Loaded with proteins, vitamins, and minerals, eggs are a healthy and affordable source of nutrition. But deciphering the vast array of claims on the carton labels these days can leave your brain scrambled. Here’s a quick guide to the terminology.
Conventional eggs in the US come from chickens that live in confined aviaries. Their beaks are mutilated at birth and hens are put into confined battery cages where they are unable to fully lift their wings. The light is artificial and meant to maximize egg production and such is their life for about 2 years until their bodies can’t take anymore.
Thankfully, demand is increasing for eggs from humanely treated chickens and industries are taking steps to better the conditions.
This is a big one in the news lately. Restaurant chains and food producers like McDonalds, Kroger, and Starbucks are changing over to only using “cage-free” eggs by 2025.
Chickens will not be confined to a specific battery cage and can roam freely, but it still has its limitations. Often chickens never see sunlight and depending on the density of the aviary (how many chickens are essentially stacked) diseases spread, fecal matter builds up and cause high concentrations of ammonia in the air, and the chickens technically have an option to go outside, but this doesn’t mean that they do or that outside is a green pasture.
In the USDA definition, birds must have “access to the outdoors” and not housed in caging devices. Five minutes of outdoor access is deemed as adequate to certify for this label and are not regulated. The outdoor access is what differentiates free-range from cage-free. This label still doesn’t necessarily indicate much about the life of the hen and therefore the quality of the egg.
In order to be considered “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.
The USDA does regulate certified organic products and organic eggs must be free-range (have access to the outdoors), fed an organic feed free from synthetic pesticides, and be hormone and antibiotic free. The chickens can still be in crowded aviaries and not under the best living conditions, but this does ensure some regulation.
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.
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.
Natural or Naturally Raised
This term is not regulated for chickens, so it means nothing.
Which one to choose?
In our opinion, it’s best to select eggs that are both Pasture-Raised AND Organic. You can find the best eggs locally from an organic farm or a farmers market. Eggs contain choline, selenium, complete protein, vitamin D and vitamin B12, but hens given the highest quality of living conditions produce the highest quality eggs. And after all, you are what you eat.