Eggs: Cage-free, natural, organic - What’s the difference?

Eggs are great any time of the day; and provide a ton of nutrition for a low cost and they don’t take long to prepare- but what do the labels on the packages actually mean? Find out here...

July 23, 2014

Eggs are great any time of the day; for breakfast, lunch, or dinner or even a quick snack, eggs provide a ton of nutrition for a low cost and they don’t take long to prepare. According to a recent survey conducted by Austin, Texas-based Vital Farms, a national egg producer, most consumers don’t know what many of the egg package labels relating to how the chickens were raised, actually mean. Vital Farms found that about 50 percent of consumers seek out free-range, cage-free and organic eggs. But, when asked to explain what those terms mean, the visions and ideas they had are actually much closer to the conditions experienced by pasture-raised chickens.  

For all of us buying specialty eggs (and paying the price premium) we better know what we are and are not paying for.  Here are some of the different ways eggs are marketed in the US.

Cage-free: Over 90% of hens are raised in cages that are between 48 and 68 square inches. Birds that are cage-free or free-roaming are not caged; however, they likely were still raised within the confines of a small building and generally do not have access to the outdoors. So this is a distinction without much of a difference.

Certified humane: For a farm to make this claim, it must meet specific criteria: The hens may not be caged; their feed must be vegetarian and contain no antibiotics; and the birds need to live in a natural environment that allows for behaviors like preening and scratching.

Fertile: These are eggs that, when incubated, will develop into chicks. They are no more nutritious than other eggs and are usually priced higher than others. Usually fertile eggs are cage free and come from hen houses where roosters roam as well; some consumers believe this is a more natural habitat.

Grass-fed: There is no USDA-approved definition of this term when it comes to hens. Farms touting grass-fed or pasture-raised egg laying hens claim their hens are as close to being “wild” as possible. Grass-fed hens are usually allowed to roam freely and so they eat a variety of things found in their natural habitat: grass, bugs, and whatever animals they might catch and kill. All of these (individually and together) contain adequate protein (including vegetation). Because this term is not USDA regulated, if you are interested in purchasing grass-fed eggs it may be best to get to know your farmer and their farming practices.

Hormone free: The use of hormones in poultry has been banned since the 1960s. So by law, all eggs are hormone-free. If a carton offers this claim alone, it’s a waste of money if it costs more.

Natural: This is another meaningless term. According to regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, no additives or colors can ever be added to eggs.

USDA-certified organic: This means that the hens have eaten only organic feed and grain grown without fungicides, herbicides, commercial fertilizers, and pesticides and that their diet hasn’t contained any animal or poultry by-products. The hens also have not been given any antibiotics or growth hormones, and they’ve been allowed access to the outdoor.

So what are the best eggs for your nutrition buck? Look for pastured eggs or those that have access to the outdoors (although this is no guarantee); also get to know your local farmers and find out how their chickens are raised – this is your best bet for the best nutrition and for supporting your local economy and community.

According to Mother Earth News, one (of many) study demonstrated that free-range or pasture-raised chicken eggs have four to six times more vitamin D (one of the only natural sources), three times more vitamin E, two-thirds more vitamin A, one third less cholesterol, and seven times more beta carotene. They also have two times more omega-3 essential fatty acids, and some would say a better taste. Buying eggs from a local farmer also ensures their freshness, you know they were produced only days before versus supermarket eggs that could be at least a week old.

In any case, eggs are a great all day long and all year round!

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