Free range, cage-free, vegetarian-fed… egg cartons are plastered with a limitless supply of equally-positive sounding labels. They all sound good, and eggs are just eggs, right? So you grab the cheapest carton and head to the checkout.
As of January 1st, California has rolled out a new law requiring eggs to come from chickens that have enough room to fully extend their limbs and turn around freely. Eggs that meet this requirement will be stamped CA SEFS Compliant, which stands for California Shell Egg Food Safety Compliant.
The purpose of this law is to allow chickens to be raised in as close to their natural environment as possible, both for the welfare of the animals as well as the nutritional value of the eggs produced.
The uproar by egg producers and decrease in egg production due to this new law has caused many people to ask the question: how are eggs currently being produced and what exactly is a chicken’s natural environment?
Here’s a simple guide to egg carton terminology:
Color: The color of an egg shell is simply a factor of the hen’s breed. White, brown, or rainbow shells have no correlation with the nutritional value of the egg or quality of the hen’s living conditions. Choose your favorite color and enjoy!
All Natural/Farm Fresh/Hormone Free/No Antibiotics: None of these terms give us any meaningful information about the quality of egg production. All eggs are “natural”, come from a “farm”, and egg-laying hens are never given hormones and rarely given antibiotics. This would be akin to labeling broccoli “dairy free”. Of course broccoli is dairy free, and calling it so does not make it any better than another farmer’s broccoli. Calling out the universal qualities of supermarket eggs does not make one more worthy of purchase over another.
Vegetarian-Fed: This means that the birds’ feed does not include any animal byproducts and is probably a mixture of corn, soybeans, and amino acids. “No animal byproducts” sounds positive, but chickens are naturally omnivores, foraging for insects outdoors which provide them with protein. Vegetarian-fed eggs likely come from chickens with little or no access to the outdoors.
Cage-Free: Chickens raised in cage-free environments stay indoors, but they are not kept in cages and have unlimited access to food and water. Because the density of these spaces is not regulated, it’s possible that these chickens are packed very tightly but many industry groups voluntarily guarantee at least one square foot of space per bird.
Many animal welfare experts believe cage-free birds are better off than their caged counterparts as they are allowed to exhibit more natural behaviors like walking around and spreading their wings. Cage-free birds tend to be healthier (more feathers, stronger bones), but actually have a higher mortality rate due to pecking by other birds.
Free Range: Free range is similar to cage-free, but hens have access to the outdoors. There are no regulations on how much time the birds spend outside and, in reality, many birds may not go outside at all. Eggs that are “Certified Humane”, however, come from hens that have spent up to 6 hours per day outdoors in at least 2 square feet of space. Free range eggs have been found to have slightly higher Omega-3 fatty acids due to the hens’ ability to forage for insects outdoors.
Organic: Organic eggs come from chickens that are uncaged, have access to the outdoors, and are not fed anything grown with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Organic birds can be raised in a variety of living conditions, from very crowded to very spacious. To help determine an egg producer’s sustainability, The Cornucopia Institute has created an organic egg scorecard ranking eggs sold in the United States.
Omega-3: When eggs are produced in a natural environment, they have higher levels of Omega-3s than their conventionally raised counterparts. To mimic this, egg producers supplement the hens’ feed with flaxseed, algae, or fish oil.
Pastured: Pastured eggs come the closest to replicating a hen’s natural lifestyle. Birds spend most of their time outdoors, with plenty of space, and access to a barn. They are able to eat a diet of insects, worms, and grass which is often supplemented with vegetarian feed. Hens raised on pasture will have varying amounts of space and many egg cartons will list the amount of space available to each bird. These eggs may or may not be organic.
Studies have found pasture raised eggs to contain lower levels of cholesterol and saturated fat than their conventionally raised counterparts as well as higher levels of vitamins A, E, and Omega-3 (1, 2).
Carton labels aside, you can tell a good, fresh egg by cracking it open and taking a look. Hens with a diverse, rich diet and active lifestyle will produce eggs with bright orange yolks. These yolks will be well-rounded and clearly raised above the white. In addition, take a look at the middle albumen, which is the thick part of the egg white surrounding the yolk. The outer albumen is thin, watery, and will spread out while the middle albumen should be raised and stay fairly tight around the yolk in high quality eggs.