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What Are the Best Eggs to Buy? The Truth Behind the Labels
Eggs these days can range from $3.00 to $15.00 a dozen. They come in recycled cartons from the farmers market, or cellophane-wrapped flats from big-box stores. Their labels say things like “vegetarian-fed”, “hormone free”, “organic”, “free-range”, “pasture-raised”, “omega-3”, and “fertile”, farm-fresh, and “humanely raised”. But what the heck does it all mean? Which eggs are truly the best eggs to buy?
We went ahead and decoded all those egg cartons to help you shop smarter, healthier, and more humanely.
Table of Contents
Despite the many alternatively labeled eggs, conventional eggs still account for 93% of all eggs purchased in America.
Conventional eggs are produced by hens living in tiny stacked cells called “battery cages.” They’re named after the way thousands of cells in a battery are stacked closely together.
The average battery-caged hen lives their entire life in a space (67-70 square inches) that’s less than the size of a single sheet of letter paper.
One reporter described it like this: “Imagine spending your entire life in a wire cage the size of your bathtub with four other people. You wouldn’t be able to move, so your muscles and bones would deteriorate. Your feet would become lacerated. You would go insane. That’s precisely what happens to laying hens.”2
Activists fighting against these conditions have had battery cages outlawed in California, and secured commitments to cage-free eggs by huge brands like McDonald’s and Safeway.
But is cage-free actually more humane?
“Cage-free eggs” simply means that the hens aren’t kept in cages. Cage-free eggs can still be produced with hens living in cramped, filthy indoor conditions.
The USDA defines cage-free hens as being able to “freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle, but [do] not have access to the outdoors.”
This allows for potentially higher animal well-fare. But in practice, it can result in higher mortality, bone fracture, and disease rates.2
Part of the reason is that hens have a “pecking order”–a sometimes vicious hierarchy where chickens can peck each other to death, and even resort to cannibalism (especially when fed a vegetarian diet).
In regions like the European Union, there are regulations on the quality and comfort of cages that make it so that conventional caged hens may actually lead better lives than conventional “cage-free” hens.
So, if letting chickens out of cages isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, what about letting them out of the barn, too?
Free-range eggs are laid by hens who have “access” to the outdoors. But access doesn’t necessarily mean sunny green pastures, or even that the hens actually go outside at all!
“Free-range” is one of those loosely-regulated terms that really depends on the farm. If a large scale industrial farm claims “free-range”, it might not mean much in terms of hen happiness and egg nutrition.
But if your local farmers market chicken herder shows you pictures of their “free-range” birds happily gorging on shiny grubs and green grass–you’ll know exactly what it means.
That said, there is a case when “free-range” is regulated–and that’s in the context of USDA organic eggs.
Organic eggs are laid by hens who usually live in barns and have access to the sun and the outdoors.
When it comes to animal welfare, hens laying organic eggs must have 2:
- Access to the outdoors
- Exercise areas
- Fresh air
- Clean drinking water
- Direct sunlight
- Hens must be able to exercise, roost, scratch, and dust-bathe (to control ectoparasites)
As you can see, “certified organic” is a relatively reliable guarantee that “free-range” birds are managed in a healthy and humane way.
Their feed itself must be 100% organic, which means no hormones, antibiotics, arsenic, or byproducts of poultry slaughter. And the eggs are inspected and certified to be pesticide and antibiotic-free.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the healthiest eggs come from the healthiest hens. And these hens are pasture-raised.
Yet, like “free-range” the term “pasture-raised” isn’t enforced by the USDA.
To be sure that the “pasture-raised” label on store-bought eggs means something, look for
The “Certified Humane” or “Animal Welfare Approved” stamps.
These stamps will guarantee that each hen has at least 108 square feet of outdoor space, in addition to indoor barn space.2
Pasture-Raised Eggs vs. Conventional Eggs: Nutrition
In 2007, Mother Earth News surveyed 14 flocks of truly pasture raised egg producers and compared it to the USDA nutrition stats for conventional eggs. The survey, found that pasture-raised eggs contained:
- 1/3 less cholesterol
- 2/3 more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta carotene
|Values per 100 grams||Vitamin E||Vitamin A||Beta Carotene||Omega-3s||Cholesterol|
|Eggs from Caged Birds||.97mg||487IU||10mcg||.22g||423mg|
Certified Humane Eggs
But “certified humane” and “animal welfare approved” eggs are not all pasture-raised!
These third-party certifications mean different things for different egg production practices.
For example, “pasture-raised” “certified humane” eggs require at least 108 sqft outdoor space per hen year-round.
Whereas “certified humane” “Free Range Chickens” only require 2 sq. ft/bird of outdoors space, weather permitting.
And cage-free/barn-raised “certified humane” hens only require 1.5 sq. ft/bird. This can look like massive metal shelves of hens wandering around under fluorescent lights.2
They also certify for many of the enhanced features as organic eggs, like boxes of dirt to dust-bathe in, airflow, and soft material to build nests with.
This ones simple–go to your farmers market and talk to your egg provider market. Ask them what they feed their hens and how they’re raised. If they roam around the farm feasting on grasshopper, snails, grubs, and grass, you’ve hit the healthy egg jackpot. These are truly the best eggs to buy.
If they tell you their hens are vegetarian fed, raise your eyebrows and walk away in horror–but seriously, let us explain…
Chickens are natural omnivores i.e. carnivorous scavengers! They’re evolved to gorge on grubs, worms, and insects, and to forage on grass and grains.
There’s a reason Chickens have a featherless face! It’s easier to keep clean after diving into flesh head first. They share this characteristic with other avian scavengers like vultures and turkey buzzards.
Because a vegetarian-fed hen doesn’t have access to insects, it must not have access to the pasture. Therefore a “vegetarian fed” must be confined to cages and barns. And the vegetarian feed is usually mostly GMO corn.
One egg farmer who experimented with rearing chicks on a vegetarian diet in order to produce less expensive eggs found that, “Within two weeks the chicks were beginning to eat each other. The more aggressive chicks were tearing at the weaker ones from the outside in, and fifty percent of the batch had bleeding tails from being picked at.”2
This same farmer’s veg-fed eggs had “a paler, weaker egg yolk than their omnivorous, beyond-organic counterparts.”
Grade AA, A, and B don’t have much nutritional meaning, but they do refer to the presence of defects like blood spots, bloody whites, meat spots, mixed rot, blood rings, embryo chicks, bloody whites, green whites, black rots, along with the firmness of egg whites and the roundness of yokes.
That said, you can certainly get super nutritious grade B eggs at a farmers market from hens roaming around eating actual worms and other critters. While at the same time you can get nutritionally “whatever” grade AA conventional eggs from Costco.
So for people looking for the healthiest eggs, the grade is not a major factor.
Brown or White Eggs?
Another non-factor is the egg color. There’s no significant difference between the nutrients in brown, white, blue, or pink eggs.
The only factor setting these eggs apart is the breed of the hen laying them.
Feed a hen flaxseed and you get Omega-3 enhanced eggs. The debate is still out on these. Since eggs are already high in omega-3s it may not be necessary to enhance them.
Omega-3 enriched eggs contain 39% less arachidonic acid than conventional eggs. This is inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid is over-consumed by most people on a Standard American Diet. Omega-3 eggs also contain 500% more omega-3 than both conventional and organic eggs.
No Added Hormones
The FDA already outlaws hormones in poultry production. Check the asterisk on the carton. Any claim of hormone-free should be qualified by the statement: “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
This one is a bit of a head-scratcher. Fertile eggs have become a popular trend, promoted as being more nutritious. But there is no evidence of any nutritional advantages or even of chemical changes unless the egg is incubated at the proper temperature for at least 72 hours.
So there’s no guarantee that “fertile” eggs are actually fertile in the first place. It just means that roosters roam around with the hens.
And hens don’t need roosters to lay eggs. That would be the equivalent of a woman needing a man in order to ovulate.
There is also evidence that fertile eggs may spoil sooner.2
Natural doesn’t mean much when it comes to finding the best eggs to buy. According to the USDA, eggs are “natural” when they contain no added colors or artificial ingredients.
Unless it’s a Cadbury egg, it’s natural.
Nearly all chicken eggs are kosher as long as they’re not cracked. The only eggs that aren’t kosher have blood spots or cracked shells.
What are the Best Eggs to Buy? The Takeaway
The best eggs to buy are pasture-raised from your local farmers market.
For more mainstream and consistent egg sources the best eggs to buy are certified by third-party organizations to be organic, pasture-raised, Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approved, and USDA grade A or AA.
Labels like hormone-free, farm-fresh, cage-free, antibiotic-free, natural, and fertile, mean little to nothing at all.
Common store-bought brands that have a good reputation include:
- Vital Farms
- Family Homestead
- Oliver’s Organic
- Happy Egg Co.
- Pete and Gerry’s
Though these eggs can be more expensive than conventional eggs, you’ll know your money is well spent.