It’s amazing to read the enticing terms on egg cartons. Cage-free! Natural, Vegetarian, Free-range, Certified Humane! Many of these terms are legally regulated. What do they all mean? If you don’t have time to figure them out, here’s a quick guide.
The Best Eggs are Pasture-raised Organic
Studies show that organic eggs from hens raised on pasture offer better nutrition than other supermarket eggs. Research also demonstrates that eggs from free-range, grass-fed chickens contain more nutrients than caged birds. Healthy eggs have a thick shell that’s hard to break, bright orange yolks, and a delicious flavor. Price is a big factor, and pasture-raised organic eggs are more expensive, because organic feed costs more, and more space is required to raise them.
OK, What do the Terms Mean?
Pasture Raised – Hens must get at least 30 % of their dry-feed from pasture grazing outside. However the other 70% or their diet is not regulated, and may be gmo grains. The best pasture-raised hens roam freely outdoors where they can forage for their natural diet, which includes seeds, green plants, insects, and worms.
Organic – These hens are fed a vegetarian organic certified diet. This is the only category that allows no pesticides or gmo grains. Hens are un-caged, and there is no regulation on chickens per square foot, so they may not have room to walk around. And they are not required to have outdoor access.
Free Range – Hens must be allowed some access to the outdoors. But there are no requirements as to how much time they spend outdoors, or the quality or size of the outdoor area. This term seems better, but is still quite vague and doesn’t necessarily indicate a healthy environment or the level of crowding in the coop. “Free range” also tells you nothing about the chicken’s diet, so she’s likely eating cheap genetically modified grains.
Certified Humane – Hens are un-caged and indoors, with less crowded conditions than other categories. This tells you nothing about her ability to move around or her diet.
Cage Free – Hens live un-caged, typically indoors and may never see daylight. Since diet is not addressed in this term, they are most likely eating gmo grains.
Vegetarian fed – This is not a regulated term, so your guess is as good as mine. These hens are typically fed genetically modified grains, no animal parts, with no pasture grazing.
Omega-3 eggs – Does not necessarily indicate healthy eggs. Hens are often fed low quality omega-3 fats that are already oxidized, which offer no health benefit, in fact they can be detrimental. Omega-3 eggs are more highly perishable than other eggs. For these reasons many doctors recommend you save your money and skip the Omega-3 eggs.
Fresh – This is not a meaningful term in the USA. Eggs are typically 3 weeks old by the time we find them on the grocery shelf. In the European Union, 85% of the UK and parts of Australia, each egg is date stamped. However in the USA, it’s hard to know how old an egg is. You’ll find the freshest eggs at a local farm or friend with chickens.
Natural or Naturally Raised – This term is not regulated for chickens, so it means nothing.
Fertilized – This is not a regulated term, but it’s interesting to know that hens can lay eggs even if a rooster isn’t around. For an egg to be fertilized, the hen and rooster must mate 1-7 days before the egg forms. If the hen has not mated, then the egg will be unfertilized. Both fertilized and unfertilized eggs are great to eat. Once a fertilized egg goes in the refrigerator, the chick’s development stops. To see if an egg is fertilized, hold it up to the light and you’ll see blood spots and the embryo. Once it is cracked, you’ll see a defined white circle and tiny red lines on the surface of the yolk. I can’t find any evidence that fertilized eggs are more nutritious, however they are definitely sexier!
Where to Buy Pastured-raised Organic Eggs?
Find the best eggs locally from an organic farm or a farmers market. It’s great to meet your producers face-to-face. Even better is to visit the farm, meet the chickens an gather the eggs yourself! Check out these websites for local sources of eggs: Local Harvest, Farmers Market Zip List, Eat Wild.