The Meaning Behind the Different Labels on Eggs
I frequently get asked what type of eggs are the healthiest. If you purchase your eggs from the local grocery store I’m sure you’ve been overwhelmed by the options available: regular, natural, vegetarian fed, certified organic, cage free, free range, omega-3 enriched, pasture raised..… How can there be so many types of eggs, and what do all these labels actually mean? Are the $7/dozen eggs really better than the $4/dozen eggs?!?
I’m going to decode what these various labels mean for you, but before I do that I want to touch on the importance of consuming animal products from animals that have been raised on a species appropriate diet. In order for an animal to thrive, it must consume a diet its species has evolved to eat, one its body is able to consume and digest. Many commercial meat and dairy farmers feed their cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys genetically modified corn and soy. Corn and soy fatten animals quickly, but decreases the health of the animal and their nutrient content. For example, cows are ruminants and are meant to eat and process grasses and some broadleaf plants. They are not meant to eat large amounts of grains. Grains can accumulate in the animal’s intestines because they lack starch-digesting enzymes, and lead to an overgrowth of Clostridium perfringens, a bacterium associated with sudden death in feedlot cattle. Grain-based diets can also promote Escherichia coli (E.coli) within the digestive tract of cattle (American Association For The Advancement of Science, 2001). Chickens, turkeys and pigs are omnivores and are meant to eat grass, worms and insects. All poultry, eggs, meat, and dairy products that humans consume should come from animals that have been 100% grass fed, or pasture raised, and ideally organic as well to reduce pesticide exposure. Why is organic important as well? Because water soluble poisons like antibiotics and growth hormones accumulate in the water portion of milk and meats, and fat soluble poisons like DDT and pesticides accumulate in the fat portion of milk and meat. We are exposed to whatever toxins the animals we consume were exposed to and it affects our overall health too.
Now that you have a basic understanding of why species appropriate (and ideally organic) diets are important, let’s take a look at what the labels on eggs mean (Dessy, 2017):
- Regular (no special label): These hens are fed conventional diets. Often they are warehoused in very small cages and receive no fish air or sunlight. Many chickens are de-beaked to prevent them from pecking each other in their tight quarters.
- Vegetarian Fed: These hens are probably raised the same way as the regular label hens above. They are fed a diet without bugs.
- Certified Organic: While the hens are usually not caged and are fed according to organic standards, they may not have access to outdoors. They are fed a vegetarian diet and may be de-beaked.
- Cage Free: The chickens are not caged but usually do no have access to the outdoors. They can engage in natural behaviors. De-beaking is permitted.
- Free Range: The chickens are not in cages and have some access to the outdoors, although there is no oversight for how much. Chickens can engage in natural behaviors. De-beaking is permitted.
- Natural: This is a meaningless label, as there is no certification or oversight for it. These chickens are typically raised the same as chickens producing eggs with regular labels.
- Omega-3 Enriched: This has no bearing on the living conditions of the chickens. They are fed a diet higher in omega-3’s, usually from flaxseed. These chickens may be raised the same as chickens producing regular-label type eggs.
- Pastured/Pasture Raised: Typically only available from the farmer, this term is used to indicate that the chickens are allowed full access to roam in the pastures. Pastured is NOT the same as free range.
The best most nutritious eggs come from pasture raised hens that are allowed to roam freely and eat grasses, plants, and insects. When purchasing eggs you should buy pasture raised, and ideally organic.
Pastured hens produce eggs that have (Ogden Publications, 2007):
- 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
And because I know you’re going to ask 😉 – the color of the eggshell is determined by the breed of the chicken and has no bearing on the nutritional value of the egg (Dessy, 2017).
I hope this helps you the next time you are purchasing eggs. Yes, pasture raised organic eggs are definitely more expensive than regular eggs, but they offer the best nutritional bang for your buck and have a much better nutritional profile than all other eggs.
Do you have other food, nutrition and digestive questions like this? E-mail them to me at email@example.com with “Ask the Nutritionist” in the subject line and I will answer them every Wednesday in my “Ask the Nutrition Consultant” post on Facebook and Instagram!
American Association For The Advancement Of Science. (2001, May 11). Diet And Disease In Cattle: High-Grain Feed May Promote Illness And Harmful Bacteria. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 5, 2022 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/05/010511074623.htm
Dessy, M. (2017). Spending Wisely. The pantry principle (pp75-90). Willlis, TX: Versadia Press.
Ogden Publications, Inc. (2007, October/November). Meet Real Free-range Eggs – Real Food. Retrieved from https://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/free-range-eggs-zmaz07onzgoe