Cracking the Code on Egg Labeling

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Lately the media has been throwing out some ‘scrambled’ messages about eggs.  The headlines claim that eating egg yolks is as bad for health as puffing on a cigarette.  I know that none of you have ‘sucker’ tattooed on your forehead and that you aren’t believing all the hype – but just in case you need some reassurance here are a couple of great rebuttals and explanations.  Let’s make a long story short – if you are debating between a pack-a-day smoking habit or a feast of a half dozen eggs – go with the yolks.  That being said, some eggs are better than others and it’s important to remember that, when you’re choosing your carton.  But with SO MANY labels – organic, pastured, natural, cage free, vegetarian fed, nutrient-enhanced – how can you be sure you’re getting the best option and what the heck do all those terms mean anyway?  Well, wonder no more!  Here is your guide to ‘cracking’ the carton codes!

Cage Free:

Don’t be fooled by this one! Just because the hens aren’t in cages doesn’t mean they’re outside.  The chickens can be ‘uncaged’ in a barn, warehouse, etc., but there are no promises that the birds see the sun or as to what they are fed.  Additionally, there are NO standards or auditing to ensure ‘cage free’ compliance.  Bottom line: Not your best option.

Certified Humane:

Like ‘cage free’, this label doesn’t guarantee that the hens have ever seen the light of day – again the birds are ‘uncaged’ but can be contained inside.  This label is a step up, however because there ARE requirements for such things as stocking density, number of perches and laying boxes.  Compliance is audited by a third party to ensure guidelines are being followed. Bottom Line: Better than ‘cage free’.  Look for this label!

Fertile:

Exactly what it implies!  These hens got some action (sort of).  Eggs with this label were laid by ‘chicks’ that live with roosters.  This implies that they most likely were not caged.  Bottom Line: If it’s the only label on the carton – keep looking.

Free Range/Free Roaming:

There are USDA standards for ‘free range’ poultry, but eggs are another story.  When the carton says ‘free range’ it most often means that the egg layers are uncaged 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 cluckers are fed.  Bottom Line: Well, they’ve at least had the pleasure of seeing the sun…

Vegetarian Fed:

If you see this label on the carton it means that the girls weren’t fed any animal protein.  It makes no guarantees as to the hens living conditions or treatment. Bottom Line: It’s not telling us much.  If it’s the only label on the carton – keep looking.

Omega-3 Enriched:

How the heck do they get the omega-3’s in the egg – there aren’t any ‘holes’ in the shell??  Eggs that have been ‘enriched’ with omega-3 fatty acids or other nutrients (vitamin E, etc) come from birds that have been given feed with these components.  In the case of omega-3’s the chow was likely laced with flax, algae, or fish oil.  Bottom Line: Yes, these eggs do contain ‘more’ omega-3’s, etc. – but often the amounts are insignificant.  A better option than ‘plain label’ supermarket eggs.

United Egg Producers Certified:

This is a voluntary program, audited by a third party, that most of the United States egg industry complies to.  This certification is not all it’s ‘cracked’ up to be and permits inhumane and cruel factory farm practices.  Let’s just say, this doesn’t mean that the ‘girls’ are happy.  They are only guaranteed a cage space roughly the size of a piece of paper (it can be larger – but it must be at least that big).  The ‘cage conditions’ aren’t specified and seeing the sun is no guarantee.  Bottom Line: It isn’t saying much…

Natural:

This basically means NOTHING!  There are no guidelines or definitions surrounding the term – basically, the egg came out of a bird.  End of story. Bottom Line: The egg was not grown in a petri-dish; that is all.

Pasture Raised:

If this label leaves you with a vision of poultry running free on the prairie – pinch yourself; that’s not the reality.   Eggs that are ‘pasture raised’ come from hens that eat feed from pastures.  The ‘laying ladies’ may very well be roaming the land, but might also be kept in pens on the pasture or held in fenced areas.  Did your grandparents have chickens in the backyard?  Those could be called ‘pasture raised’.  Bottom Line: This one isn’t too bad.

Pasteurized:

This term has absolutely nothing to do with a pasture, but rather tells us that the eggs underwent ‘pasteurization’ to kill bacteria.  Once ‘picked’ eggs are given a warm water bath to kill any bugs and the shells are coated with wax to prevent cross-contamination. Bottom Line: Pasteurized eggs are commonly used in hospitals and nursing homes to prevent food borne illness.  If you eat raw eggs or prepare uncooked foods using eggs (egg nog, paleo mayo, etc) and are at high risk for food borne illness this might be a label to look for.

White vs. Brown:

This is an EASY one – vanilla and chocolate, DUH!  I’m just ‘yolk’ing around – that really ‘cracked’ me up!  Seriously though, there is really not a lot of difference between the two.  The color of the egg is determined by the breed of chicken that did the laying.  Brown eggs come from dark colored hens with red earlobes and white eggs from white hens with white earlobes.  Brown eggs are more expensive, not because they are ‘better’ but because brown hens tend to be larger and need more food.  Bottom Line: Regardless of what you’ve been told – the flavor is the same.  Sorry, no chocolate eggs.  Unless you have a thing for brown; save your money.

Organic:

Organic is a term that is defined by the USDA.  Hens laying ‘organic’ eggs are fed chow that has little to no exposure to pesticides, herbicides, commercial fertilizers and/or fungicides.  Keep in mind that ALL eggs (organic or not) are hormone free.  Organic on the label tells us nothing about the treatment or conditions that the hens were exposed to. Bottom Line: Less chemical load with these guys – it’s a label to look for.

Summary

So, there you have it, hopefully that helps solve your egg carton conundrum or at least tells you what all the labels mean.  What ‘egg’actly should you be looking for?  Eggs labeled with ‘pasture-raised or ‘free farmed’, certified humane/American Humane Certified and organic are the big ones when dealing with supermarket eggs.  If the carton says locally raised, farm fresh, chemical free or beyond organic; do your homework.  Contact the provider, request a tour or visit their website, investigate the hens living conditions, and food supply before assuming that they are ‘good eggs’.

Don’t let shopping for eggs ‘fry’ you.  ‘Unscramble’ the labels and you’ll know ‘egg’actly what your eggs are ‘cracked’ up to be!

 

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  1. Primal toad
    August 29, 2012 at 3:18 am

    I must add that I’ve noticed the vitamin and mineral content much higher with omega 3 enriched eggs compared to normal eggs.

    I’ve seen folic acid 3x as high and vitamin e 10x as high! Vitamin b6 and a few others also showed a significant change.

    If I remember correctly, flax seed is rich in both nutrients, correct? So, it seems that if you don’t buy your eggs from a local farm then buying eggs that are omega 3 enriched may be very beneficial!!

    • Amy Kubal
      August 29, 2012 at 4:41 am

      You are correct. And if you’re buying supermarket eggs the O-3’s are going to be a better choice than the ‘plain labels’ for sure!

  2. Seppo
    August 29, 2012 at 3:32 am

    I have to politely disagree with you about omega 3 enriched eggs. Several studies show that they are a good source of omega 3 fats. And not just ALA. Hens can convert ALA into DHA and EPA quite effectively.

    To the studies:

    This study showed that 3 enriched eggs are equal one meal with fish as far as omega 3 is concerned.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10901195

    This study showed that 1 enriched egg per day improved plasma omega 6:3 ratio from 12:1 to 7:1.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9734728

    This study also showed an improvement in omega 3:6 ratio with 2 enriched eggs per day (as compared to normal eggs). Unfortunately I don’t have acess to the full text so I can’t say how much the ratio improved.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7906572

    From other studies I’ve seen that enriched eggs have about 300 mg of omega 3 fatty acids per egg. And a lot of that is longer chain fatty acids. Many fish oil capsules have 1000 mg/pill. So 3 enriched eggs give you about the same amount.

    • Amy Kubal
      August 29, 2012 at 4:43 am

      Great info! Thanks!

  3. Cindy
    August 29, 2012 at 6:21 am

    Thanks for this info…I have often stood at the egg case in the grocery store and wondered…I am looking for a local source for eggs…just have a hard time paying $5/ dozen…

  4. Thorin Messer
    August 29, 2012 at 6:43 am

    To me, this is the only label that’s meaningful: Animal Welfare Approved, http://www.animalwelfareapproved.org/

    You’re probably not going to see eggs with this label in a supermarket though, it’s pretty rare. Hopefully that is changing as people demand better quality products from humane, sustainable practices.

  5. Amy B.
    August 29, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    Does the pasteurization process affect the nutritional content of the eggs, or is it purely an issue of making sure the *outside* of the eggs is less likely to be contaminated with something?

    • Amy Kubal
      August 29, 2012 at 2:53 pm

      The nutritional value is the same – the protein quality is not affected. It’s purely a food safety measure.

  6. Brock in HK
    August 29, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    In the spirit of n=12, you should also look at the eggs once you’ve cracked them to ID a good brand / label to make shopping easier. In general, the more orange the yolk, the higher the probability the chicken that made it was cage free, outside and eating a more natural diet.

    • Amy Kubal
      August 30, 2012 at 4:27 am

      Very good point! The color of the yolk is a great way to assess the quality!

  7. Nick
    August 29, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    Conventional eggs from supermarkets and places like Costco usually sell eggs that are “vegetarian fed”. Based on my research this usually consists of grains and soy. I thought that foods like these should be avoided as much as possible? I eat 2 eggs a day and do my best to purchase eggs from farmers markets that don’t use soy.

    Thoughts?

    • Amy Kubal
      August 30, 2012 at 4:27 am

      Nick, you are doing great! Definitely avoid the eggs from chicken fed soy and grains if possible!

  8. Lpjohnson
    August 30, 2012 at 4:03 am

    White eggs coming from white chickens and brown from brown is an oversimplification. There is no correlation between colors. There are beautiful red & brown chickens that lay shades of blue & green eggs. Now, as far as white, conventional grocery store eggs, they come from white chickens that are sickly and severely inbred. The inbreeding is to keep the eggs consistent in shape, size, color. (your readers are avoiding these anyway, right :) )
    We keep 7 layers in our backyard in town. They eat our kitchen scraps and eat bugs, worms, blueberries right out of my little boys’ hands. They really are great pets and I encourage everybody to keep a couple.

  9. Amber
    August 30, 2012 at 7:08 am

    I tend to avoid the “vegetarian diet” eggs more than looking for anything else. Having been raised on a farm, and still getting 90% of my eggs straight from the farm (with the most glorious thick orange yolks you could imagine), eating eggs from chickens deprived of their normal diet is the most unnatural and illogical to me.

    And it seems to be a grocery store/commercial egg farm racket with the brown vs white eggs…compare the prices and brown eggs are much more expensive and often the ones that are also “organic”, “natural” etc…people THINK they are better, so the stores charge more for them. Well, at least that is my cyncial, farm-egg spoiled spin on things!

    • Amy Kubal
      August 30, 2012 at 7:28 am

      I love the spin! And you are doing an ‘egg-cellent’ job with your egg selection!

  10. Mike L
    August 31, 2012 at 7:59 am

    I recently just purchased 8 dozen eggs from http://www.TropicalTraditions.com who feed there hens with a coconut based soy-free certified organic feed. They were offering free shipping this month so it wasn’t too too expensive. Worked out to be just under $7.00 a dozen.

    Here’s a YouTube video of the chickens: http://youtu.be/sl8OOtqoaTk

    This is my first time trying the eggs from TT so I can’t say anything about the color of the yokes etc considering they haven’t come yet.

    I normally buy the Vital Farm eggs brand at Whole Foods in Swampscott, MA. Now these eggs come from Austin Texas however I felt it was my best choice out of all the eggs at whole foods.

    Their social media is extremely transparent and when I asked them what they fedd there girls and why they used soy…this was the response I received from one of the workers there:

    “Hi Mike:

    Birds are seed eaters, not just pasture grazers. In addition to grass and other pasture goodies, our hens get a feed ration made up mainly of organic corn and a small amount of unprocessed organic soybean meal. It’s the only way that we can insure that they get enough of the essential amino acid, lysine in their diet, without which, they simply won’t lay eggs. There are no GMO’s or any other non-organic ingredients in our birds’ feed.

    There are some soy free eggs on the market, but they often use animal products such as blood or bone meal (mainly from chicken) or fish meal, a non-sustainable source of protein. We won’t feed our girls rations that contain either. We are in the process of seeking a grain alternative to soy from non-traditional sources and hope to have news to you when we are happy with the results.

    The main ingredient in our girls diet however, remains what they forage in the pasture which, along with all feed is 100% certified organic.

    Thanks,

    Matt

    Vital Farms
    Pasture Raised Organic Eggs
    Austin, TX
    http://www.vitalfarms.com
    512-632-1200″

  11. Jose
    September 3, 2012 at 12:11 am

    The “organic” label on eggs doesn’t imply non-useage of fertilizer/herbicides/rodenticide/pesticide/fungicide. Only that the feed the hens receive is labeled organic, which means that organic fertilizer/herbicide/rodenticide/pesticide/and fungicide are all still fair game.

    As is the case with all labeled “organic” plant food. All plants receive at least herbicide and pesticide. They’re all poisonous. The only difference is where the poison comes from (petro-chem or organic-chem). As they say…pick your poison…

    For what it’s worth, there are some minimal requirements to access to “outdoor” as well as sunshine, which seem to be minimally scrutinized. If you buy organic eggs, the safe assumption is that they’re raised in “cage free” commercial hen house with a few sunlights, 1 or 2 cut-outs to let them play on grass occasionally, and low quality soy/corn based organic feed. Buyer beware.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/13/organic-vs-conventional-h_n_201609.html

  12. Eric Hood
    September 3, 2012 at 11:28 pm

    In Australia there are more organic eggs sold than produced. So there is deception with the packaging. I wonder if it is the case in the United States too?

  13. Dennis
    October 26, 2012 at 6:36 am

    D’oh! I’ve been buying “cage free” because I DID think they were roaming free. Ugh. Time to peruse other options at Sprouts.

  14. Paula
    August 6, 2013 at 6:23 am

    Someone should tell my chickens they should be vegetarian. I tried to video them fighting over a frog once, but I couldn’t get near them- they were afraid I would steal it. Their other treat is the beetles that live under their feeder- they dive-bomb them when I pick it up to refill it. Yum! Meat!

    • Amy Kubal
      August 6, 2013 at 5:04 pm

      You’ve got some smart Mother Cluckers!! ;)

  15. sarah
    April 16, 2014 at 9:00 am

    Feather color does not matter to what the egg color will be. I have some white chickens with grey legs that lay blue and brown eggs. I have red and assorted colored hens that lay white or blue or pinkish colored eggs. Each has its own unspecific leg color too! There is truth to the ear love color correlating to the egg color but only on certain breeds. My amerecaunas don’t have green ears! I can say if your able keep a few hens, They are inexpensive, give you entertainment, breakfast, and most of all I haven’t seen fleas,ticks, or many grasshoppers in years. Also less and less snakes every year! Nothing beats a freshly laid scrambled egg that’s never seen refrigeration!

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