Kitchen Stewardship | A Baby Steps Approach to Balanced Nutrition

Egg Labels and Terms: What’s in a Name?

June 7th, 2010 · 33 Comments · Food for Thought, What to Buy

image 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 image 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.

Free range

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?”

Cage free

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.

Grain-fed

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.

Omega 3s

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!)

UEP Certified

Find a list of United Egg Producers guidelines here.   (Note: I’m not impressed.)

Organic

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.

Pastured

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.

image

Remember that brown eggs don’t really mean anything, health-wise.  The chicken’s breed determines the color of their eggs.

Vegetarian fed

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

  1. 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!
  2. Next best would be any local chickens who get to live for real outside, fed standard chicken feed, no antibiotics if possible.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 bonusAdded 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:

Further Reading:

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http://www.foodrenegade.com/healthy-eggs-what-to-buy/Heal


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33 Comments so far ↓

  • Primal Toad

    Great post! I currently buy organic eggs. I once bought true pastured eggs from this amazing farm that I buy my bacon from. The were $4.50 but were SO MUCH DIFFERENT then even the organic eggs at the sueprmarket! And, those organic eggs still run around $3 to $3.50. So, for around a dime more… I might as well just buy the pastured eggs.

    It is amazing how and egg does not necessarily mean an egg….
    .-= Primal Toad´s last blog ..What Is The #1 Thing You Are Grateful For? For Me, It’s Life =-.

  • Joke

    Katie, I have a question: how are fertilized eggs healthier?
    And another one: I wonder whether fertilized eggs are suitable for people with a pro-life opinion?
    I want to have chickens later in my backyard!

    Katie Reply:

    Joke,
    This isn’t very good research, but I heard from a few people, including our cow share/egg farmer, that fertilized eggs are healthier. I can’t remember the reason, but it made sense to me at the time.

    If you have chickens yourself, a rooster helps because he keeps the hens from fighting with each other, esp if you have at least 6 hens.

    Good luck!
    Katie

    Joke Reply:

    Thank you for the advice Katie!
    If I ever find something about the fertilized eggs, I’ll let you know, but usually the farmers know best :)

  • Kathryn

    I’ve been eating & using the best eggs i can find (by definition outlined as you did here) for some time.

    I was very excited to learn that my neighbor across the street had hens & that i might be able to get eggs from him. UNTIL he said (i think trying to reassure me) “Oh yes, and we give them the necessary antibiotics in their water, too.”

    *Say what?* Why on earth would they need them? They are about as healthy naturally as possible. They truly allow them free range, i’ve seen them round them up out of the front yard. I think he has been bamboozled by the powers that be into believing they are necessary. Needless to say, i don’t get eggs from them. I was so disappointed.
    .-= Kathryn´s last blog ..Random rambling =-.

  • Sarah W

    I found my eggs on craigslist! Free-range, organic and soy free. :D I buy them from a family who keeps chickens. I drive about 35 minutes to get them! (I try to buy as many dozen at a time as I reasonably can and hopefully have another errand in that direction.)

  • Camille

    Don’t limit your search to farms (see Craigslist comment above)! Here in Vegas, there are many, many people who keep chickens in their backyards (and we have tiny yards here). There is a chicken keeping co-op in town, which is where I found mine.

    You could also raise your own. Chickens are fairly easy to keep as well. Most people I know keep 1-2 chickens and each one lays 3 eggs a day. You could easily make back what you pay in feed by selling the extra eggs!
    .-= Camille´s last blog ..Menu Plan Monday, June 6 =-.

    Janet Reply:

    I’d love to know what breed of chicken lays three eggs a day. What are they fed? I have raised hundreds of chickens and have never yet gotten 3 eggs from a hen in one day. Once in a while, a young hen lays 2 in a day, but she takes the next day off. I have 3 dozen hens right now and find 30 eggs a day to be about right.

    Camille Reply:

    I have no idea! The CSA that I bought from told me they get 3 eggs per day from their chickens except in the summer.

  • Musings of a Housewife

    Great info. Thanks for the link!. I am talking to farms about their milk now. I found one that is grass fed with supplemental feed (necessary in PA) and no rSTB or whatever that growth hormone is. It’s not organic, though. But I think giving dairy cows antibiotics is always illegal, right? They have to be separated from the herd while being treated? So the only concern would be the possible chemicals in the feed? Am I missing something?

    And yes I realize this has nothing to do with eggs. :-)

    Katie Reply:

    M ofa H,

    I’m actually talking milk next week, so I’ll cover your Q in a bit more depth, but yes, antibiotics wouldn’t be in the actual milk, the animal’s milk would be pulled…I think. Is the supplemental feed hay/alfalfa or corn/grain? That’s a big difference.

    IMO, grassfed and local are two huge steps in the right direction, raw and unhomogenized would be two more, so you’re doing great if all those are true!

    Shame on you for getting off topic. I would never do that, you know. ;)

    Everyone gets that that’s a joke, right? :) Katie

    Musings of a Housewife Reply:

    Well, this is what she said: :-)

    The cows are put to pasture daily where they eat grass. They are also fed dry grass hay and alfalfa hay daily as well as a mixture of ground haylage and silage that we raise ourselves on the land around our farm. The mixture is tested for nutrition and balanced by lab report for any vitamin and mineral supplements needed to be mixed in. (Forages and grasses vary in nutritional makeup depending on the weather and growing conditions of any given season.) Of course, since we live in the north, the cows can only graze on grasses about 8 months a year – during the winter they are fed stored grasses in the form of hays and silages.

    That sounds good, yes? I guess I”m trying to figure out if this milk (at $3.50 a gallon) is worth buying rather than the grass-fed certified organic local milk I can get elsewhere for $6 a gallon.
    .-= Musings of a Housewife´s last blog ..Fashion Friday =-.

    Katie Reply:

    M of a H,
    It’s such a tricky balance! Haylage and silage can actually include corn and grains and such. I’d feel better if they were fed only hay and alfalfa as those are “grasses” that wouldn’t interrupt the whole “grassfed’ deal. And it depends how important organic is to you (did they say if they treat the crops they grow themselves?). I buy eggs from a farmer who raises chickens kind of equivalent to this: raises own feed, but there’s corn and soy in there, and it’s not organic. But the eggs are a good supplement to the “ideal” eggs that our milk farmer raises. Bottom line: this milk is a HUGE step up from store milk (is it unhomogenized and raw, too?). Good luck making the decision! :) Katie

  • marcella

    I would love to have my own chickens. Until then I buy organic cage free when only the market works or eggs from a farmer at the farmer’s market as often as possible. Sadly, pastured eggs here are $6-8 a dozen which is a budget hit.
    .-= marcella´s last blog ..In the quilting room =-.

    Musings of a Housewife Reply:

    WOW!!! $6-8 a dozen?? That’s insane. I guess I’m really lucky to live in farm country. I can usually find them for $3 or $4 at the most.
    .-= Musings of a Housewife´s last blog ..Fashion Friday =-.

  • Cindy Young

    Hmmm….I have a small (read:tiny) flock of 10 hens and 1 rooster. I made the very expensive decision a few months ago to go all organic with their feed. Can’t get soy free organic around here so I get the next best which includes soy, but is organic. My flock has always been pastured, with total access to the entire 1 1/2 acres we own and the empty fields around us. Until last week. When I found the lot of ‘em marching down our dirt road, oblivious to any dangers (which could include school buses and crazy teenagers) Now I let them out of their fenced in yard (which they have from 8am when I let them out of their coop) around 3pm till dark, in the hopes that they will be too busy with OUR yard and pond to bother with the road!!!
    They have DARK orange yolks and are uber delicious. I used to give away all my extra eggs to friends, now I must sell them for $2.00 dozen, just to cover the cost of their organic feed. (My feed costs went from $7.50 for 50# to nearly $22 for 50#) I’m happier. My friends are happier. And I believe the flock is happier. (Well, except for the lock down they have till 3pm!!!)
    This was an excellent post on all the choices out there. And if nothing else was available, I, too, would just go get the grocers eggs for .99 a dozen.
    .-= Cindy Young´s last blog ..NEVER too old to learn =-.

    Katie Reply:

    Cindy,
    Now THAT is an awesome testimony! I would buy your eggs in a jif. My mom convinced her egg lady to up her prices from $1.50 to $2 to make sure she wasn’t losing money. People want good food! You are an inspiration! :) Katie

    Musings of a Housewife Reply:

    I wish I was your neighbor! ;-)

    And “marching down the road” – LOL!! The visual on that one is too cute.
    .-= Musings of a Housewife´s last blog ..Fashion Friday =-.

  • Greta @ Mom Living Healthy

    Thanks for getting me focused on this again! I just went to the eatwild site and found a GREAT producer who is right in our area. So excited!
    .-= Greta @ Mom Living Healthy´s last blog ..This Week’s Menu Plan =-.

  • erin

    Great information. I just found your site,,, you are a teacher at heart and soul!! Love it…. not to add confusion to the discussion… but how about duck eggs? I’ve raised them in the past and they out produced the chickens. Also I think they cope with rain and cold better. I hope to have three in my yard next spring.. it didn’t work out this spring.
    .-= erin´s last blog .. =-.

    Katie Reply:

    Erin,
    I don’t know personally, but I’ve heard only good things about duck eggs! I would guess the questions to ask would be the same: what does your food eat?
    Thank you for the kind compliment! :) Katie

  • Brandi

    Thanks for all the hard work and research!! I consider myself a slight crunchy parent, but when my husband lost his job almost 2 years ago, I HAD to start buying the “gross” eggs. I felt horrible about it but didn’t want to give up eggs entirely. Like you said, I did pray alot about the food choices I was having to make just to feed my family!

    Katie Reply:

    Brandi,
    Welcome! Any egg is better than a boxed mac and cheese, right? ;) Katie

    Dawn Reply:

    Yes, indeed. Any egg is better than processed food. Keep praying, it will all work out. And watch for neighbors with chickens, sometimes they’ll share for little or no cost if they have an abundance… Good luck!

  • AmandaonMaui

    I used to get eggs from a woman on the island who had them in her yard, running around. But, unfortunately she stopped having any for a long time and I haven’t contacted her again to find out if she’s still selling. I should probably do that. I’ve been buying cage free, but as you said that doesn’t really mean much. However, I can’t afford 6-8 for organics all of the time. :(
    Sometimes I can get eggs from the bf’s parent’s homestead, but their chickens weren’t producing much for a while, so they had to conserve for their private use.
    I really would love to have an egg layer someday.
    .-= AmandaonMaui´s last blog ..Happy Father’s Day! =-.

  • Lisa Todd

    Great information. I had been on a mission to find quality eggs and in a last ditch effort, I searched on Craigslist! What a blessing. I found a couple of farmers who were open to dialogue with me about their chickens and eggs, however they all fed the chickens soy. We have been on a mission not to eat ANY soy or corn products, it is very difficult! I found a woman who was open and interested in the no soy requests. She was willing to segment some of her chickens and not give them soy products. Through her long, drawn out interactions with me about soy she started doing her own research and began eliminating soy from her diet and from the diet of ALL of her chickens. It is so nice to find local people to buy our food products from, thank you for the information you provide.

    Katie Reply:

    Wow! Lisa, what an inspiring story! :) Katie

  • Becky

    What about Certified Humane? I read an article previously describing eggs and it was my understanding from that piece that CH eggs are especially healthy and worth the price because of the CH standards (Cage free, free range – literally, etc). Until I can find local pastured eggs I have been getting the CH Nest Fresh Eggs from Costco. I agree, in this case, Organic is not worth it.

  • Dawn

    I have a friend with an organic farm, and he told me that adding flax to the diet increases the estrogen in the eggs, so I dropped out of the CSA I had been getting them from to avoid this. I then found that a neighboring farm sells eggs for $2.50 per dozen! Organic (non-certified), free-range, pastured, vegetarian, total WIN! That will teach me to look around a little more!

  • Renee Harris

    In France the farmers stamp the egg with the date it was collected. I have a pic my husband took at the local Farmer’s market.

  • lizi

    WOW so much good info on eggs!! which is so helpful b/c my fam goes through 1-2 doz a week. I had previously been mostly buying our store brand Omega 3 eggs- 18 times more Omega-3′s than CAFO eggs!! I wished they were organic, and local, but I am sometimes too focused on the nutrition side and thought the way extra Omega-3′s were worth the compromise. THANKS for the info on Omega-3′s; that in eggs it is mostly the ALA – the least important for humans, as we can only use about 2% of it to convert to EPA/DHA. As these eggs’ label doesn’t have detailed Omega-3 breakdown, I had no idea!! Now I am going to find better eggs! But I agree, it is hard because most, if not all, farmer’s eggs here use soy-corn layer pellets, to supplement at least, and only a couple of farmers are certified organic. HMPH!! sigh! Well that’s okay, I am not discouraged, I can keep a lookin. My idea is that if the chickens are pastured, that can make up for a lot of the nutritional issues with conventional layer pellets- they still have pretty orange yolks! But I wonder, the issue with flaxseed causing extra estrogen- what if it was switched to a chia see regimen? that is $$ but better EPA/DHA, i think just plain better. Or good quality fish meal? I am not against that at all, I think it’s just kind of a step up from all the bugs they eat anyway. I want to have chickens of my own, maybe this year, and I wonder what the best way to feed them is for optimal nutrition….anyway i do think those CAFO eggs are worth avoiding (but better than carbage), because Sally Fallon says the fatty acd balance is WAY out of whack like 20 times more omega-6 than omega-3, which can lead to inflammation throughout your body. not good. i would recommend cutting our other less healthy things in the food budget, like CAFO meat, carbage, etc, and keep the best eggs you can afford. but i know, as a family of four living way below the so-called poverty level, it is hard to always know what the best decisions are to make. praying is good!!

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Welcome!  Meet Katie.

I embrace butter. I make homemade yogurt. I eat traditional real food – plants and animals that God created, not products of plants where food scientists work. Here at Kitchen Stewardship, I share how I strive to be a good steward of my family's nutrition, the environment, and our budget, all without spending every second in the kitchen. Learn more about the mission of KS here.

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