooking. It produces a moist and tasty bird, though mighty salty if you pump more salty brine into an enhanced chicken.)
As far as the question of salt added by the process, Marcy said that there is salt in all processed meats, either as a preservative or a structural agent. Deli hams and turkeys, Marcy said, rely on salt and phosphates, which allow them to bind together in a solid piece.
"Salt is one of those (crucial) things in the history of meat processing," Marcy said. "The term 'salary' comes from the salt that the Roman soldiers were paid in so they could preserve their own meat. We're not going to get far without salt."
While what happens to a chicken shot up with saltwater and phosphates may be something close to rocket science, injecting chicken isn't. Marcy said he injects his turkeys at home on Thanksgiving, and nearly everyone's got their grandmother's old marinated chicken recipe around. So, if you'd rather get your water nearly free from the tap instead of from Tyson and other chicken producers at close to the price per gallon of unleaded, be sure to check that label.