Have you stood in front of the egg display at your supermarket lately? There are a baffling number of different kinds of eggs available nowadays. Growing up, I would have thought eggs were eggs. Now I know better.
This list is intended to help you navigate the egg labels to find the healthy eggs in the supermarket cooler, either by making a purchase or making an about-face.
Basic Definitions of Labels on Egg Cartons
CAFO or Confined (or Concentrated) Animal Feeding Operation
Someone finally decided that 20,000 head of cattle or chickens stuffed in a building can’t be called a “farm” anymore. Standard white store chicken eggs are raised in CAFOs, where there may be 4 birds in a 16-inch cage. Conditions aren’t good. Waste is a big problem. These chickens eat grain, soy, and possibly animal by-products, including other chicken parts. Mmmmm, mmmm. You can find out more (than you want to know) with a simple Google search.
These chickens aren’t completely confined in cages. They must be allowed “access” to the outdoors, but that may just be one small door and small yard for thousands of chickens. The chickens are so used to being inside that they actually don’t break their routine to go outside.
The USDA recommends a foot and a half of space per bird, so even though they’re not caged, they’re not exactly running free. These chickens (might) get (some) exercise, which is better for them than the CAFO chickens, but just slightly. On the other hand, if a local farmer says “free range,” he probably means his chickens can run around outside and get at what they need.
It’s definitely worth asking for clarification. “Do the chickens run around outside?”
According to Eggland’s Best website, cage free birds are out of their cages but do NOT have access to the outside. Therefore, their lives are pretty much the same as most free range chickens, minus the door nobody uses.
This doesn’t mean a whole lot when it comes to chickens. It’s actually good for chickens to eat grubs and bugs; it improves the nutritional quality of their eggs. Grain-fed is the industry’s way of sounding good to consumers who assume that chickens only want to scratch at piles of grain all day. No assurances about the grain: it could include genetically modified soy and corn, as well as pesticides and chemicals.
Chickens are fed extra flax seed or other omega-3 rich foods (including fish) to make their eggs healthier. No promises on living conditions or chemicals though. (Note: Usually only increases the ALA content of the eggs. See this omega-3 post for details on why ALA is the least important of the Omega-3s!)
Find a list of United Egg Producers guidelines here. (Note: I’m not impressed.)
Whatever the chickens are eating was grown without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. They receive no antibiotics or hormones. UPDATE: organic store eggs may not be worth the price premium, as the conditions of the chickens still may not be ideal. A foot square doesn’t really allow room for exercise. There are ALSO considerations about what happens to the eggs after they’re laid. See here for details.
Chickens live outside and can eat green grass, bugs, grubs, and whatever they would naturally like to eat, along with, usually, a serving of chicken feed from the farmer. See an incredible picture of pastured vs. store eggs here.
Remember that brown eggs don’t really mean anything, health-wise. The chicken’s breed determines the color of their eggs.
You can be certain your chickens aren’t eating other chickens, feathers, or waste by-products of other animals. Always reassuring. However, they’re a little step over plain old white eggs for a big price jump. For me, not worth it.
These eggs come in an awful range of prices as well. How to tell which is best? For yourself, you can compare the nutrition facts of the fancy egg carton to those of the generic egg, below:
- 213 mg cholesterol
- 1.6 g saturated fat
- 1 IU vitamin E
- 35-40 mg omega-3s
Make sure you’re getting a big enough health difference to be worth what you’re paying!
One Last Question to Ask
Soy and corn. If the chickens are eating soy or corn, you may want to check if they’re GMO (genetically modified) or not. Organic feed cannot be GMO. I haven’t talked about this at KS (yet), but some people avoid GMO crops for various reasons, and it would make sense that your chickens should, too, if that’s important to you. Most of the vegetarian and grain fed eggs in the supermarket will surely be eating GMO corn and soy.
Pastured vs. Commercial Storebought Eggs
Obviously buying eggs from a store vs. directly from a farmer is a huge leap. Even though there are alarmingly many choices at your supermarket, you still may not be able to get the best eggs without striking out and finding a local farm. The following research results are pretty striking:
Most of the eggs currently sold in supermarkets are nutritionally inferior to eggs produced by hens raised on pasture. That’s the conclusion we have reached following completion of the 2007 Mother Earth News egg testing project. Our testing has found that, compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain:
1⁄3 less cholesterol
1⁄4 less saturated fat
2⁄3 more vitamin A
2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
3 times more vitamin E
7 times more beta carotene
4-6 times more vitamin D
These amazing results come from 14 flocks around the country that range freely on pasture or are housed in moveable pens that are rotated frequently to maximize access to fresh pasture and protect the birds from predators.
What Kind of Eggs Should I Buy?
Eggs in a Row: Best to Worst Healthy Egg Choices
- Of course first place goes to a pastured chicken egg fed organic feed without soy. Proper protein (grubs, etc), exercise, sunlight (for vitamin D) all create healthy eggs. Added bonus points to farmers who have roosters; fertilized eggs are healthier too. Super duper first place to chickens who get to follow cows around their pastures. Cow plops provide great grubs!
- Next best would be any local chickens who get to live for real outside, fed standard chicken feed, no antibiotics if possible.
- No farmers? At the store it would be nice if you could get organic, free range and omega-3 enhanced eggs, but they usually don’t come all in one package. In light of the ridiculous ways “free range” in defined, I would put both organic and omega-3 enhanced (as long as it’s above and beyond the stats of the standard egg above) ahead of free range and cage free. You’ll have to weigh for yourself if the added nutrition of omega-3 eggs are more important than avoiding the chemicals that the organic eggs will afford you.
- Eggland’s Best eggs are a small step up in price (for their white ones) but the nutrition really is improved because of the omega-3 enhanced diet of the chickens. I would say they’re a step up from store brand eggs, for sure.
- Can’t spend $4 on eggs? I understand. Much better to buy plain old white eggs for 98 cents a dozen and eat them (with a prayer) than to avoid eggs. The nutrition in eggs still can’t be beat.
How to Find Pastured Eggs
To find pastured eggs in your area, one resource is Eat Wild. There are usually many more options than you’ll find on this website though. The best practice is to simply ask around: at health food stores, like-minded people you know, farmer’s markets, etc. You can expect to pay between $1.50 and $4.50, at least in my area. (By the way, $1.50 for a dozen pastured eggs is a make-your-day kind of find!!)
Added Bonus: If you can find the right farmer selling eggs, you can actually spend just slightly more than standard store eggs and less than the designer eggs on the shelves! My friend gets her eggs at a paint store – no joke – and I found $1.50/dozen eggs by stopping for a roadside sign once.
How do you know when you’ve found what you’re looking for? When you find a farmer, there’s a very helpful list of questions to ask him/her at the very bottom of this long site, including:
What do you feed your chickens? The ideal feed is a combination of organically grown grains, legumes, grasses, greens, worms and insects. Less than ideal but still acceptable to many is organic lay pellets and organically grown corn and soy. At the bottom of the heap are commercial lay pellets, conventionally grown corn and soy and cottonseed meal.
Ultimately, we want to get the healthiest eggs we can afford, and still eat plenty of them.
What’s your relationship with eggs? Can you make a step up this week?
Other bloggers have great info on healthy eggs too:
- from Keeper of the Home: Finding A Good Egg
- from the Nourishing Gourmet: Eggs | A Powerhouse of Nutrition
- from Musing of a Housewife: The Incredible Edible Egg
- from Food Renegade: Healthy Eggs | What to Buy
- from Kelly the Kitchen Kop: Eat More Eggs
- “Meet Real Free Range Eggs”
- “Free range” Myth
- Monday Mission: Eat More Eggs
- Food For Thought: The Awesome Egg
- Kids in the Kitchen: Potato Salad
- The Best Scrambled Eggs Ever
If you missed the last Monday Mission, click here.
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