Eggs-actly what do the labels mean?

Are you buying cage-free, omega 3 eggs from hens given a vegetarian diet?  Well good.  Well maybe.  Let’s dissect the terms used on labels.

The conventional eggs you buy at most grocery stores are the least expensive.  Two to four pullets as young as 19 weeks old are put into a wire cage with an area of approximately two feet square.  A barn full of these cages is known as a battery of cages.  Feeds are allows to contain antibiotics and are mostly made up of bioengineered corn.  Battery cages are banned in some places in Europe.

Free-roaming, cage-free, naturally-nested and free-run are used as an alternative to the technical term, high-density floor confinement. Whether high-density floor confinement is more humane than high-density cage confinement is arguable. The boast here is that the birds are allowed to run on the floor of the barn.  Often birds are densely packed in the barns with no access to the outdoors.  Unless specified, feed is the same as conventional.

Free-range birds are required to have access to the outside most of the year plus roosts for resting.  Unfortunately “access” doesn’t mean they actually go outside.  Mostly they don’t because they don’t have all their feathers and it’s too chilly.  The term “free-range” is supposed to mean the birds have the same space requirement as organic – each bird must have at least two square feet of floor space.  Free-range tells us nothing about what the birds are fed.

Some words on the label have nothing to do with living conditions but let us know what the birds have been fed.  One example is omega 3 eggs where the feed given to the birds contains 10-20% flax seed which increases the Omega-3 value in the nutrient content of the egg.  The color of the yolk is also a deeper yellow.  Vegetarian or vegetarian-fed on the label means that the birds are given an all vegetarian diet that contain no animal by-products.

The organic label has more teeth (should that be beaks?).  Flocks must have access to an organic outside area year round and fed at least 80% organic non-GMO feed.  No meat or meat by products in the feed.  No antibiotics or hormones allowed.  Each bird must have at least two square feet of floor space.  You’ll pay more for these eggs too.

The most nutrient-dense eggs laid by the happiest hens are pastured – not a legal term.  Birds are kept in a movable enclosure with nests and roosts.  The structure is moved once or twice daily to a new piece of grass.  The chickens get at least 20% of their diet from foraging and eating insects which makes their eggs naturally high in omega 3 fatty acids and other good stuff.

According to a 2007 study conducted by Mother Earth News that compared eggs from pastured hens to eggs from conventionally kept hens, pastured eggs have:
• 1/3 less cholesterol
• 1/4 less saturated fat
• 2/3 more vitamin A
• 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
• 3 times more vitamin E
• 7 times more beta carotene

More eggciting news from Mother Earth reveals that pastured eggs have anywhere between 4 to 6 times as much vitamin D as typical supermarket eggs.  To purchase pastured eggs you’ll probably need to frequent your local farmer’s market or become friends with a neighbor who has chickens.  There is a remarkable difference in the flavor and appearance of pastured eggs.  Yolks are golden orange and stand up proudly in a viscous white.  The flavor of a poached yolk is definitely rich and sweet.

I visited a farm in Hutchinson, Kansas run by Kenneth King and got to see the movable hen house up close and personal.  Really happy gals popping out incredible edibles. Once you’ve tasted an egg from a pastured hen it’s hard to go back to the flat pale tasteless variety.  Let Jane show you how to poach one.

3 thoughts on “Eggs-actly what do the labels mean?

  1. In general, I’m pretty skeptical about labeling claims, so it’s good to find out that the “organic” label means a little more than just fed on organic feed, and that there is an element of outdoor feeding that goes on.

  2. Thank you for explaining the differences in egg carton labeling. I don’t mind spending the extra money knowing I’m getting eggs from happier hens but I was skeptical about terms like “cage free” and even “organic.” Now that I’ve read your blog I will buy organic or pastured with confidence. It’s feels good to be an educated consumer.

  3. As a chicken owner, I was happy to hear how to supplement my girls’ diet to make the eggs high in Omega-3. I will start feeding them organic flax seed soon.

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