You walk over to the egg section in the grocery store and see so many different labels on the egg cartons. There are free range, cage free, organic, non-GMO, vegetarian fed and pasture raised eggs. Some egg cartons even have multiple labels on them.
When did food become so complicated?
This is where I can help. In this article I am going to teach you what the different egg carton claims mean. Give me 10 minutes and you will understand how to shop for eggs and never have to think about it again.
Here’s what I am going to cover in case you want to jump around.
If you have not seen my first article on eggs, I encourage you to take a few minutes to read that. The Cliff Notes version is that you don’t have to worry about the cholesterol in eggs. It is not bad for your health.
That idea was based on flawed science. When you eat eggs, eat the whole egg.
Important note before we get into the details. Many of these claims are often combined. If you have any questions when you are at the store, come back and double check to see what the different terms are telling you.
Let’s get into the details.
What Are Conventional Eggs?
Conventional eggs are the lowest quality eggs you can buy at the grocery store. They cost $1 or less per dozen and are in a plain carton with no claims anywhere in sight.
They come from hens (female chickens) that are fed a grain and soy based diet and spend most of their lives laying eggs in battery cages. These cages are about the same size as a sheet of paper.
Cages hens are not able to engage in any of their natural behaviors. Their beaks are trimmed when they are young so they don’t peck at each other. This is where the term pecking order comes from.
Conventional hens are often subjected to a process called forced molting. This involves a period of starvation that causes the hens to produce larger eggs when they resume their egg laying cycle.
Many countries have banned these practices, especially the use of battery cages, but not the United States.
None of these actions are necessary for the health of the hen or for her to lay eggs. Commercial operations do this to produce eggs faster, in larger sizes, and at the lowest cost. It is everything that is wrong with our food system in 2020.
At least five states have banned the use of battery cages with Michigan being the most recent in 2019. Because of increasing consumer awareness about the use of battery cages, cage free eggs have become a popular alternative.
Are cage free eggs better than conventional eggs?
Cage Free Eggs
Dozens of companies have recently pledged to only use cage free eggs in the coming years. Are they any better?
The term cage free means that chickens do not live in small battery cages. That’s it.
Cage free hens still endure the other cruel practices used in conventional egg production. The only difference is that they spend their lives living outside of a tiny cage.
The requirements to use the term cage free specify that each hen must have at least one square foot of living space. Instead of living in cages, cage free hens live in crowded indoor barns with no requirements for natural lighting or access to the outdoors.
Cage free hens are conventional hens that do not live in tiny cages. Otherwise there is no difference.
Free Range Eggs
I bet when you hear the term free range you think of hens spending their lives outdoors doing natural chicken activities. Being treated humanely. Unfortunately these assumptions are not correct.
Free range chickens are provided outdoor access per the USDA regulations. But there is no definition of what that outdoor access should be.
With no regulation there is no consistency. A small cement patio can and often does qualify as outdoor access. Chickens may choose to use it, but in reality they still spend most of their lives inside crowded barns.
Free range hens are cage free hens who still live in a barn but that barn has a small door with access to an undefined and unregulated outside area that they may never use.
Are Organic Eggs Better?
So far we have learned that conventionally raised hens spend their lives living in tiny cages. Cage free and free range hens do not live in cages but are still subjected to many inhumane practices.
Free range hens are provided with access to outdoor space but there is no regulation of the quality of that space or that they even use it.
This brings us to organic eggs.
Organic food sales have been growing by double digits every year. People increasingly believe that organic foods are better for their health. Is this true with eggs?
Organic hens do not live in battery cages. They are provided organic feed that is not treated with pesticides or chemicals. If they are given access to the outdoors that area must also be pesticide free.
Unfortunately the organic certification does nothing to address animal welfare. Practices like beak trimming and forced molting are still allowed.
As part of the organic certification program outdoor access must be provided. However again, much like with free range chickens the quality of that outdoor access is not defined.
In reality, organic eggs are free range chickens fed organic feed.
Several years ago changes were proposed that would have clearly spelled out the rules for outdoor spaces to be used by organic hens. In 2018 the USDA decided against adopting those rules.
Why Define Outdoor Space?
In 2016 the USDA determined that about 50% of organic egg producers were only providing outdoor access in the form of a porch. Sounds nice, who doesn’t like a porch?
Many of these porches have a roof and solid floor and provide no actual access to the outdoors. Picture a screened-in porch where there is a roof above you and a floor below.
Organic eggs essentially come from free range hens. The one difference is that the feed must be certified organic. There are no clear guidelines to define what kind of outdoor access must be given to organic hens.
There is also no consideration of animal welfare in the organic regulations.
Omega 3 Eggs
This designation is tricky. You will often see it combined with other claims such as free range or organic. This claim only refers to the nutritional quality of the eggs themselves, it has no other meaning.
Research has shown that the nutritional content of eggs is dose responsive.
This means that the diet of a hen effects the nutritional value of her eggs. That is the basis behind Omega 3 eggs. Add flax seeds or fish oil that are high in Omega 3’s to a hen’s feed and you increase the egg’s Omega 3 fatty acid content.
At the store, you may see conventional, cage free, free range or organic Omega 3 eggs.
Chickens are omnivores, just like us. Their natural diet includes lots of little bugs, grubs and other small insects in addition to grass and plants they eat while foraging on pasture.
Yet many egg cartons proudly state that their chickens are 100% vegetarian fed. This one has never made sense to me. Maybe it is meant to show that chickens have not been fed animal by-products?
Either way, vegetarian fed is not a positive quality you want in your eggs.
GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. In the United States several crops are genetically modified to produce different traits that are not normally found in nature.
For example, corn plants are genetically modified so they do not die when sprayed with the pesticide Roundup. This allows farmers to control weeds that grow near corn and compete for nutrients in the soil while not killing the corn plant. If you have ever used Roundup in your yard you know it normally kills anything that has been sprayed.
GMOs could be an entire post of their own. For today what we need to know is that non-GMO eggs have been fed grains that are not from genetically modified crops.
Remember from above, grains would not normally be part of a chickens diet. While this label tells us something about the quality of the grains a chicken has been fed, generally a grain based diet is not a positive attribute we want in our eggs.
Pasture Raised Eggs
Like most other egg carton claims, the term pasture raised is unregulated. In general pasture raised eggs should come from chickens with access to pasture. Pasture meaning grass, dirt and other aspects of the natural environment where a chicken would live.
But there is no guarantee of access to pasture or any animal welfare standards with pasture raised eggs because of the lack of regulation. Unfortunately at their worst commercial pasture raised eggs may be more expensive free range eggs.
Luckily there is a third party certification you can look for on egg cartons which when combined with the pasture raised claim does mean something. And that something is pretty close to what most people who purchase pasture raised eggs are hoping for. Let’s explore.
Certified Humane Pasture Raised Eggs
To participate in the certified humane program, egg producers must adhere to a strict set of standards. These standards cover feed and water, living conditions and ethical treatment of the hens.
The only thing not required under the general certified humane designation is outdoor access. The certification does require more space in indoor barns so chickens are not as cramped as those who are cage free.
Similar to Omega 3 eggs, you may see the certified humane claim on several different types of eggs. For example you can have free range certified humane eggs.
Even better, there is a standard that can be met that allows for a pasture raised and certified humane claim on egg cartons.
These eggs meet all of the general welfare standards plus have guaranteed outdoor access.
That level of clarity is what many of us are seeking when we are shopping for cage free, free range or organic eggs. Humanely treated animals, eating their natural diet, provided appropriate outdoor access.
Remember a moment ago I said that the nutrition in an egg depends on the hen’s diet? Studies have found that pasture raised eggs are more nutritious than other eggs because hens are eating their natural diet. Which makes total sense.
Farmers Market Eggs
Another option if you want pasture raised eggs is to shop at a local farmers market. Many farmers keep a small number of egg producing hens.
When you talk to the farmers they often will show you pictures of their operation and tell you about the care and treatment of their hens. While there is no guarantee of humane treatment, talking to the person who raised your food can be very informative.
Usually you will find that they are meeting or exceeding many animal welfare and other treatment standards they just do not pay for the certifications because it is too costly. In my experience the cost per dozen eggs is about the same as the cost of pasture raised eggs at a grocery store.
Why Does the Type of Eggs Matter?
Stepping on my soapbox for a moment, think of every food purchase you make as a vote. A vote for the status quo or a vote for changing our food system.
In the United States we have more food available at affordable prices than at any other time in our history, and we’ve never been sicker. Our food system is failing us.
And instead of helping make things easier for us, many large companies only seek to cause more confusion with claims like cage free and free range that ultimately mean nothing. Additionally they produce products like liquid eggs that are nothing more than a processed food trying to mimic a real food.
Industrial food operations produce what sells. If more of us make a different choice and opt for certified humane pasture raised eggs or buy eggs directly from a small farmer, production will increase. With more demand ultimately the price will fall and better quality products will be more affordable for all of us.
What Are the Best Eggs to Buy?
It all depends on your budget and your beliefs.
At the store, pasture raised eggs that are certified humane come from hens that live in humane conditions, eat their natural diet and are provided outdoor access. Chickens that are treated well and fed their natural diet will produce superior quality eggs.
It’s important to point out that cage free egg laying hens are treated poorly. But, if they are all you can afford, whole eggs are still better and far more nutritious than egg substitutes.
It’s up to those of us who can afford higher quality eggs to buy them to help lower the price for everyone. Imagine a world where you go to the store and just buy eggs. You don’t need a 2,000 word blog post to figure out which eggs are the best.
Try pasture raised eggs next time you head out to the store or the farmers market and let me know what you think. I bet you find they taste better than the eggs you had been buying before. Especially if you mix them with a bit of ripe avocado and make a great omelette on Sunday mornings.