Valerie Phillips: 'Natural' chicken often plumped with salt water

Published: Wednesday, June 24 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

When you buy "natural" grocery store chicken, you might be buying some salt water, too.

I've attended five National Chicken Cooking Contests. I can never predict the winners, but I can always predict what will happen in the seminar with chicken industry executives. A certain food writer will get on her soapbox about the practice of adding salt water to fresh chicken before it's sold. She always asks the execs to stop this practice, or at least label it more prominently, on behalf of the thousands of people who have high blood pressure.

She's not talking about chicken sold in a flavored marinade. She's talking about raw "natural" chicken that you buy at the meat counter.

Many consumers don't realize that much of this chicken contains up to 15 percent (by weight) of a water-and-salt solution. This "plumps up" the meat and, of course, adds weight.

Chicken injected with this salty solution can still be labeled "natural." There's usually some small print saying, "may be enhanced with up to 15 percent of a solution of water, salt and sodium phosphate to improve tenderness and juiciness."

A lot of people don't read the fine print, so they unknowingly take in more sodium, which has been linked to health issues such as high blood pressure.

Most years, the execs usually listen politely to this food writer's rant. And then they change the subject.

At this year's cook-off seminar in May, however, a Foster Farms rep sitting next to me was grinning from ear to ear.

Turns out, Foster Farms doesn't add salt water to its chicken, and the company was about to launch a "Say No To Plumping" campaign to raise consumer awareness and lobby for better labeling.

"Usually the print is so small on the label that people don't see it," he told me.

I gave him my business card, and a "Say No To Plumping" press kit came in the mail. It includes an 8-ounce bottle of water representing the amount of salt water that three pounds of chicken would contain.

Many cooks advocate brining poultry at home in order to make it more plump and juicy. They soak it in salty water and then rinse before cooking.

I'm all for making poultry juicy. But I'm also all for letting people know if they're getting extra salt.

I checked out Nutrition Facts labels at the grocery store. Chicken that has "3-4 percent retained water" which is normal during processing, contained 70 milligrams of sodium per 4-ounce serving.

A serving of the "enhanced with a 15 percent solution" chicken had 500 milligrams of sodium per serving. That's quite a boost.

It's not as salty as ham, which can be around 1,000 milligrams per 4-ounce serving. But consider that the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a limit of 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day (about one teaspoon of salt). The Centers for Disease Control advises 1,500 milligrams for those with risk factors of high blood pressure, or are middle-aged or older, or African-American.

And there's your extra cost "at the plump." If you're paying $2 per pound for chicken, around 30 cents of that could be for water.

So, look for the label. If you buy the "enhanced" chicken, you might want to add less salt to the marinade, sauce or spice rub when you cook it.

E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com