With Easter right around the corner, we wanted to talk about delicious and healthy… eggs! Many of us are surrounded by eggs this season – from candy eggs to dyed eggs to plain old eggs at the grocery store. And it’s likely that, over the years, you’ve heard a lot of controversy about eggs. Not too long ago people were only eating egg whites – swearing yokes off as “high in cholesterol.”
These days we know that eggs are an excellent choice for anyone trying to stay healthy. They are jam packed with protein, healthy fats, Vitamins A, B2, B5, B6, B12, D, E, K, and minerals like calcium, zinc, and more. They are also a noted source of nutrition for vegetarians who won’t eat meat – but are okay with eating eggs and dairy.
However, there are a lot of egg options to choose from. If you don’t know what makes each choice different, you might end up just buying the cheapest or the kind that “looks” healthiest. So, we wanted to take a moment before Easter gets here to help you decide which eggs are the healthiest.
Organic, Pasture-Raised, Cage-Free: What’s the Difference?
Here’s a list of the different labels you will probably see at the grocery store when shopping for eggs – and what each label means. With Farmer’s Markets back in town, you might be able to cut out the middleman and talk to the farmer herself – making decisions about which eggs to buy a lot easier.
This label means virtually nothing because just about every egg you purchase (unless it’s from your neighbor who has a coop) is probably from a farm. This label isn’t particularly regulated, and it indicates nothing about the quality of the eggs or the chicken’s quality of life.
Another label that doesn’t mean anything in particular is “natural.” Eggs are clearly natural, as in they aren’t made synthetically, and there is no federal regulation of this labeling term. It’s just a marketing ploy – much like “farm fresh.”
The last misleading label we’ll mention here is “hormone-free.” Farmers in the U.S. aren’t legally allowed to inject hormones into poultry. So, all eggs are already free of synthetic hormones.
This sounds like a good deal for the chickens, right? Unfortunately, cage-free hens are still crammed into a warehouse type environment, spending their entire life indoors. They may be packed in as tightly as on a bus headed out of Downtown during rush hour. The FDA doesn’t regulate this label, but some industry groups like the United Egg Producers offer certification that indicates each bird has at least one square foot of space as well as perches and nesting areas.
And, just FYI, if you decide to do your own research on which producers use humane cage-free practices, get ready for lots and lots of bad puns.
Eggs labeled “free-range” are laid by hens that have access to the outdoors. There’s no regulation on how long the birds stay outdoors, or even if they go outside. It just means that they can go outside at some point if they want. Fortunately, this label is federally regulated, which means that when you buy free-range eggs, they came from a hen that really, truly, had access to the outdoors.
If your carton of free-range eggs is also “certified humane,” it means the hens had access to at least two square feet of space outside for six hours a day. This is obviously the kinder way to go – since it gives the chickens time to warm their feathers in the sun and allows them to forage.
As is usually the case, the “Organic” label is the best regulated, requires strict certification, and means that the chickens that laid the eggs had access to a better life than many farm animals. Organic eggs come from uncaged hens that have access to the outdoors and are fed a diet of organically grown foods.
Again, be sure to remember that “access to the outdoors” means that the hens may never have stepped foot outdoors, but that they had access to some kind of outdoor space – so they can go outside if they want to. Hens that get the most potential outdoor time would have eggs labeled “Organic,” “Free-Range,” and “Certified Humane.”
When eggs are labeled “Non-GMO,” it means that their feed was free of GMOs. Since most hens are fed a diet of soy and corn, the GMO bumper crops, you can assume that most other egg-producing hens have been fed GMOs.
This label isn’t federally regulated. However, producers say that it means their birds were raised in lush, open spaces. Testing hasn’t shown a difference in the actual egg quality, but if you meet a farmer at Farmer’s Market who sells pasture-raised eggs, the hens likely had a nice quality of life and a varied diet.
This is a voluntary label put on eggs by farmers. It means that the hens have a 100% vegetarian diet, which actually isn’t that great for the birds on a nutritional level. Chickens – like most birds – are natural foragers, meaning they eat grubs, worms, and even snakes or mice, along with seeds, grass, and other greens. So, forcing a chicken to be vegetarian may not be the best way to go for the animal’s health – and for the quality of the eggs.
An additional note here is that chickens that are labeled “vegetarian” are almost guaranteed to have never spent time outdoors, as they would have naturally foraged if they were outside – and the farmer couldn’t guarantee if the chicken was on a vegetarian diet.
We will be posting this article up on our Facebook page, and we’d love it if you could weigh in – now that you know what all of the labels mean, which are you most likely to watch for when making a purchase? Also, what fact about labeling surprised you the most?