The Meaning Behind the Different Labels on Eggs

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 herbivores 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):

  • 1/4 less saturated fat 
  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 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 amanda@nickelcitywellness.com with “Ask the Nutritionist” in the subject line and I will answer them every Wednesday in my “Ask the  Nutritionist” post on Facebook and Instagram!  

Be Well,
Amanda Watson  

References:  

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