You may have seen some chicken meat or eggs labels saying that the chickens were raised on a vegetarian diet.
So, are chickens vegetarians? Or, are they healthier being fed a vegetarian diet?
No, this is not why some chicken products are labeled as coming from chickens fed a 'natural' or vegetarian diet.
This topic of what chickens would naturally eat and what they're given to eat in some farming operations is an interesting - and sometimes controversial - one!
Are Chickens Vegetarians?
Chickens are not vegetarians, they're omnivores.
In the wild, they eat a diet that consists of seeds, insects, and other small animals.
While chickens will eat just about anything you give them (including dog food), their natural diet is mostly made up of plants and insects.
This is because chickens, and more so laying hens, require a good deal of protein in their diets to maintain optimal health and lay eggs on a regular basis.
It's easier to get good quality protein from meat than it is from plant matter, so that's why chickens scratch around a lot of bugs and insects.
Edible insects are rich in animal proteins and other key vitamins and minerals. It's hard to beat insects from a nutritional standpoint for chickens!
Related - Are Chickens Herbivores, Carnivores, or Omnivores? (Explained)
Do Chickens Eat Meat Naturally?
Chickens are not predators and do not have the instinct to kill other animals for food, so they will not eat meat in the wild in the form of prey.
However, if you put a chicken in a pen with a small rodent, lizard, or anything else that it's able to peck apart and eat - the chicken is probably going to eat it.
This is because chickens are opportunistic feeders and will take advantage of an easy meal - even if that meal is another animal.
While chickens are not naturally carnivorous, they're not averse to eating meat if it's presented to them.
What Do Vegetarian Fed Hens Eat?
The diet of a chicken raised on a vegetarian diet will typically consist of grains, soybeans, and other plant-based proteins.
Some farmers may also supplement the feed with additional vitamins and minerals to ensure that the hens are getting everything they need to stay healthy and lay eggs on a regular basis.
While vegetarian-fed hens are not eating any animal products, they're still getting the protein and other nutrients they need from plants to maintain their health.
Are Chickens Healthier on A Vegetarian Diet?
As far as I can find out, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that chickens are healthier on a vegetarian diet.
In fact, most chickens raised for meat are typically given a diet that consists mostly of grains and other plant-based proteins.
The main reason for this is because it's cheaper to produce chicken feed using plants than it is to use animal-based proteins.
However, there is some evidence to suggest that chickens raised on a diet of insects are healthier than those raised on a diet of plants.
This is because insects are a more natural source of protein for chickens and contain other key nutrients that are essential for chicken health.
Ideally, chickens should be given plenty of space to roam and supplement their diets by finding edible plants and insects.
We know that free-range chickens are the happiest chickens, and the happiest chickens are the healthiest chickens!
Why Are Some Chickens Fed a Vegetarian Diet?
One of the reasons why some commercial chicken farming operations are proud to label their products as 'vegetarian fed' is because the industry has caught some flack before.
Some operations were exposed for giving chickens, and other livestock low-quality animal byproducts as a source of protein.
This was done to cut costs, but it has resulted in various diseases being found in meat - and let's be honest, it's just not the right thing to do.
As consumers, we all want to know that the meat we're eating has been properly raised on quality feed and processed in the right way.
So, feeding chickens a vegetarian diet and labeling the products as such seemed a good way to tell consumers that the meat their eating has been raised on a safe diet.
The issue for me, however, is that chickens are not vegetarian. They love eating bugs and insects, and as I explained - insets are one of the best sources of protein for them.
So, I have no problem buying chicken that has been allowed to eat meat, as long as it's done in the right way.
What Should You Feed Backyard Chickens?
If you're raising backyard chickens, then you get to decide what they eat!
You can choose to feed them a diet of grains and other plant-based proteins, or you can let them free range and supplement their diet with whatever they find.
Ideally, you should provide your chickens with a good quality chicken feed that contains all the nutrients they need to stay healthy.
You can then supplement this diet with whatever you like - just make sure that whatever you're giving them is safe for chickens to eat.
Studies have shown that chickens are healthiest being given the space to roam and find natural food sources, so that's what you should do if possible.
Chickens are not naturally vegetarian, but they can survive - and even thrive - on a vegetarian diet.
The important thing is to make sure they're getting all the nutrients they need from plants to stay healthy and lay eggs on a regular basis.
Chickens are not vegetarian, but they can be fed a vegetarian diet.
A vegetarian diet can be cheaper to produce and some consumers seem to prefer meat that's been raised as vegetarian.
However, insects are a natural source of protein for chickens and contain other key nutrients that are essential for chicken health.