It’s no secret that choosing a carton of eggs at the grocery store has become confusing AF. From cage-free and organic to pasture-raised and humanely-raised, most people (including me!) don’t know where to start or know the real difference between all of the choices handed to use on egg carton labels.
Generally speaking, there are two categories when it comes to egg labels: one refers to farming practices, and the other refers to the actual health qualities of the eggs and the hens that lay them.
Factory farms have been around since the 1960s as a way to maximize efficiency and production, but since the beginning, there has been pushback from animal rights activists who demand freedom and comfort for the livestock on factory farms. From a strictly animal welfare perspective, there are tons of choices in grocery stores, but unfortunately, some of most humanely-raised eggs can run as much as seven dollars a dozen.
“I appreciate that grocery stores now have a number of different egg options whether it’s organic, conventional, or pasture-raised,” Jessica Patel, RDN, LDN, of Well Fed Nutrition explains. “It allows consumers to make a choice based on their budget and values.”
Below are some of the most common labels on egg cartons that pertain to animal welfare and what they actually mean.
Typically when you see “organic” on an egg carton, it will be USDA Organic. This means it has been certified under the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program and come from chickens that are raised cage-free, fed an organic diet grown without pesticides, managed without antibiotics and hormones, and have seasonal access to the outdoors. Beware, not all organic egg producers agree on what “outdoor access” actually includes. More on that here.
The cage-free distinction is a bit more specific than organic. It means hens can roam in a building, room or open area instead of a battery cage, which is a 16×20-inch cage that houses up to 11 birds. However, cage-free does not necessarily mean that hens have access to the outdoors, and it does not specify how much room they have to move around.
Hens that are free-range have access to the outdoors. This could just mean the hens have indoor space connected to an outdoor area, not that they are roaming around freely outside. Free-range hens, however, have a diet that may contain wild plants and insects instead of just feed.
Though the term pasture-raised is not regulated by the USDA, pasture-raised is understood to mean the hens roam and forage on a maintained pasture area for the entirety of their lives. If you have the opportunity, ask the farmer directly while shopping your local farmers market, or search around on the egg producer’s website for more specific information on their pastures.
Animal welfare certification label
There are a handful of third-party certifications that farmers can earn, but the only one approved by the USDA is the “Certified Animal Welfare Approved” label, often seen on egg cartons. This certification is from A Greener World, which guarantees animals are fed a 100 percent grass and forage diet, raised outdoors on pasture or range and managed according to the highest welfare and environmental standards on an independent farm.
The “Certified Humane” label is also a third-party certification program administered by the nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care. The label is for pasture-raised eggs only. Access to the outdoors is not required for the egg-laying hens under the seal, but there is a “free-range” distinction that requires daily access to an uncovered outdoor area providing a minimum of two square feet per bird. Certified Humane’s standard for pasture-raised eggs is 2.5 acres per 1,000 birds.
Phew! I know, that all sounds extremely complicated, and truthfully, it is. But, if you keep in mind which standards stood out to you, I promise the time you spend staring at the egg carton labels (and possibly pulling up this article) will get shorter each time you go to the grocery store.
What about health?
In addition to the seemingly million different combinations of farming practices, there are also a ton of labels referring to the actual quality of eggs.
One thing to keep in mind though before we go down this rabbit hole is the nutritional differences between types of eggs are pretty minimal (from a farming or health perspective), according to Patel.
“Pasture-raised refers to the way eggs were farmed, and while there might be small differences in nutrient content compared to conventional eggs, they aren’t that significant,” she says. “All eggs can be part of a healthful diet.”
This label is often found on egg cartons, but the truth is, no laying hens are given hormones, so no need to let this label, or lack thereof, throw you off your egg game.
Most grocery stores do not carry pasteurized eggs, but if you are someone very concerned with food safety or plan to eat the eggs raw (like in eggnog), you may want to seek out pasteurized eggs.
Hens that lay Omega-3 enriched eggs are fed a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids.
The color of eggs is determined by the breed of the hen, but even if you see some beautiful pink or blue eggs at the farmer’s market, there is no inherent nutritional difference or taste.
The grade of eggs refers to the quality. Most people won’t notice a difference among different grades, but at the store, you’ll most likely see Grade A. Grade A means the shells have not been stained, the yolks are free from defects and they have a “reasonably” clear and thick white.
Overall, eggs are an extremely healthy food you can incorporate into your daily diet as long as you don’t have any intolerances, according to Patel.
“While I don’t preach that there are any ‘perfect’ foods, eggs are very nourishing because they offer a variety of important nutrients like high-quality protein, Vitamin D, lutein, and selenium,” she explains. “While it’s important to consider that nutrition needs are individualized, eggs can be eaten every day by the majority of people.”
So there you have it, a somewhat comprehensive guide to choosing the best eggs for you. Now go on, poach ‘em, boil ‘em, scramble ‘em, and enjoy ‘em!