“If our people let government decide what foods they eat and what medications they take, their bodies will soon be in a sorry state as souls who live under tyranny.” – Thomas Jefferson
A recent trip to the grocery store left me pondering about which brand of eggs to buy. I always go to my local farm so I hadn’t seen the large number of options in a while. I stood there for much longer than anyone should ever spend picking eggs and realized if it takes me this long to sort through the brands, it’s something people need more information about.
I’ve written about how to read labels, focusing mainly on meat and fish, but realized the egg section can be twice as complicated. All natural, organic, free-range, cage-free, humane-raised, pasture raised? These labels all sound fantastic and leave you dreaming of happy chickens running around in an open field but many of these labels do not guarantee that this is anywhere close to how the chickens are raised. Here are the details and what to look for when it comes to buying the most nutritious eggs for your buck.
Which labels are not all they’re cracked up to be (pun intended!):
Organic is most definitely better than conventional. Organic eggs mean that the chickens are fed organic feed and are antibiotic and hormone free. This is much better than being fed genetically engineered ingredients and synthetic pesticides, but they most likely still aren’t able to eat their natural diet and instead feed on organic wheat and corn. They do have outdoor access but the quality and duration are undefined; because of this, many farmers are doing the absolute least amount legally required and using enclosed porches with roofs and concrete flooring and calling this ‘outdoors.’
Organic farms are allowed to house their hens in overcrowded sheds with small doors. Because they are so overcrowded most of the hens don’t even know the door is there with the option to go outside.
Some organic farms are top notch while others are terrible. Educate yourself if you want to go this route. Here is a list of the best and worst organic brands, you can also get a feel for how wide range the label ‘organic’ can be when it comes to eggs.
Cage-Free & Free-Range
Cage-Free means absence of a cage but doesn’t mean absence of enclosures and these chickens generally do not have access to an outside area or the sun. Cage-free farms can still be tightly packed, fed improper food and given hormones and antibiotics.
Above is the least offensive caged hen photo I could find with the food revolutionary Jamie Oliver.
Free-range hens are required to have outdoor access but it can be a tiny patch of dirt. The door can be one small door that most of the birds never notice. Free-range labeled farmed do tend to give their hens enough room to spread their wings. Because of the leniency with these labels, I tend to stay away from them.
Where to find the highest quality eggs (in order of preference):
#1 ♥ Your local farm or farmers market
The main point here is you can either see the hens at a farm or ask the farmer how they are raised at a farmers market. Visiting a local farm means you can view first hand how the hens are treated, what they eat, and even the kind of people raising them. You also end up eating the eggs soon after they are laid. At the grocery store some eggs can sit on the shelf for months. Local farmers also typically do not rinse the eggs with egg cleaners and sanitizers as mass produced eggs are (ahem, some extra chemicals for your body). In Europe grade A eggs are not washed at all. Local farms, because they are the opposite of a mass produced operation, typically raise the hens properly and with care.
#2 ♥ Pasture Raised
Pasture raised means the farmers raised their chickens on, yes, an actual pasture. Hens have access to shelter when they need it and are not raised with chemicals, pesticides, cages or any painful procedures.
The best part of pasture raised is that because the hens are raised as they should be, their eggs are much more nutritious. Studies show that hens that can eat fresh forage, seeds, worms & insects lay eggs with superior nutrition. Hens raised on fresh pastures have 3 times as much vitamin E and 2 times more omega 3 fatty acids than eggs from caged birds. They also contain 2/3 more Vit A, 7 times more beta carotene and 4-6 times the Vit D of a standard supermaket egg.*
The orange yolk on the left is pasture raised, the right is conventional.
#3 ♥ Animal Welfare Approved & Certified Humane
Animal Welfare Approved is monitored by a charity that believes in high animal welfare. They are stringent in certification and provide information on farmers who genuinely raise their animals outside in humane conditions, only awarding certification to family farmers and charging no fee to do so. Check out the AWA guide here.
Certified Humane means the hens that laid the eggs were not confined to cages or given any growth hormones, antibiotics or painful procedures. This certification does allow for farmers to have chickens indoors at all times and allow laying hens to be caged (hence listing this as my last recommended label); however, they must have room to nest, perch and dust bathe. There are also requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes.
Extra Healthy Little Bit: When buying eggs at the grocery store, there is a pack date on the carton, it’s a 3 digit code that indicates when the eggs were packed. All USDA plants are required to display this code. It code signifies the day of the year it was packaged. 001 being January 1st & 365 being December 31st. Pick the 3 digit code closest to the day you are purchasing so it’s the freshest.
Fast Fact: Eggs that are labeled organic, cage-free and free-range can be raised in very unhealthy conditions and should be treated as only one step above conventional eggs. For the highest nutrition for your dollar find a local farm or look for pasture-raised, humane raised or animal welfare approved.
Action: More than 90% of eggs in this country come from the inhumane practice of caging birds in extremely tight courters with no fresh air or sun. Let’s use our purchases to vote for clean, healthy, quality food, and humanely treated animals. Do a comparison test for yourself, crack a conventional egg and a high quality egg and look at the difference in color of the yolk, as pictured above, orange is much richer in nutrients than light yellow 🙂