Diet & Nutrition
In Search of a Good Egg
What makes a good egg? Cage-free. All natural. Antibiotic-free. Pasture-raised. What’s the difference? With the myriad eye-grabbing copy printed on egg cartons, it can be hard to parse health benefit from marketing ploy. While some of the nomenclature is part of highly regulated government certifications, much is subject to minimal scrutiny… giving an illusion of better egg quality and more humane farm practices that aren’t true. Here we break it down so that you can make smart and healthy choices for yourself and your family. In our “egg review” we will be talking about the different labels that you need to understand when shopping for eggs.
STANDARD OR CONVENTIONAL EGGS: Chickens are typically housed in battery cages, which allow only limited movement (often not even enough to flap their wings, with a dedicated space about the size of a sheet of printer paper). The cages are usually wire, with no nesting materials, and the hens get very stressed over laying eggs without a nest as well as not being able to move around. The cages may cover manure piles. Some conventional facilities may not clean these piles for months to a year or even more. The FDA can inspect facilities, but with personnel shortages, inspections are usually kept to situations where a problem or complaint has been reported. Due to public outcry about the inhumane conditions over battery cages, some farms have introduced “Comfort Coops” or “Nest-Laid” caging. This means that the small cages that hens are confined to at least have nesting material provided.
CAGE-FREE EGGS: In industrial farms, cage-free simply means that hens are not kept in cages. But they are still typically packed in, with limited space to move, and are not allowed outdoors. Their feed is not natural, since they are not allowed outdoors to forage naturally. They may be given antibiotics to increase their weight and to address or prevent disease. These chickens are also painfully de-beaked at the hatchery; which is done because the hens have nothing to do, so they start pecking each other. There is some research that indicates that poultry kept indoors have a higher incidence of Salmonella infections, as disease can spread more rapidly in larger, close-quartered flocks. The average size of a cage-free flock in the US is typically a fourth to a third of a caged flock.
FREE-RANGE EGGS: Beware of this seemingly kind egg term, as it can mean many different things. The term is not defined by the USDA for eggs (only for meat/poultry processing). It can mean that the chickens are given five minutes of fresh air a day, are only allowed to poke their heads out of “pop homes” (with no full body access to the outdoors), or that they live most of their lives outdoors. The type of feed provided can also vary dramatically. Free-range hens can be fed a diet of soy, corn, cottonseed meals, and synthetic additives. It depends completely on the farm. More and more manufacturers are using the term, “Pasture-raised” to identify when free-range poultry are truly given a lot of time outdoors and are allowed natural foraging.
PASTURE-RAISED EGGS: This is what you think of when you think of a “good” egg. Chickens that lay pasture-raised eggs are outdoors all day, except for inclement weather, with access to the indoors for protection at night. While not a USDA certification, certain groups, such as Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) and Animal Welfare Approved have come up with a “Certified Humane” label, and define pasture-raised eggs as follows: each chicken has at least 108 square feet of space, and chickens are placed on rotated fields – which means that the fenced in area they are allowed to roam in is constantly changed to allow access to new sources of insect, bugs, seeds, and natural foraging. When you see the Certified Humane Raised and Handled label on a product, you can be assured that the food products have come from facilities that meet precise, objective standards for farm animal treatment. Yes, pasture-raised eggs are more expensive. But they are more humane—and healthier for you.
CERTIFIED HUMANE: Meets the standards set by the HFAC for humane treatment— which offers three levels of certification including cage-free, free-range, and pasture-raised. Certified Humane Cage-free birds can be kept indoors, but require nesting and perching opportunities. Certified Humane Free-range requires outdoor access six hours a day and 2 square feet of outdoor space. And Certified Humane Pasture-raised requires 2.5 acres of pasture per 1,000 hens per day. While pasture-raised requires living vegetation in outdoor spaces, free-range specifies ground covered by living vegetation “where possible.”
ALL-NATURAL OR NATURAL EGGS: This is not a well-defined term, but usually means only that no artificial ingredients were added to the egg. Added to the egg? Well, that basically means all eggs are natural. Another term, “Farm Fresh” is similarly used to convey that eggs are somehow healthier. Farm Fresh is a generic label applied if the eggs have been produced in the state or region of purchase. It means absolutely nothing more, and is a good example of “green-washing” or marketing hype meant to make you think that this is a better, healthier product. It’s not.
VEGETARIAN FEED EGGS: This label only means the hens were fed a vegetarian diet—meaning there are no animal by-products in the feed, like ground up chicken (yes, this happens). But hens are not naturally vegetarian, enjoying grubs and worms when left to natural foraging behaviors. And vegetarian eggs are often from hens kept entirely indoors or even in cages. So it might sound good, but it’s not what you think.
NATURAL EGGS: Natural is the ‘Five-Star General’ of health marketing hype—it means nothing. It indicates no standards for either farm practices or feed, and is often used as “green-washing” to help market eggs as being more humane when they are not.
PASTEURIZED EGGS: These are eggs that are put through about 3 minutes of a heating process, which kills any bacteria without actually cooking the egg. It has nothing to do with what has gone into the production of the egg or whether the egg was produced humanely.
Concerns over Salmonella have sparked some interest in pasteurized eggs; however, the reality is that completely cooking eggs kills Salmonella. So pasteurized eggs are really only called for when a recipe calls for raw eggs in a food, such as when making homemade salad dressing. For people with compromised immune systems, the elderly or young children, pasteurized eggs could also be considered.
ORGANIC (USDA Certified): These eggs come from cage-free hens that must have some access to the outdoors, although the degree of time outdoors is not specified in the certification regulation. The hens must be fed a 100% organic diet of feed produced without conventional pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs or slaughterhouse by-products. Hens are also not allowed antibiotics or hormones.
UNITED EGG PRODUCERS CERTIFICATION: Most eggs are produced in compliance with certain industry-codified standard practices for farming. More than 80% of commercial eggs carry this seal.
And What About Grading? There are labels on egg cartons focused on grade and size. These labels have nothing to do with antibiotics used on the poultry, or what types of feed the poultry is consuming, nor how humanely the poultry has been treated.
Grades include AA, A, or B, and are indicated by the manufacturer based on interior consistency factors and exterior shell attributes. Eggs have differing consistency of their whites. Grade AA have the thickest whites, for example (makes them preferred for frying). Thinner whites are better for omelets and cake mixes.
And Size? Extra Large, Large, and Medium sizes, based on weight, generally indicate more or less protein content.
How About Shell Color? Egg color depends on the breed of hen and can range from white, cream, brown, blue, and green. Hens tend to lay eggs with a color related to that of their earlobes, not their feathers. Red earlobes? Brown eggs. White earlobes? White eggs. Are the brown ones healthier? Rumors abound, but the answer is no.
What Does the Color of the Yolk Mean? Deeper yolk color typically indicates a diet higher in carotenoids, which are natural orange, red, or yellow pigments found in plants. Carotenoids are essential antioxidants—and a diet higher in carotenoids is common with chickens that are allowed to forage for both plants and bugs. Eggs with deeper yolk color tend to have much more nutritional value.
So what is the benefit of purchasing eggs that are pasture-raised or truly free-range?
Just look at the egg yolks of an egg that comes from a free-range or pastured-raised hen and you are likely to see a huge difference in the color of the egg yolk. Typical egg yolks are pale yellow. Poultry that has been allowed to forage naturally will produce eggs with bright orange yolks. Why should you care? Not only are the chickens being treated more humanely, you are eating a much more nutritious egg, far richer in nutrients and vitamins. Pasture-raised eggs have been found to have about 200% greater vitamin E than the yolk of eggs from caged hens. Plus you don’t have to worry about GMOs, antibiotics, and other chemical exposures.
The bottom Line: Fry. Scramble. Poach. Bake. Whatever you do, there’s no denying the protein-packed punch and versatility of the incredible, edible egg. So what to choose? Check out local farmer’s markets, health food stores, smaller grocery stores, and even local farmers about what type of farm practices are used in the eggs that are available to you. There are also many resources online such as www.eatwild.com, which can help you find local resources.