Finding eggs that are safe, nutritious and humanely raised can be a challenge for many people, and the labels on egg cartons certainly don’t help. Sometimes they can even be deceptive…
Approximately 98% of all eggs purchased come from battery cage hens, and labels such as “Farm Fresh,” “Cage Free” and “All Natural” can be misleading, as they tell you nothing regarding animal welfare, what the animals are fed, or how nutritious (or potentially dangerous!) the eggs are likely to be.
What Kind of Eggs Should I Buy?
The first clue is price. As usual, you get what you pay for. If you buy the cheapest supermarket eggs—even the cheapest organic eggs—you are not only missing out on the valuable nutrients eggs should contain, you are also supporting an industrial production system that treats animals cruelly and makes more sustainable, small-scale egg production difficult.
Beyond the price tag, the labels on egg cartons can be confusing and misleading. Here is what some of them mean:
Omega-3 Enhanced Eggs
Omega-3 enhanced (or omega-3 fortified) eggs come from hens given feed that contains significant amounts of flaxseed, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Most omega-3 enhanced egg layers live out their lives in battery cages. Omega-3 eggs are unregulated, and the amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in eggs can be quite variable.
Cage Free Eggs
Cage-free is a loose, unregulated term where eggs could be from chickens confined to a barn, or from chickens with access to outdoor space. There is a big difference between the two! Cage-free egg producers are not audited by third-party inspectors, unless they are also certified organic.
Many people buy “cage-free” eggs believing that the hens that lay them have access to outdoor pasture, but the reality is that these chickens usually live inside dark sheds. They are free to roam around within the enclosed space and to stretch and spread their wings—which is a significant improvement over battery cage conditions—but they don’t typically have access to outdoor pasture.
As with battery cage farming, forced molting (starving hens to produce more eggs) and beak trimming (removal of a portion of the beak, usually with a heated blade) are common practices.
Free Range Eggs
“Free-range” doesn’t necessarily mean pasture raised any more than “cage free” does. Free-range hens are supposed to have access to the outside, but there is no regulation as to how long they need to be outside, how much room should be given, or about any of the standards that would make them “free-range.”
Plus these birds can still be given antibiotics, animal by-products, and food from GMO crops. They may live in overcrowded conditions, and may or may not have access to nests and perches. In other words, they are probably not what you thought they were.
Certified organic eggs come from antibiotic- and hormone-free hens that have “access” to outdoor areas and are fed an organic diet, though some beak trimming is allowed. The conditions in which organic eggs are laid are verified by third parties, which reduces the likelihood of fraudulent labeling.
However, until consumers demand stricter standards for organic eggs and chicken, “access to the outdoors” can mean millions of birds crowded into a shed with access to one tiny, concrete-floored porch. So it’s a good idea to do a little investigating into your brand of eggs, to help you choose a healthier, more humane egg!
Pasture Raised Eggs
True free-range eggs from hens raised on grassy pastures are more nutritious than those obtained from cage-free, confinement operations or battery cages. However, free-range producers are not audited by third parties unless the eggs are also certified organic.
Why Does A Pasture-Raised Egg Matter So Much?
If you’ve never eaten an egg from a hen raised on sunshine, bugs and grass, then you are in for quite a treat. Deep orange, gooey yolks stand up tall within their thick, milky whites unlike any store-bought egg you’ve ever seen.
Their color, flavor and texture are made distinctive by high amounts of Vitamin A, D, E, K2, B-12, folate, riboflavin, zinc, calcium, beta carotene, choline, and tons of omega 3 fatty acids, including DHA, EPA, ALA, and AA. A pasture-raised egg is a true superfood.
Second only to the lactalbumin protein in human mother’s milk, eggs have the highest quality protein of any food. In addition to being an affordable, extremely dense source of nutrition, eggs can be prepared in a variety of tasty ways. This is especially true of a pasture-raised egg.
Mother Earth News conducted an egg testing project in 2007, and found that eggs produced by truly free-ranging hens were far superior to those produced by battery cage hens. The study involved 14 flocks across the United States whose eggs were tested by an accredited Portland, Oregon, laboratory.
They found that the benefits of pasture raised eggs include:
- 1/3 less cholesterol
- 1/4 less saturated fat
- 2/3 more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta carotene
They also found that eggs from hens raised outdoors on pasture have from three to six times more vitamin D than eggs from hens raised in confinement. Pastured hens are exposed to direct sunlight, which their bodies convert to vitamin D and then pass on to their eggs. Eating just two of these eggs will give you from 63-126% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin D!
Note that this benefit comes only from hens that are free to graze fresh greens, eat bugs, and bask in the sun. 99% of the eggs sold in the supermarket do not meet this criterion.
Even though the label says that the eggs are “certified organic” or come from “cage free” or “free range” hens, or from hens fed an “all-vegetarian” diet (chickens are NOT vegetarians!), this is no guarantee that the hens had access to the outdoors or pasture—which makes all the difference.
In addition to the Mother Earth News research findings, there have been a number of other studies showing that pasture-raised eggs are healthier than those produced by confinement-raised hens. Findings include the following:
- Pasture-raised eggs contain 70% more vitamin B12 and 50% more folic acid (British Journal of Nutrition, 1974).
- Pasture-raised eggs are higher in vitamin E and omega-3s than those obtained from battery-cage hens (Animal Feed Science and Technology, 1998).
- Pasture-raised eggs are 10% lower in fat, 34% lower in cholesterol, contain 40% more vitamin A, and are 4 times higher in omega-3s than standard U.S. battery-cage eggs, and pasture-raised chicken meat has 21% less fat, 30% less saturated fat, and 50% more vitamin A than that of caged chickens (Gorski, Pennsylvania State University, 1999).
- Pasture-raised eggs have three times more omega-3s and are 220% higher in vitamin E and 62% higher in vitamin A than eggs obtained from battery cage hens (Karsten, Pennsylvania State University, 2003).
Long and Alterman (2007) attribute the dramatic differences in nutritional content to the fact that pasture-raised hens consume a more natural, omnivorous diet that includes seeds, worms, insects, and green plants, and they get a lot of sunshine.
Factory farm birds—both conventional and organic—never get to see the outdoors, let alone get to forage for their natural diet. Instead they are fed the cheapest possible mixture of corn, soy and/or cottonseed meals, with all kinds of additives, often including arsenic.
So for the best eggs you can get, look for eggs from “pasture-raised” hens that are only supplementally fed with organic grains.
In the end, all of this is just one more reminder that while certifications and labels may be useful tools, there is no substitute for having a real relationship with your local farmer(s) and knowing where your food comes from.