Eggs are one of my favorite foods. It’s a quick and easy protein, great source of healthy cholesterol, nutritious, and absolutely delicious! These days, when you go to the grocery store to buy eggs, it can be an overwhelming experience. There are so many different egg labels on the cartons, each claiming that they are the healthiest. As a Nutritional Therapist, I get quite annoyed at these different labels and marketing ploys that only confuse the consumers, who usually just want the healthiest option for them and their family members.
To clear up confusion about the many different egg labels and what they mean, I have broken them down in categories from meaningless, questionable, bad to the best. You may be surprised to find out that some labels are not what you thought they meant, and you’ll learn that you shouldn’t be fooled by the green pastures and happy chickens that are often displayed on the packaging.
Just remember that the nutrients in your eggs can vary dramatically depending on how the chickens were treated, how much room they had to thrive in, and what they ate. A 2007 study showed that 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
This is why it’s so important to read the labels and understand them so you know what you are getting in your eggs. So let’s get started!
Natural: You see this word not just on eggs but in so many packaged foods that food companies want you to think are healthy. However, natural is not a term that’s strictly regulated and honestly doesn’t mean anything. This is how natural eggs are defined in USDA’s blog: “This term simply means that nothing was added to the egg. All eggs meet this criteria.”
Hormone-free: Another term that marketers like to throw around. The use of hormones is actually banned for poultry in the United States, so all eggs should be hormone-free.
Humane: Again, this word isn’t regulated by USDA so it’s best to assume that it’s another marketing ploy. However, don’t confuse this with “Certified Humane,” which means the eggs meet certain guidelines and standards set by a third party. More on this below.
Cage free: This label just means that, literally, the hens were not in barred cages. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t confined and crowded together without ever seeing sunlight or being able to move. Many times, they have little or no access to outdoors.
Free range or free roaming: USDA’s definition of this label is, “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” (Source) I guess this is one step above cage free, but it still gives no specification to how many times they go outside (could be just once in their life time for 5 minutes) and what they are fed.
Pasteurized: Many people confuse this label with “pasture-raised,” but they actually have completely different meanings. Pasteurized eggs have gone through a warm water bath for under an hour to kill off any bacteria or pathogens. They became popular when Salmonella scare was on the rise several years ago. I don’t think pasteurizing is necessary if you eat high quality eggs, and this label doesn’t mean that the hens saw sunlight or were treated humanely. However, if you are someone with immune issues, it may be worth looking into.
Liquid eggs: This isn’t really a label but I decided to include it because many people are still buying them. Those eggs or egg whites in liquid form that come in tetra packs are always a no-no for me, organic or not. Just like you don’t get all the nutrients from fruits in jam form, packaged liquid eggs have gone through a series of processing and have been chemically altered with additives and preservatives that it’s hard to call them eggs anymore (They are actually labeled as “egg products” many times!). At the end of the process, the healthy nutrients of eggs are minimal and they will more likely do you more harm than good.
Vegetarian-fed: Somehow, consumers believe that vegetarian-fed chickens are healthier. However, this goes totally against the natural diet of chickens. When they are free to roam in the pasture, chickens eat bugs, worms, and other grubs that provide a variety of nutrients to make them and their eggs healthy and nutritious. Just like cows are not supposed to be raised solely on grains, corn, and soy, chickens are not supposed to be raised on a vegetarian diet.
Omega-3 enriched: This just means that the hens were fed a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, usually through fish oil, flax, and algae. If you are looking to incorporate more omega-3s into your diet, this may be a better option. However, this label doesn’t come with guidelines about the quality of the feed or the living conditions of the hens, and as you saw from the study I mentioned above, hens raised on pastures produce higher levels of omega-3s in their eggs anyway so it’s best to go for that option instead.
Organic: Organic eggs come from free range hens (no cages with unknown amount of outdoor access) and they are fed feed free of pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizers. This is good in that you won’t be exposed to these chemicals when you eat organic eggs, but it may still mean that the hens were raised in less-than-ideal conditions in a excessively crowded barn.
Certifed Humane: This is a certification given by Humane Farm Animal Care when the laying hens (and other farm animals) meet set guidelines. These hens are raised cage free, provided nest boxes, and have specific amount of room to roam around. While this is definitely a step up from cage free, it doesn’t ensure that the hens have outdoor access.
Pasture-raised or pastured: While many assume that this is the best option, “pasture-raised” is another term that isn’t regulated by USDA. However, when coupled with “Certified Humane,” it is the best option you can buy at the grocery store because that the combination of those labels IS regulated by Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC). Here’s HFAC’s guideline for this label:
“HFAC’s Certified Humane® “Pasture Raised” requirement is 1000 birds per 2.5 acres (108 sq. ft. per bird) and the fields must be rotated. The hens must be outdoors year-round, with mobile or fixed housing where the hens can go inside at night to protect themselves from predators, or for up to two weeks out of the year, due only to very inclement weather. All additional standards must be met.” (Source)
When buying pasture-raised eggs, make sure that you also see the “Certified Humane” label to ensure the best quality!
Farmers market or visit the farm: This, I think, is by far the best option. Talking to the farmers at the farmers market is a great way to know how the chickens were raised and what their farming practices are. Even better if you can visit the farm and see for yourself! I honestly feel iffy about buying anything from farmers who are hesitant to give farm tours. The ones that are comfortable about having you show up are the ones who are doing it right with good quality feed and having the chickens roam free!
As you can see, it’s hard to trust most of the labels you see on the packaging when it comes to eggs from supermarkets, because there are so many factors that go into the quality and many of them do not mean anything at all, or they address just one of them. However, by choosing the best quality for you and your family, you are getting more nutrition and better nutrient profile in each egg. Of course, if you can’t find pasture raised eggs near you or if they are out of your price range, choose the best option with the current knowledge your have after reading this. All we can do is make the best possible choices for our well being within our circumstances.
Now, go forth and be egg-cellent with reading your egg labels! (Had to, sorry.)