Help! I’m confused in the egg aisle!

Food quality is very important to me. I think that it’s worth it to spend extra money on ensuring that I’m feeding my family the best quality food we can afford. Unfortunately, the quality of the food we can find available in our grocery stores varies pretty greatly. I’ve discussed why I willingly pay more for the best quality meats- Today, I’d like to discuss eggs.

There’s a lot of confusion in the egg section of the grocery store these days! So many terms- organic, cage-free, vegetarian-fed, free-range, pastured….. what should you pick? I’ll run down what each of these terms actually means, and let you know what choice I make when it comes to eggs.

Conventionally raised eggs

I think we need to first start with how your typical grocery store eggs are produced. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but these kinds of eggs are produced under some pretty deplorable conditions. You can read some interesting research and information here on the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply website. The hens are kept in something called “battery cages” their entire lives. They typically have about 67 square inches of space! If that sounds small, it is. It’s about the size of an iPad. They really don’t even have the room to turn around or sit down. To add to this, cages are generally stacked one on top of the other, and I think we all know the saying about what direction the excrement rolls. Ten thousand or more birds can be held in a single building. These hens are fed a conventional (ie, not organic) diet that generally consists of grains and animal byproducts (yuck). They never go outside, never see the light of day. Up to 95% of the eggs sold in this country are produced this way. Not surprisingly, egg production like this is more about money, profits, and economics than it is about humane treatment of animals, a quality product for consumers, or nutrition.

So many terms- what do they all mean?

There are so many terms that you’ll see on egg cartons, that it is confusing. Some have actual meaning, some are just terms used for marketing. Here’s a run down of the most common:

“Farm Fresh”– Folks, this means nothing. It gets slapped on egg cartons to conjure images of chickens clucking happily on a family farm, so it’s purely a marketing term.

“No Hormones”– Sorry, but this term is meaningless, too. This is because it’s illegal to give poultry hormones in the first place. Every egg is “hormone-free”.

“No Antibiotics”– This is a term used to intentionally mislead the consumer when it comes to eggs. Why? A lot of us are pretty familiar with the fact that antibiotics are used commonly with birds being raised for their meat. But birds being raised for egg production? Antibiotics are rarely used in the industry. So saying that your eggs have no antibiotics is pretty meaningless, because hardly any eggs ever have antibiotics.

“Cage Free”– Unfortunately, this is not as significant as you might think it to be. Yes, these birds are not caged. But that’s about the only difference. They’re still crammed by the thousands into huge aviaries with maybe 1 square feet of space. All other conditions are virtually the same, and they do not have access to the outdoors.

“Vegetarian-fed”– This one always makes me laugh, because first, chickens are NOT vegetarians. Their natural diet, if allowed to roam and forage outside, will consist of worms and other insects in addition to grasses. Seeing “Vegetarian-fed” on a label likely just means that this egg producer skipped the animal byproducts in the chicken feed. Big deal.

krzys16 / Pixabay

“Omega-3”– This usually just means that some flaxseed was added to the chicken feed, resulting in more Omega-3’s in your eggs. It means nothing as far as living conditions for the hens themselves.

“Free-Range”– This means that the hens are “cage-free”, and they have the opportunity to go outdoors. Eggs can be labeled “free-range” even if it just means there is one open door, with access to a small concrete patio outside.

“Organic”– When you see food labeled “organic”, know that it is an FDA regulated, legal term. Eggs labeled “organic” come from hens that are fed certified organic feed, and in addition, they must also qualify for “free range”. Not that it means a whole heck of a lot, but they are also “hormone free” and “antibiotic free”.

“Pastured” or “Pasture Raised”– Now we’re talking!! This is the gold standard with eggs, my friends. These hens spend most of their time outside and eat a diet very close to a chicken’s natural diet. They also have access to a barn or some kind of shelter.

Why spend more money on eggs?

manfredrichter / Pixabay

I get it. Stuff is expensive and you have a budget. So do I. So why spend $5-6 on a dozen pastured eggs when you can spend less than $1 on some conventional eggs? If issues surrounding the humane treatment of food-producing animals doesn’t do it for you, maybe nutrition does. Studies have proven that better quality, pastured eggs are nutritionally superior to conventional eggs. You can usually see it with your own eyes, too. The yolks of a conventional egg are usually a pale yellow, pretty color-less. In contrast, yolks from really good pastured eggs are usually a deep, almost orange color. I think they taste better, too. If you’re a study-reading geek like me, knock your socks off and read this one here.

Where can I buy Pastured eggs?

Great news! This egg quality thing is starting to catch on. Just a couple of years ago I could not find pastured eggs hardly anywhere! Now I can find them right at the grocery store. My favorite brand is Vital Farms. I love their website. Extremely informative, and entertaining to read, too.

What remaining questions do you have about eggs?

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