We love eggs- we go through about 2 dozen eggs a week. They are an excellent way to increase nutrients in your family’s diet. Eggs should be [usually, see below for details] full of vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin E, omega 3 fatty acids, beta carotene…and they also include two of the biggest debated items in food science right now… cholesterol and saturated fat (worthy of multiple blog posts, so I’ll stop here for now).
So how can you be sure the eggs you are purchasing are really full of those wonderful nutrients?
Labels. Labels. Labels. You have to understand the labels!
Before I began reading, researching, and writing about my evolution of all things food related, I had no idea what the all the stinking egg carton labels meant.
“Cage-Free,” “Free-range,” “Pastured,” “Brown,” what was the difference?!
After my “can we raise chickens in our back yard, hunny?” question got quickly rejected, I decided to do my label research.
I present to you the definitions (for the U.S.) and meanings of all those crazy labels you see. Some eggcellent. And some not so eggcellent.
The beauty of it all? The decision is ultimately in your hands (and bank account). I present you with the facts, then you can make the purchase decision.
To start, is there really a difference in eggs?
Absolutely. Guess which egg has the most nutrients? Scroll down to the bottom of this post to find out 🙂
What if my eggs don’t have any added labels (i.e. cheapest eggs at the grocery store) ?
Legal Definition: (found on USDA website) You can assume that your chickens were fed the traditional diet, according to USDA’s Trade Descriptions seen below:
(10) Production and Feeding Systems: (i) Traditional Production and Diet [Coded as 1] -Birds are raised in heated and air-cooled growing houses and fed a precisely formulated high protein diet.
Amy’s definition: No thanks. I can assume the worse if it doesn’t tell me about the diet, treatment, or living conditions of the hens.
What does Free-range (aka Free-roaming) mean?
Legal Definition: must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside. (Found here on USDA website).
(ii) Free-Range Production with Traditional Diet  – Birds are raised in heated and air-cooled growinghouses with access to the outdoors and fed a traditional high protein diet. Because birds have access to the outdoors, diet and bio-security are not precisely controlled. Specific production requirements may need to be defined by buyer and seller.
(v) Free-Range Production with Organic and/or Antibiotic-Free Systems  – Birds are raised in heated and air-cooled growing houses with access to the outdoors and fed an organic diet (without hormones or non-organic additives) and/or raised without antibiotics (drugs that are intended to prevent or treat animal illnesses). Purchaser must specify system
requirements under “Additional product options.”
Amy’s Definition: Farmers can put a doggie-door on a chicken coop and prove that is access to the outside. I guess USDA doesn’t care if they actually see the sun? The pictures below show the differences these weak regulations could withhold.
this is considered free-range with a provided outdoor access.
What does Cage-free mean?
Definition: Chickens were not kept in battery cages. Not a USDA certified term, just a commercial designation. A marketing ploy to be able to charge more money.
Amy’s Definition: Doesn’t necessarily mean the chickens are seeing any daylight. “Cage-Free” could mean they are indeed, not in cages, but they are not free to eat, walk, do as they please. Again, weak guidelines.
What does Pasture-raised mean?
Legal Definition: (all found on USDA website)
(iii) Pastured/Pasture-Raised Production with Traditional Diet  – Birds are raised outdoors using movable enclosures located on grass and fed a traditional high-protein diet. Specific production requirements may need to be defined by buyer and seller
(vi) Pastured Production with Organic and/or Antibiotic-Free Systems  – Birds are raised outdoors using movable enclosures located on grass and fed an organic diet (without hormones or non-organic additives) and/or raised without antibiotics (drugs that are intended to prevent or treat animal illnesses). Purchaser must specify system requirements under “Additional product options.”
Amy’s Definition: I’ll take option 2 (vi), please.
What does Organic mean?
Legal Definition: According to this website, organic definitions are summarized by saying:
1. Products labeled “organic” must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients.’
2. Prohibit the use of toxic synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, genetically engineered seeds or other materials, sewage, sludge, or biosolids, antibiotics and synthetic hormones
3. Requires that organic eggs, meat, and dairy products come from animals that are given feed that’s 100 percent organic. In most cases they will require that the animals be given access to the outdoors and pastures and will forbid the severe confinement conditions often used in nonorganic factory farms.
4. Debeaking and forced molting is still allowed- the amount of pasture access is not known.
Amy’s Definition: Definitely, definitely, definitely look for the certified organic seal.
What grade of eggs do I want to purchase?
Grade AA is the highest quality. Followed by A and then B.
Do I need to look for “hormone-free” on my eggs?
No. See below.
According to the USDA website, Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
Do I need to look for “antibiotic-free” on my eggs?
Yes. See below.
According to the same USDA website listed above, The terms “no antibiotics added” may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the Agency demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics.
What does “vegetarian-fed” mean?
Legal definition: No animal products were used in the chickens’ feed.
Amy’s definition: No sufficient. I need to see more labels explaining living conditions.
What does “omega-3 eggs” mean?
Definition: The eggs do have an increased amount of omega-3 fatty acid because the chickens were fed flax seed, flax oil, or other food ingredients containing omega-3.
Amy’s definition: Omega-3s are in fact, good for you. But I’d like my chickens to produce their own, natural omega-3s.
Research from WebMD: Research shows strong evidence that the omega-3s EPA and DHA can boost heart health and lower triglycerides. And there are studies showing that omega-3 fatty acids may help with other conditions — rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and many more.
Does the color of my egg shells mean anything?
It depicts the breed of hen that laid it. The biggest thing you can do to ensure a “healthy egg” is to understand the labels above (i.e. diet and living conditions).
Are factory farm chickens treated humanely?
From PETA’s website: Chickens are arguably the most abused animal on the planet.
A summarized version of the life of a chicken in a factory farm:
The hen is debeaked and put into a battery cage where the hens are so close it is difficult to avoid urination and defecation. The lighting in the coops is manipulated to increase egg production. There are times when hens are fed a reduced calorie diet to force an extra laying cycle. After around 2 years of egg productions, the chickens are exhausted and sent to a slaughter house.
Why are hens debeaked?
How can I ensure the hens were treated humanely?
Look for the Certified Humane® label. This ensures that the hens do not live in cages and have the ability to roam, however access to the pasture is not required. Forced molting is not allowed. Perching and nesting must be allowed. Debeaking IS NOT allowed (yay!). More certified humane designations for chickens can be read here. The link provided is actually very, very interesting! Check it out if you have time!
I am sure you are now saying “Ok, great. So you have defined a bazillion things. Now I am more confused than ever. What next?”
Again, the decision is up to you. My preference?
Pastured, organic, certified humane eggs. For sure worth the extra money.
Argument [further] seen below.
However, if those are not available, my next choice would be to find free-range, organic eggs.
Why should I buy eggs from Pastured chickens?
1. Chickens need sunshine in order to get vitamin D…which ultimately lands in the yolk we will be eating.
A research article written by Mother Earth News proved that chickens that were raised on a pasture produced:
• 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
There are several other research articles to support this argument.
2. Pastured chickens are treated ethically- forage at their leisure on natural grasses. Great article here
3. Better for our environment- sun feeds the grasses (and chickens!), the chickens feed on the sun-filled grasses, the chickens fertilize the grasses. Another great article for more info.
Why do Pastured chickens have more nutrients in their eggs?
A chicken’s natural diet is seed, green plants, insects, worms, some grain or mash. The industrial, factory chickens never see the light of day, nor do they get to roam around to eat their natural diet. They eat what is laid in front of them- cheapest possible mixture of genetically modified corn, soy, or cottonseed meal that contains a whole world of additives.
What are the costs of pastured chicken eggs?
Unfortunately, free-range/pastured eggs are more expensive (averaging $4-6 a dozen), paralleling the costs of production.
However, you do get what you pay for.
You would have to eat 5 of the cheapest eggs from the grocery store to obtain the same level of nutrients. You are also supporting the horrible treatment of chickens and making the small-scale egg production more difficult (not judging, just saying!).
Imagine a world that required chickens to roam in their natural environment…outdoors. NOT in cages. I’ll keep dreaming….
Where can you find real, pastured eggs?
1. Local farmers market- the key here is talking to the farmer and asking how the chickens are raised.
2. Whole Foods- Vital Farms (delicious eggs, love this company) or the great thing about Whole Foods is they like supporting local farmers, so there should be a “local egg” carton there. Contact the name on the carton to find out more info.
My egg purchase?
1. Vital Farms or the Local eggs sold at Whole foods (not always available)
To end on, a great quote I stumbled upon on Mother Earth’s website:
“We preach to everyone that will listen: Don’t buy animal products unless you can see the way they’re raised. If everyone bought that way, there wouldn’t be industrial farms, and the small farmer could prosper again.” – Bill and Sharon Moreton, Spring Mountain Farms