Have you stood in front of the egg display at your supermarket lately and gotten confused by all the egg carton labels? 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 post 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.
Egg Carton Labels Defined
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, but are allowed “access” to the outdoors, (this might only mean one small door and 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. Further, some sources indicate that the conditions of cage-free hens are not much better than standard battery raised hens.
This is one of those egg carton labels that 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 is 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.
Typically, these are most nutritious eggs (more info on that ahead). Eggs branded with this label means that the 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.
With this egg carton label, 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? 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.
Egg Carton Labels…Where to Go from Here?
With all the different egg carton labels and egg terminology, choosing the best eggs for your family will probably take some research. Fortunately, I’ve been on that journey recently and put together a primer of the best eggs to buy and baby steps you can take along your own egg-hunting journey.
Research shows that most of the eggs sold in supermarkets are not comparable (nutritionally speaking) to pasture-raised eggs. If pastured eggs are accessible to you, go for it! To find local sources of fresh pastured eggs, visit Eat Wild.
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.
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.
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