With pictures on the carton of chickens happily grazing on sun-kissed pastures and phrases like, “Better lives for hens mean better eggs for you,” navigating the egg display can feel almost impossible.
After reading Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and watching the disturbing scene depicting how many large-scale factories house their chickens on the documentary Food Inc., we began to understand that not all eggs are created equal.
In an effort to help you become a rock star at understanding the egg aisle, here’s a breakdown of egg labels and what to look for.
Do living conditions matter?
Similar to our health, the conditions an animal lives in and the food they eat both play a vital role in their health (and the quality of their eggs). Sadly, the majority of grocery store eggs come from hens that are confined in filthy, windowless industrial barns, with such little space that they can barely turn around or lie comfortably. Sounds like they’re raising happy hens, right?
How about their diet and ability to be outdoors?
Research has shown that pasture-raised hens who forage on juicy worms, crunchy critters and seasonal grasses produce eggs with significantly more omega-3 fatty acids and higher concentrations of vitamin A and E, compared to eggs from caged hens fed only commercial feed. That means a greater bang for your buck and your nutritional intake!
Notice the darker colored yolks from local pasture-raised eggs compared to the color of store-bought eggs? A deep orange yolk is an indication that the hen’s diet is rich in carotenoid (a natural pigment which gives color to plants) from grazing, while a light yolk suggests the hen was fed commercial food (often made with cereal grains such as corn).
Brown versus white eggs: Is there a difference?
In the battle of white versus brown eggs, you may have a clear favorite. And because “white” often coincides with “refined” (think white bread, white rice and white granulated sugar), brown eggs tend to be held in higher regard. However, when it comes to eggs, the only real difference between the two is the breed (and the size) of the chicken. They’re equal in flavor, nutritional value and taste.
So, why are brown more expensive? Not because they’re healthier, but because the hens that lay brown eggs are larger and are more expensive to feed and care for. So, if you want to save some money and know more about the nutrients in your eggs, look beyond just its shell.
Some common packaging terms.
With words like free-range, cage-free, natural, pasture-raised and vegetarian-fed, you can literally spend an entire afternoon sifting through and trying to decipher egg labels. Here’s a quick breakdown:
Cage-free: These hens are housed indoors and there is no requirement of how many chickens per square foot. They have no outdoor access. Eeek!
Free-range: This means the hens are housed indoors and may only have access to 2 whopping feet of outdoor space during their laying cycles. The USDA doesn’t regulate the amount of time the animal spends in this space, if any. Better than cage-free eggs, but not awesome!
Certified organic: According to the USDA, these birds are required to be fed an all organic, vegetarian diet that’s free of GMOs and pesticides. The only time the bird is allowed to be administered antibiotics is in the event of an emergency. But, just like free-range eggs, the birds are housed indoors and may have limited access to outdoor space.
Pasture-raised or pastured: The hen spends some time outdoors on a pasture, meadow, field or in the woods foraging and feeding on grass, worms, grubs and bugs (their natural diet). Typically, pasture-raised animals come from smaller-scale farms, rather than conventional large-scale factories. The USDA has not come up with an actual federal definition for pasture-raised, so there are no government standards for this label. Because of limited regulations, there’s no definitive way to know how much time the bird spends in the pasture, unless you ask the farmer (at the market) or do your own investigating into the company’s standards.
Certified organic and pasture-raised:These happy hens are not only allowed out in the pasture, they’re organically raised. If you’re not able to buy local eggs and chat with the farmers themselves, this is your next best bet!
Natural: According to the USDA, egg products labeled as “natural” cannot contain artificial ingredients and must be minimally processed (as opposed to highly processed). In other words, the word natural doesn’t offer any humane standards of care for the laying hens, rendering it basically useless when it comes to choosing better eggs.
Vegetarian-fed:This means the hens weren’t fed any animal by-products, such as ground meat. This is a good thing, but says nothing about how the hen was raised or cared for (caged or outside time).
Generally speaking, we encourage shopping local whenever possible. Local often means smaller scale, which typically leads to better quality eggs and potentially lower cost. Also, local allows you to have the opportunity to go straight to the source. You can ask questions regarding the foods you’re choosing or even visit the farm or business where the food was grown, raised or made.
Your local farmers’ markets (which provide a variety of food options in one location) is a great place to start. When Kalie lived in Washington she actually found her egg resource from a small family farm that listed their eggs for sale on the Facebook Marketplace.
Farm-fresh, pasture-raised eggs versus store-bought eggs: What’s the big difference?
- The size and shape of the eggs
- Unlike store-bought, local eggs aren’t perfectly symmetrical
- The shell of the egg
- Local eggs typically have a denser shell due to the hens’ diet.
- The color of the yolk
- Local eggs have dark orange yolks.
- Store-bought eggs have light yellow yolks.
- The consistency and fluffiness of the eggs
- Yolk from local eggs is often thicker, creamier and when scrambled, much fluffier.
- Store-bought eggs have runnier yolk and when scrambled are flatter.
- The taste
- We hate to break it to you but local eggs aren’t just healthier, they taste better too!
Notice the different sizes of local eggs compared to the almost exact symmetry and color of store-bought eggs.
What to avoid and what to look for
Avoid: Simply put, steer clear of eggs from large companies that house their chickens in poor living conditions.
What’s okay: Aim to purchase local eggs from pasture-raised, hormone-free chickens. When local isn’t available, look for pasture-raised eggs (preferably organic) from hens that don’t live in a large-scale factory.
- Choose local pasture-raised eggs whenever possible.
- Be wary of free-range eggs. This means the hens may only have access to 2 whopping feet of outdoor space. Better than some eggs, but not awesome!
- Avoid cage-free eggs. The hens have no outdoor access.
Our two go-to grocery store eggs (when local is not an option)
- Vital Farms. They may not be organic, but their hens are raised on small family farms and they now let their customers take a 360-degree look at the specific farm their eggs came from.
- Pete and Gerry’s. All of Pete and Gerry’s eggs are organic and free-range. While they’re not pasture-raised hens, we tend to think they’re still happier than most!
When it comes to choosing the right eggs, decide which factors are most important to you and your family. Once you find what’s best for you, you’ll be able to navigate the egg display like a pro.