Eggs are a vital part of many diets, and it’s pretty easy to see why. Not only are they affordable and easy to cook, they’re packed with protein and nutrients. And they play an essential role in many beloved dishes — from breakfasts to dessert.
However, there’s an ongoing movement for transparency in food labeling, and eggs are no exception. But in reality, some of the labels mean nothing. For instance, you can completely ignore the phrase “farm fresh.” To discover how fresh the eggs you’re buying really are, you’ve got to pay attention to the USDA Grade shield.1
Although the USDA is an independent 3rd party, it’s recognized for assuring eggs meet the proper standards for quality and sanitary processing.
Through the USDA, licensed graders appraise facility sanitation, processing procedures, egg quality and weight, and storage temperature.2
But there are other kinds of labels to decipher, too. The problem is, suddenly there are myriad different labels you’re likely to see on your grocer’s shelf. It’s important to know what these labels actually mean before you head to the register.
Organic Eggs Explained
If you want the highest-quality eggs, organic is the way to go. Why? Well, when you compare the standards of how chickens are treated according to how they’re raised… organics are the best.
For starters, organic chickens eat only organic feed. This means they’re not getting any nasty animal by-products, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or any other chemical additives. Genetically modified foods are also out.
Another thing that sets organic eggs apart from the rest is the approach the farmers take when dealing with antibiotics. You see, commercial chickens are given antibiotics for a variety of reasons, but organic egg farmers only do this in case of illness. And if an antibiotic is used, the farm can temporarily lose its organic accreditation until the treatment ends. Furthermore, chickens that lay organic eggs cannot be raised in cages or forced to molt through starvation.3So, organic farmers are among the most humane.
Cage-Free Eggs Explained
So, if organic eggs are cage-free, why do egg farmers have a separate cage-free category? According to the Agricultural Marketing Service (a wing of the USDA), cage-free birds are permitted to roam a room, building, or enclosure with access to food and water.4 But, there’s that dirty word again—access.
You see, the chickens laying these eggs were never held in battery cages. But, just about any other environmental factor else can vary.
For example, cage-free chickens can still be raised in a packed henhouse. This doesn’t mean cage-free eggs are bad, but you should temper your expectations.
Free-Range Eggs Explained
The term “free-range chicken” conjures up a nice image. You picture healthy birds walking freely around a nice field, eating their natural food. But, that’s a bit of a half-truth. In reality, free-range chickens are allowed access to the outdoors during their production cycle. This doesn’t mean that they have actually been outside, it just means IF they can make it across the warehouse floor, they have the option to crawl out a tiny door.
The philosophy here is noble and provides the birds with a life that’s maybe a step above that of cage-free birds. However, the outdoor access can sometimes mean just access to a screened in porch with cement, dirt, or (in the best cases) grass.
Pasture-Raised Eggs Explained
Generally, pasture-raised eggs come from smaller farms. Here, the chickens are truly able to walk around outdoors for most of their lives and they have access to a barn in case the weather gets bad.
While the sizes of these “pastures” can vary, the chickens are able to supplement their feed with worms, insects, and grass — their natural foods.5 Because most pasture-raised chickens come from smaller farms, their eggs are often organic as well. But, this is not a guarantee. In any case, if you can find pasture-raised, organic eggs… you’ve hit the jackpot.
Omega-3 Eggs Explained
Now, omega-3 eggs are particularly special because they allow you to consume the nutrients found in omega-3 fatty acids. They’re not too different from regular eggs. The major difference is that omega-3 chickens are generally fed more omega-3 rich foods — like flax.
When the flax is digested, the polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid gets transferred to the yolk. In a recent study, omega-3 eggs had approximately five times as much omega-3 fatty acid as conventional eggs. They’ve also been shown to help lower blood pressure.6
This can make a sizable impact on the egg’s fatty acid content. Omega-3 enriched eggs provide about 12 times more omega-3 fatty acids than regular eggs.7
Other Egg Questions
So, we’re reaching the end of our little egg tutorial, but before we go… let’s talk color.
Should you shop for white eggs or brown eggs?
Truth be told, the differences between white eggs and brown eggs are relatively minuscule. For one, the taste and egg yolk are exactly the same. In some cases, there may also be slightly less omega-3 fatty acids in white eggs.8
What’s behind the color change, then?
Well, it’s all about the chicken’s genetics. Chickens with certain earlobes and feather colors lay eggs with certain colors. Makes sense right? On average, chickens that lay brown eggs are larger and cost more to raise.
This makes white eggs more cost-effective. On the shelf, higher prices for brown eggs lead to the perception that they are “better.” However, if you really want the highest quality eggs, you need to look at what the chickens are eating.
And just in case you’re wondering if you should eat just the yolk, just the white, or the whole egg… it really depends on what you’re looking for nutritionally. More than half the protein and vitamin B2 come from the egg white. But the yolk has more cholesterol, healthy fats, and carotenoids. And carotenoids have helpful antioxidant properties.
So, What’s the Best Choice?
In the end, it’s all up to you.
Do you want to make sure there are no additives or antibiotics? Buy organic.
Do you want to be certain the chickens are treated humanely? Go for free-range or cage-free.
Are eggs going to be your main source of omega fatty acids? Then it’s all about omega-3s.