Cage-Free, Free-Range, Pasture-Raised or Organic?
Eggs, as well as the chickens they come from, are both healthful sources of essential proteins needed for the building, maintenance and repair of your body tissues, skin, internal organs and muscles. Proteins are found in many types of food, but only foods from animal sources, such as meat and eggs are considered complete proteins, meaning they provide the eight essential amino acids. Unfortunately, in America today, factory farming has eggs not being raised the way nature intended. The egg isle at the grocery store can be confusing with many different labels and choices such as Organic, Natural, Pasture-Raised, Cage-Free and Free-Range.
Not All Eggs are created Equal!
So, how can we know which eggs are best? Labels on egg cartons can tell us a lot about the conditions in which the hens are kept, fed and ultimately where our eggs are coming from.
Natural: This is generally the most popular and economical method of production to keep eggs prices down. The hens are kept in cages, up to 12 birds per cage, and the cages are stacked in long rows inside of massive barns that normally house tens of thousands of birds. They are typically fed a mixture of corn and feed made from animal byproducts, usually generated by machines and do not see the sun in their lifetime. Natural means very little these days. Stay away from this.
Cage-Free: This is a tricky label. Because it sounds somewhat more humane, many big corporations have started slapping this label on egg cartons BUT just because the hens aren’t in cages does NOT mean they are outside. The chickens can be un-caged in a barn or warehouse but it does mean they even see the light of day or are able to spread their wings in their lifetime. They usually live in large colony houses; with many thousands of birds to a house and living conditions are cramped and very poor. It also does not include what they are fed. Also not your best option.
Free-Range: When the carton says ‘free-range’ it most often means that the egg layers are un-caged while inside and have access to the outdoors. Frequency, duration and outdoor conditions are not specified and there are no guidelines as to what the chickens are fed. Overall, a small step up from cage-free as they’ve at least had the pleasure of seeing the sun.
Pasture-Raised: Eggs that are ‘pasture-raised’ come from hens that eat feed from pastures. The hens may very well be roaming the land, but might also be kept in pens on the pasture or held in fenced areas for protection. Testing has confirmed that pasture-raised eggs are far more nutritious than commercially raised eggs from caged hens. The superior nutrient levels are the result of the differences in diet between free ranging, pastured hens and commercially farmed hens some. Pasture-raised eggs have up to 3x the amount of vitamin E, 2x the amount of omega-3 fatty acids, and 7x more beta-carotene of a caged egg! Many people also find these eggs to be the tastiest. Overall, this is a much better choice!
Organic: Organic is a term that is defined by the USDA. Hens laying organic eggs are fed food that has less exposure to pesticides, commercial fertilizers or fungicides. However, organic labels do not tell anything about the treatment or conditions that the hens were exposed to. Overall, a lessened chemical load means it’s a label to look for.
Summary: Be on the lookout for organic, pasture-raised eggs! For animal lovers, knowing the treatment of the hens alone may be enough to switch to pasture-raised. However, because constant exposure to sunlight and clean air and less chemically ridden foods helps maintain healthier flocks and improved physiologies, both of which have been shown to contribute to more nutritious eggs, these are additional reasons to spend a few extra dollars and choose organic and pasture-raised eggs.
Where to Find High Quality Pasture-Raised Eggs?
Your best source for fresh eggs is always seeking out a local farmer (if possible) that allows the hens to roam freely outdoors. If you live in an urban area, a local grocery store is typically the quickest and most cost effective route to finding high-quality, local egg sources. Local farmers markets are another great source for fresh pasture-raised eggs, and is also a great way to meet the people who produce your food and ask any questions to know exactly what you’re buying. Most will be eager to chat and show off their operation, as long as they’ve got nothing to hide.