Understanding Egg Options

by Amylee Amos MS, RDN

Navigating the egg section of the grocery store can be a nightmare. Unlike the produce aisle, eggs are way more complicated than just organic versus conventional. How on earth is the average consumer to know the difference between cage-free, free range, pasture raised, omega-3, and so on?

The trouble is, the food industry has no interest in our health and so their labeling regulations do little to clear up the controversy. When it comes to labeling, it’s important to realize that just because something sounds good for you, doesn’t mean it is good for you. And the fact is, all eggs are NOT created equally, not even close. So, it’s important that you know what you’re buying.

We’re going to break it down now, telling you what all of these claims mean and which eggs should you be eating.

Regular Eggs

These are commercially farmed, conventional eggs. They are generally white and they are always the absolute cheapest you can buy. These eggs are graded (AA, A, B) based on exterior and interior quality, though this has absolutely nothing to do with the nutritional value.

The hens are kept in small cages, they have no exposure to the outdoors, and they get no exercise. Because of their very cramped living conditions (so small the hens can’t spread their wings), these hens are prone to infection, as bacterial overgrowth is rampant. To avoid sick hens (well, to avoid the profit loss associated with sick hens) these birds are given prophylactic antibiotics.

In case that didn’t scare you, the biggest problem with these eggs is the feed given to the hens that produce the eggs. They are fed a diet of corn and soy, which is meant to fatten them up and produce more eggs. You can almost guarantee that their feed is produced from GMO products. If you believe the old adage ‘you are what you eat’ (which you should, because you literally are), then you should also believe that you are whatever it is you’re eating, ate. The genetically modified corn and soy that the hen ate was likely sprayed with glyphosate (a herbicide and hormone disruptor used in RoundUp). So, beyond the lesser nutrition in the eggs these hens produce and the second hand antibiotics, you’re also getting a nice dose of endocrine disruptors! Steer very clear of these eggs at the grocery store.

Additionally, be aware that unless otherwise stated, these are the eggs you’re getting in restaurants as, again, they are without a doubt the most economical.

Cage Free

The hens that produce cage free eggs aren’t kept in cages, but they are still kept in living conditions that would turn your stomach, and are given no outdoor exposure or exercise. Cage free literally means just that: no cage. These hens could be kept in close quartered boxes. Normally they may have a bit more space than hens who produce conventional eggs, but nothing about how these hens are raised make them any more nutritious than conventional. In fact, you could argue that the lack of battery cages makes their living conditions less hygienic, making them more prone to infection (so more likely to need prophylactic antibiotics). The feed is still likely corn and soy, and unless specified organic, it’s likely GMO and the hens are likely fed antibiotics along with it. The verdict? Unless they’re organic (see below) these eggs are really no better than conventional eggs, in terms of nutritional value.

Free Range

This one sounds really great. It makes me picture happy hens frolicking around on the range. But, not even close. To be labeled free-range there is no requirement that the hens actually go outside at all. According to the USDA, to be ‘free range’ the chickens must just be “allowed access to the outside.” So all a manufacturer needs to do to label their eggs free range is to put a little door somewhere in the barn and leave it open for about 5 minutes a day. Chances are the hen will go its whole life without ever even finding this little door, let alone when it’s actually open. This leaves the nutritional value up to chance.

The hens are supplemented with traditional corn and soy feed, but if a hen managed to get outside and roam a bit and got to forage on bugs and seeds, the nutritional value of the eggs produced by that hen might be a bit better. So it’s a gamble. Because the requirement to label eggs as free-range is so ridiculous, it leaves the nutritional value of your eggs up in the air. Since they’re already more expensive than cage free and conventional, it’s probably best to skip these and buy pasture raised eggs.

Pasture Raised Eggs

These are without a doubt the best eggs you can buy. Pasture raised hens roam throughout the day in open pastures, and forage for food. Because of this, their diet is consistent with a chicken’s natural diet: bugs, worms, grass, seeds, etc. (which brings up another point- avoid eggs labeled as ‘vegetarian fed.’ Chickens are not vegetarians!).

Foraging for the foods allow the chickens to get adequate exercise and better hygiene. These eggs have the highest levels of vitamin A and E and have greater amounts of omega 3 fatty acids. In fact, you can even see the difference in these eggs. The yolks are an orange color, rather than the traditional yellow, and the flavor is far enhanced. They are also much more expensive than conventional eggs, averaging at about $7.50/dozen. The reason they cost more is because of the amount of space and labor needed to allow these hens to forage, but also because hens on their natural diet produce less eggs than hens pumped full of corn and grains.

Organic Eggs

Organic eggs just mean that the feed given the hens is organic and that the hens are not given antibiotics. Just as with organic produce, organic eggs ensure that the food fed to the hen was not sprayed with glyphosate or other extremely harmful pesticides and herbicides. All of the types of eggs listed above can be either organic or not organic, as the term organic means nothing in terms of where the hens live or their exposure to the outdoors. Always purchase organic when available. It’s worth the extra dollar to avoid endocrine disrupting compounds and second hand antibiotics.

Omega 3 Eggs

Like organic eggs, this term has nothing to do with how the hens are kept (cage free, free range, etc.) Rather, this implies that the hen’s feed was enriched with omega 3 fats, normally from flaxseed in the diet. Organic, omega 3 eggs are a good second choice if organic pasture raised eggs aren’t available, as you’re getting the same benefit of increased omega 3 fats as you are with pastured eggs, though not necessarily some of the other benefits.

Brown Eggs

The color of the egg has nothing to do with the nutritional composition. Shell color is determined by the breed of hen. This should not be a factor when purchasing eggs.

So, what’s the takeaway?

Buy pasture raised, organic eggs.

While they are more expensive, you are getting a product that will enhance your health. Other eggs are detrimental to your health because of the antibiotics, poor chicken feed, and toxic pesticides and herbicides. Much better to invest the money for quality eggs and if needed, just consume them less often. It’s worth it.

References:

Karsten et al. 2010. Vitamins A, E, and fatty acid composition of caged hens and pasture raised hens. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 25(1): 45-54.