"As American as boneless, skinless chicken breast" doesn't have quite the same ring to it as "American as apple pie," but it's far more appropriate: We eat an average of 87 pounds of chicken per year, up 81% from 48 pounds in 1980. This makes the plumping practice in poultry processing even more troubling.
About one-third of the fresh chicken found in supermarket meat cases has been synthetically saturated with a mix of water, salt, and other additives via needle injections and high-pressure vacuum tumbling. The process is designed to make naturally lean poultry meat juicier and more tender. A 4-ounce serving of what the industry calls "enhanced" poultry can contain as much as 440mg sodium. That's nearly one-fifth of the current 2,300mg daily sodium allotment—from a source you'd never suspect.
Worse, it's 500% more sodium than is found naturally in untreated chicken. Yet the word "natural" can be used on the labels of these injected birds. USDA labeling policies give poultry companies a green light to label their enhanced products "100% natural" or "all natural," even though they've been injected with ingredients in concentrations that do not naturally occur in a chicken. (Like many foods, chicken contains trace amounts of sodium and other minerals.)
With injections totaling 15% or more of the meat's weight, a 7-pound enhanced chicken might net only 6 pounds of meat. Do the math: At $2.99 per pound, you've paid a premium of up to $0.45 per pound for added salt and water. Each year, this costs Americans about $2 billion, according to the Truthful Labeling Coalition, a trade group started by poultry producers who want to put an end to misleading labels on enhanced products.
At a time when sodium consumption has risen to the top of public health issues—and when at press time we expected to hear soon about a government move to lower sodium recommendations—here's an example of salt being needlessly added to fresh, whole foods.
Processors are required to disclose the injections, but the lettering on the packaging can be small and inconspicuous. To know if you're picking up an enhanced product, squint at the fine print, which will list something like, "contains up to 15% chicken broth." You can also check the ingredient list, and, of course, look for the sodium content on the Nutrition Facts label. If the chicken is truly natural, the sodium content won't stray higher than 70mg per serving.
What you do with your chicken or turkey once you get it home is another story. However, at that point you are consciously choosing to add sodium, and you can control the amount you use. Seasoning a chicken breast with 1/8 teaspoon salt will add 250mg sodium—a healthier choice that you'll be much happier making if that same chicken breast doesn't come preloaded with 440mg of the salty stuff.