Maybe you, like me, remember a time when the only choices you had to make about eggs were white or brown and small, medium or large. Nowadays we have many more options when purchasing eggs, and knowing the meaning of the terms on egg cartons is your best bet for getting what you and your family want and need.
The terms can be confusing, and by far the very best way to know what you’re getting in your eggs is to buy from a local farmer who can describe his/her farming practices to you. The second best thing to do is research your brand online. But we’re talking about eggs here and not where your kid is going to go to college. :) So knowing that most of us will buy them from the grocery store, let’s look at the most important terms we find on egg cartons.
Organic eggs come from chickens that are fed only organic feed. This means no animal by-products, GMO’s, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, hormones or antibiotics (unless to treat infection) are used in the feeding and raising of these chickens. Third-party verification is required to see that these standards are met. Organically raised chickens must have access to the outside, but this might only be a wood or concrete porch next to the henhouse and the amount of “access” time is undefined.
Pasture-raised generally refers to chickens that are allowed to roam free and forage for their food, although movable pens are often used to provide protection from predators. Since chickens are omnivores, pasturing them provides access to a more natural diet that includes insects, worms, and small animals (mice, lizards, snakes, etc.). These chickens are usually given some type of supplemental feed, and may be more dependent on it during inclement weather. The supplemental feed may or may not be organic. So you can find pasture-raised eggs that are 100% certified organic and pasture-raised eggs that come from farms where the pasture is organic (not sprayed with pesticides, etc.) but the supplemental feed is not. (See this link for one example of the wide spectrum of pastured eggs that are on the market: http://vitalfarms.com/pasture-raised-eggs/our-eggs/)
This term requires a little bit more explanation. Omega-3’s are a kind of essential fatty acid that are necessary to obtain from what we eat because our bodies cannot make them. There are three kinds of essential omega-3 fatty acids—ALA, EPA and DHA. ALA is fairly easy to obtain in the American diet, but EPA and DHA come mostly from fish. If you are not eating two large servings of fish per week or taking a fish oil supplement, there’s a good chance you are not getting enough EPA and DHA. Since these two fatty acids support many aspects of our health (including the cardiovascular system and the brain), it’s important to have a dependable dietary source.
So can eggs labeled “omega-3” help to meet that need? The short answer is not very well. Omega-3 eggs generally have mostly ALA and very little DHA and EPA. Some cartons don’t label how much DHA is in one egg, and I can’t find any that label EPA. When DHA isn’t labeled, it could mean that there just isn’t any and that the omega-3 advertised on the carton is just ALA (often because flaxseed, a good source of ALA, was added to the hens’ feed). One carton I looked at said each egg contained 60 mg of DHA. When you consider that a serving of salmon has from 600—1100 mg of DHA, 60 mg in an egg is a drop in the DHA bucket.
Soy-free eggs are eggs that come from chickens that are not fed any soy. Soy is commonly used in poultry feeding formulas, as it is a very efficient protein source. In fact, it’s so widely used in chicken feed that unless eggs are labeled soy-free, you can be pretty sure your eggs contain soy. But since some people are allergic to soy or want to avoid it for health reasons, soy-free eggs are now being produced. (Some people who thought they were allergic to eggs are now finding that it was really the soy protein they were allergic to.) Removing soy from the diet of hens can decrease their egg production and therefore raises the price of these eggs.
Cage-free and Free-range
These terms fall more into the area of ethical treatment, but I wanted to provide some clarification on them. Cage-free hens live in barns where they are able to spread their wings, walk around and nest in boxes. They may or may not have access to the outside. The term “free range” means that the hens must have some access to the outside, but there is lots of variety in how this term is applied. Sometimes this access is a small door at the end of a crowded barn that leads simply to a dirt or gravel area.
So with all these options, we each need to decide what the priorities are when we buy eggs. How many eggs you eat per week, what the rest of your diet looks like, cost, allergies and your view on humane treatment of animals may all enter into your decision about which eggs to buy.
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