It seems the grocery store is getting more and more confusing as new health information and streams of marketing lingo hit the shelves. Things have gotten particularly perplexing in the egg department. From breakfast to baking, eggs are a staple in most households. They play a particularly big role in mine – I’m a vegetarian so eggs are my go-to option for high-quality protein. Shouldn’t we know what we’re really getting when we buy this common food?
Let’s crack open the mystery of what all the new terms on the egg cartons mean to make a healthy, ethical and money-smart decision when we hit the egg aisle.
Eggs aren’t just eggs anymore. It’s not even a matter of just choosing “Grade A” or large or extra large anymore. Cartons are labeled with terms like “cage-free,” “free-range,” “organic,” “farm-fresh,” “vegetarian-fed,” “pasture-raised,” and “omega-3.” But do all these words mean anything, or is it just marketing nonsense? Well, the answer is both. They mean something, but not always what you think they mean.
The Typical Egg
Your typical eggs stacked next to the milk at the grocery store without fancy claims and unfamiliar words can be considered “conventional.” They’re meant to meet the consumer’s demand for eggs at a low cost so producers focus on getting as many eggs for as cheaply as possible. Sure, there are certain USDA and FDA standards they have to follow to make sure the eggs are safe for consumption (a salmonella outbreak is bad for business after all), but the welfare of the chickens laying the eggs and the nutritional quality of the eggs themselves aren’t a top priority.
As many chickens as possible are packed into a space and the use of antibiotics and hormones is common practice. According to The Humane Society of the United States, chickens raised in this way typically get about 67 to 116 square inches of space – that’s about the size of a piece of paper. You can’t expect to stack chickens like cord wood and not have disease spreading like wildfire without the use of antibiotics.
They’re typically fed a grain-based food designed to meet the animals’ basic nutritional needs in the most affordable way. As long as the chickens keep laying eggs, the food is considered fine.
Practices like beak-cutting to reduce injuries from pecking as well as forced molting through starvation to manipulate the egg production cycle are common.
Conditions improve slightly as you get into cage-free and free-range eggs. The biggest difference from the conventional method is the amount of space and outdoor access. And typically as living conditions improve, so does the health of the animal and the health of the egg produced. This is why your best option is probably pasture-raised eggs.
Pasture-raised chickens live the most natural lives. Spending the bulk of their time outdoors on real grass and pasture, they’re able to walk around and stretch their wings, take dust baths, nest and forage – all normal things a chicken is supposed to do. The ability to forage is particularly important as this allows them to have a more natural diet full of insects and variety.
A 2010 study by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences found that eggs from chickens allowed to forage in pastures contain more beneficial nutrients, including vitamins A and E as well as healthy fatty acids.
However, there’s a surprising lack of regulation within the egg industry. Whether free-range, organic or pasture-raised, conditions may vary from producer to producer. Producers know these new terms are popular, so many want to profit from them. This can mean doing the bare minimum to meet the fairly lax standards. Unfortunately, even pasture-raised eggs may not come from as wonderful of a place as you might think. Some farmers obviously put more work into what they do than others, and those are the farmers you want to support.
For the best pasture-raised eggs, try to stick to the little guys. Odds are your big-box grocery store is going to choose eggs that bring the most profit – and those aren’t always the best quality. You may also want to keep an eye out for other certifications such as certified organic and some sort of certification indicating ethical treatment like certified humane, animal welfare approved or American humane certified.
If you really want to know what you’re getting, check out a co-op or farmers market where you can get direct access to the people raising the chickens and ask questions and scope things out. Or if you’re really ambitious, consider raising a few chickens of your own!
You may notice a few other terms popping up on egg cartons. Unfortunately, most of them are little more than the invention of marketing teams and the jury is still out on others.
- Farm Fresh – This means nothing. There are no qualifications to meet in order to be “farm fresh.” It’s just a ploy to try to conjure up images in your mind of happy, healthy chickens softly clucking as the farmer rises with the sun to gather eggs into a cute basket.
- Vegetarian-Fed – This sounds good in theory. No weird animal products in the chicken food! Sure, you don’t want chickens eating unsavory remnants from the slaughterhouse, but chickens aren’t actually vegetarians. They’re omnivores and under natural conditions eat a lot of insects. To be really healthy, a chicken needs a little animal protein. So while vegetarian-fed may mean that the chickens aren’t eating unhealthy animal by-products, it could also mean they’re missing out on some valuable nutrients.
- Omega-3 – Some cartons now claim their eggs contain more omega-3 fatty acids. And while some research indicates supplementing a chicken’s diet with extra omega-3 leads to eggs with more omega-3, the results aren’t conclusive – especially since there are no standards for the type of feed that should be given to create omega-3 rich eggs. However, even if the omega-3 in the feed isn’t transferred to the egg, the overall health of the chickens – and the eggs – doesn’t suffer in any way.
Choosing the right egg for you comes down to your concerns about ethics, nutrition and cost. Regardless of your choice, eggs are an excellent source of nutrition.
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