The Savvy Shopper
By Bob Gaydos
|The selection of eggs in the supermarket today|
can be challenging.
Photo by Bob Gaydos
“Hon, pick up a dozen eggs while you’re at the grocery store, OK?”
“OK. Farm-fresh, cage-free, organic, all-natural, pasture-raised, vegetarian-fed, free-range, omega-3, or Certified Humane/Animal Welfare Approved?”
“Ummmm … just, y’know, eggs.”
Actually, there’s a lot more to know about eggs these days. As Americans have become more health-conscious, they have grown increasingly interested in how and where their food was produced. More consumers are also concerned today with how humanely the animals that produce the food -- the chickens that lay the eggs in this case -- are treated. This heightened interest has resulted in a proliferation of information on food labels, including egg cartons. Some of this information is useful, some is meaningless and it all can be a bit confusing, unless you know what’s important to you about the eggs you eat.
This list is an effort to ease the confusion.
- Cage-Free: The vast majority of chickens at commercial egg hatcheries live their lives in a small cage that prevents their even being able to turn around. Cage-free chickens, as the name suggests, are raised without such restriction, but the name suggests more than is often the reality. Cage-free chickens aren't running around free as the wind with plenty of elbow room. They remain indoors, with unlimited access to food and water. There are no federal regulations stating how much space cage-free chickens must get, but United Egg Producers, an industry group, offers voluntary certification requiring that each bird has at least one square foot of space. It’s not much, but it’s more than double the size of standard cages in which billions of chickens lay their eggs. Cage-free chickens also have access to perches and nests for laying eggs.
- Free-Range: This is a little closer to what is suggested. Free-range chickens live in a shelter with no cages and have access to the outdoors. But the birds don't actually have to go outdoors, just be able to if they want to. There are also no regulations on how long the birds must stay outside, but free-range hens with eggs that are “Certified Humane” must have access to at least two square feet of outdoor space for up to six hours a day … whether they use it or not. Free-range eggs were shown in a study to have slightly higher Omega-3 fatty acids, linked to heart, brain and eye health levels. This is because of worms and insects the hens forage outside. The added health benefits to humans is disputed by major egg producers.
- Pasture-Raised: There is no federal regulation for this term, but farmers who use it say their chickens have access to plenty of open space where they can forage on green plants and insects, which is their nature. Happy hens. Some farmers rotate their birds to different pastures so they can have variety in their diet. Pasture-raised hens may have more than 100 square feet each in which to hunt and peck to their heart’s content. Nutritionally, this increases the amount of beta-carotene, vitamins D and E, and omega-3 fatty acids in the eggs. The hens may be given feed to supplement their foraging. Traditional egg producers also say there is no significant nutritional difference between these eggs and industry-produced eggs. Pasture farmers strongly disagree.
- Organic: There are actually regulations for this claim. Organic eggs must come from uncaged hens that have access to the outdoors and are fed a diet grown without synthetic pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers and free of GMOs. USDA certification for organic eggs is mandatory for producers with more than $5,000 in annual sales. Farms are inspected regularly. Free-range or pasture-raised eggs cannot be labeled organic unless the chickens are allowed to roam only on land certified organic. That means no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers were used.
- Vegetarian or all-natural: Voluntary labels. It means that the hens have a diet consisting mostly of corn and soybeans and are not fed any animal protein. Free-range or pasture-raised chickens are unlikely to be vegetarian because they will scavenge for worms, bugs and larvae outdoors. Thus, vegetarian-fed chickens are likely to spend no time outdoors.
- Omega-3: This label claim means these fatty acids, beneficial to human health, are fed to hens, usually in the form of flaxseed, algae or fish oil. Again, while it certainly can’t hurt, there is a difference of opinion as to how much “healthier” this supplement to their feed makes the hens’ eggs. These claims are not routinely checked by the FDA.
- Certified Humane Raised and Handled: These eggs meet the standards of the Humane Farm Animal Care program, which is an independent nonprofit. The standards include being cage-free and having sufficient space for such chicken behaviors as dust bathing and perching.
- Hormone-free, antibiotic-free. No hormones are used in producing eggs. Antibiotics are rarely used and usually for only a brief period. Flocks producing conventional eggs may use FDA-approved antibiotics in feed or water and must comply with FDA levels of use designed to prevent antibiotic residues in the eggs.
- United Egg Producers Certified: The eggs were produced in compliance with industry-codified standard practices. (More than 80 percent of commercial eggs carry this seal.)
- Etcetera: It should be noted that the nutrients in eggs are found in the yolks, while the egg whites are primarily protein. Also, some pasture-raised hens’ eggs may vary in flavor and appearance depending on the vegetation available in different seasons.
“OK, one more question, hon. What color eggs do you want?”
“Doesn’t matter. The eggs are the same. Different hens lay different colors. But I prefer brown.”