Eggs 101: Cracking the [Label] Codes

Pastured Eggs

Though we can flip a coin to determine whether eggs are considered “good” or “bad” by the general public on any given day, we can’t deny their nutrient density, pastured in particular. They are rich in protein and monounsaturated fat and are a good source of riboflavin, vitamin B12, phosphorus, vitamins A, D and K2, as well a great source of the antioxidant mineral selenium.

Not all eggs are created equal. Your run-of-the-mill, bleached white eggs at the grocery store may have an appealing price tag, but what nutrients are we missing out on?

If we look at a conventionally farmed egg vs. a pasture-raised one, the difference is staggering! Typically, pasture-raised eggs contain:

  • Two-thirds more more vitamin A
  • 3x more vitamin E
  • 7x more beta carotene
  • Twice the omega-3 fatty acids

Why is this? Factory farms feed their omnivorous hens soy or corn feed and sometimes even waste of other livestock, while pasture-raised birds are free to forage on sprouts, grasses and other plants, as well as insects, worms, grubs, and even small rodents, lizards, or snakes. They are also given supplementary feed, which may or may not be organic.

So, how do we know what we’re buying? What are the labels and what do they mean? There are so many, and it’s confusing, so here’s a simple overview.

NATURAL

This terms means nothing. Every egg is “natural”. Every. Single. One.

FREE RANGE OR PASTURE-FED

According to USDA standards, birds need to have “access to the outdoors”, which can range from a small “pop hole” (no full body access), to a small “cat door” (which many don’t even use), to access to a small, muddy area. Just five minutes is adequate time in the outdoors for the poultry to be classified as “free range” or “pasture-fed” by USDA standards. Those free range eggs you buy at your grocery store? We can’t be sure those hens saw daylight at all. Below, I’ll share a couple of egg carton labels to look for that will give you confidence that you’re actually buying eggs from hens that get ample time outside and forage for their food.

CAGE FREE

Also misleading, these hens may not be confined to tiny cages, but they are confined to the barn, and certainly aren’t running around in the sunlight.

ORGANIC

This label means that the chickens are fed a 100% organic diet, free from pesticides or GMO feed, there are no added hormones or antibiotics, and chickens must have access to the outdoors. All chickens and eggs that are organic are also free range/pasture-fed (by USDA standards, see above), but eggs labeled free range/pasture-fed hens are not necessarily organic.

Luckily, there are groups that have clearly defined terms like “free range” and “pasture raised” and if you see these labels, you know exactly what you’re getting.

A few certification labels to looks for:

USDA Organic Seal

USDA Certified Organic. This one is pretty self-explanatory. But occasionally, small farms don’t want to or can’t afford to spend the money to become certified organic. While this label is important in a bigger grocery chain, digging a little deeper and asking questions at local markets or at your nearby farm, where this label may be absent, is important.

Certified Humane

Certified Humane, which gives either the “free range” or the “pasture-raised” designation, with these definitions:

HFAC’s Certified Humane® “Free Range” requirement is 2 sq. ft. per bird.  The hens must be outdoors, weather permitting (in some areas of the country, seasonal), and when they are outdoors they must be outdoors for at least 6 hours per day.

HFAC’s Certified Humane® “Pasture Raised” requirement is 1000 birds per 2.5 acres (108 sq. ft. per bird) and the fields must be rotated.  The hens must be outdoors year-round, with mobile or fixed housing where the hens can go inside at night to protect themselves from predators, or for up to two weeks out of the year, due only to very inclement weather.

These are just additional standards to basic humane living conditions, like clean nesting spaces, enough space, etc.

Animal Welfare Approved by AGW

Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW.

• Requires animals to be raised on pasture or range
• Prohibits dual production
• Awards approval only to independent farmers
• Incorporates the most comprehensive standards for high welfare farming

These are just a few labels you may see at the grocery store. For a complete list, you can read more here.

Ideally, we want to look for eggs that are truly pasture-raised and organic, but these also tend to be the most expensive eggs. You will have to decide what’s most important to you, but I favor true pasture-raised hens to organically-raised hens who may not see sunlight at all. Egg companies can be very sneaky with their marketing, so below are a few tips when looking at egg carton labels.

  • Look for language on packaging like “free to forage” or “pasture-raised”, with additional details, and a minimum sq. ft per hen.
  • Descriptions like those in the first bullet can be vague. Truly pasture-raised egg companies will not shy away from marketing this with details, photos, and maybe even a profile of one of their hens! The less information on the carton, the less likely it’s from a great source.
  • Talk to someone. If you’re in a smaller store, they will likely be knowledgeable about what they sell; at a farmer’s market, you may just be talking to the farmer! At a larger chain store, I’ll refer you to the next point…
  • Still unsure? It may be worth a quick google search of the company to see how the hens are really raised. Website also vague? Move on.

Resources:

Certified Humane website

USDA Website

Humane Society

A Greener World

photo reference

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