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You know when you score a hot rotisserie chicken fresh off the spit at the grocery store and spend the entire drive home wiping drool off your chin as the aroma whets your appetite into a frenzy?

Well, you’re not alone. The National Chicken Council estimates that more than 950 million rotisserie chickens will fly off those warming shelves and onto consumers’ plates this year. That’s almost three chickens per person!

What’s not to love? They’re tasty and convenient, and can cost less than a fancy coffee shop latte. “Rotisserie chicken is often very competitively priced and a lot cheaper than eating out,” says Anne-Marie Roerink, founder of the grocery market research firm 210 Analytics.

Because it’s a high-protein, low-saturated-fat meat, you might assume a rotisserie chicken is better for you than takeout, too. But is that the case? To find out, Consumer Reports’ nutrition experts evaluated the nutritional information and ingredients for 16 rotisserie chickens from seven supermarkets’ websites (Kroger, Publix, Safeway, Stop & Shop, Walmart, Wegmans and Whole Foods), three club stores (BJ’s Wholesale Club, Costco and Sam’s Club), and one fast-casual chain restaurant (Boston Market). While you’ll find flavors such as lemon butter, herb, Latin and barbecue in stores, we looked at each store’s simplest chickens, which were often labeled plain or original.

The findings? “You can’t assume that all rotisserie chicken is just a plain cooked chicken,” CR nutritionist Amy Keating says.

Looking at the solution

The simplest way to roast a chicken at home is to season it with a little salt and pepper and stick it in the oven. Rotisserie birds often get a different treatment. “Essentially, all rotisserie chickens are enhanced with a solution [injected into the bird] to keep the birds moist and tasty,” says Tom Super, senior vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council.

But the injection solution can include sugar, processed ingredients such as natural flavors, gums and carrageenan — and troubling amounts of sodium. “Natural flavors aren’t necessarily as natural as you might think, and you should generally try to avoid processed ingredients as much as possible,” Keating says. And some rotisserie chickens have far more salt than you’d ever add yourself.

Among the worst sodium offenders is Sam’s Club (Member’s Mark Seasoned Rotisserie Chicken), which has 550 milligrams of sodium per three-ounce serving — that’s about a quarter of the maximum amount of sodium adults should have in a day (2,300 mg). Costco (Kirkland) chickens aren’t much better, clocking in at 460 mg of sodium.

Rotisserie chickens from BJ’s Wholesale Club (Perdue rotisserie chicken), Boston Market, Publix (Deli Original), Safeway (Signature Cafe Traditional), Stop & Shop (Nature’s Promise and “honey”), Walmart (traditional), and Wegmans (nonorganic plain) have less sodium, ranging from 170 to 368 mg.

Kroger (Simple Truth) rotisserie chickens and organic chickens from Wegmans have much lower levels of sodium, at 40 mg and 95 mg, respectively, proving that not all injected birds are bad news. And Kroger’s ingredients are only chicken, water and sea salt.

Whole Foods chickens are not injected with a solution, but sodium can still be a concern. While the organic plain chicken has a healthy 70 mg of sodium in three ounces, the nonorganic plain chicken has 120 mg, and the nonorganic “classic” chicken has 450 mg. But if you skip the skin, you can avoid a lot of that because the seasonings are sprinkled on top, whereas with injected chickens, the sodium is distributed throughout the meat.

When shopping, the best bet is to check the nutrition facts label and ingredients list, or ask the deli manager for the information if it’s not on the packaging. Stores with 20 or more locations must make the information available to consumers.

Shopping and food safety FAQs

Here are some tips and answers to common questions about how to pick the best bird and what to do with it once you get it home.

When is the best time of day to buy a rotisserie chicken? Supermarkets cook fresh rotisserie chickens every two to four hours from 8 or 9 a.m. until about 4 to 6 p.m. Most often, the best selection and supply is available during evening peak hours, Roerink says. Or call the deli department at your supermarket and ask about the cooking schedule.

Do stores use chickens that are close to their sell-by date to make rotisserie chickens? “Most stores buy the broiler chickens [used to make rotisserie chickens] completely separately from the fresh whole chickens they sell in the meat department,” Roerink says. And they’re not the same birds. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the ones in the meat case weigh five pounds or more while the ones used to make rotisserie chickens are smaller, about 2.5 to 4.5 pounds.

What do labels like “Natural,” “Organic” and “Raised Without Antibiotics” mean? On meat and poultry, the USDA defines “natural” as minimally processed and containing no added artificial ingredients. (On other foods, it has no clearly defined meaning.) A no-hormone claim is true, but it doesn’t differentiate one chicken from another because the USDA bans hormone use in all chicken.

The two labels that do differentiate are “raised without antibiotics” and “organic.”

A no-antibiotics claim means that the chicken was never given antibiotics; however, it’s a sure bet only when the claim is accompanied by the USDA Processed Verified shield or USDA Organic seal on the package. These drugs are often given to food animals to prevent disease, but such use contributes to the public health problem of antibiotic resistance, which is when the drugs become less effective at killing the bacteria that cause illness.

In addition to being raised without antibiotics, organic chickens ate organic-certified feed and were raised in living conditions that accommodated their health and natural behaviors — meaning, they weren’t continually confined in small cages, and they got access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, fresh air, clean water and direct sunlight.

Why does your rotisserie chicken look pink? Is it not cooked through? Because rotisserie chickens are smaller, younger birds, there can be more pigmentation in and around the bones. According to the USDA, the pink color in safely cooked chicken may be due to the hemoglobin (protein molecules in red blood cells) in tissues, which can form “a heat-stable color.”

How long can you keep rotisserie chicken? Cut it into several pieces and refrigerate it in a covered container for up to four days or freeze it. Frozen leftovers are safe indefinitely but best eaten within four months.

Copyright 2021, Consumer Reports Inc.

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