Eggs are often called super foods because they're super nutritious, but buying them can be super confusing. Is it worth taking the trouble to understanding what we're buying? Absolutely! Should we buy hormone free, all natural, antibiotic free, vegetarian fed, organic, omega-3 fortified, cage free, free range, or pastured? Let me make it easy for you.
When you see, "pasture-raised" on the egg carton, it's a guarantee that the hens who laid these eggs live outdoors with space to run, nest, eat grass, seeds, vegetables, corn, grain, peck the ground for insects and grubs, and perform other natural chicken behavior that keeps them healthy.
Tests show that eggs from pastured hens are the most nutritious. They're highest in Vitamins A, D, E, and Omega-3s. It's no surprise that pastured eggs also taste best. I recommend buying them when they're available.
Are you still curious about what the other labels mean? Here are some attributes that are valid whether the words are on the egg carton or not. According to the USDA an egg is naturally an egg, so adding ALL NATURAL to the label is almost silly. And all eggs commercially produced in North America must be free of hormones and antibiotics, so HORMONE FREE, and ANTIBIOTIC FREE are true whether the label says so or not. Probably the most familiar labels describe the way eggs are sorted by COLOR, SIZE, and GRADE. But brown or white, large or small, AA, A, or B, that's not what affects their nutritional value. What does? A hen's health — and that depends on her freedom and her food.
Ready for more labels and their meaning? Here's what I've learned:
No label denotes the use of "battery" cage systems. Imagine putting a hen in a cage that's smaller than a 9 x 11 inch sheet of letter-sized paper — for her entire life. There's nothing healthy about this.
This sounds good, but read on. Instead of being crowded into individual cages, these hens are crowded into a barn or poultry house during their laying cycle. Dust and fecal matter in the air cause nearly double the death rate of the caged systems. The crowded chickens become aggressive as they fight for air to breathe, space to move, and food to eat.
This surprised me. Organic eggs are from cage-free hens (same crowded living space as above) unless it's specifically stated otherwise, but with some access to the outdoors. The difference is that their feed isn’t treated with chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
These hens live in a coop with access to an outdoor fenced area. There are no regulations about how long they are outside or how big the outdoor area must be.
This label is easily confused with the word PASTURED, but the meaning is very different. Pasteurized eggs are heated for a specified period of time. This process kills bacteria but doesn't cook the egg or affect its color, flavor, or use. According to many sources, if the eggs are healthy there’s no bacteria to kill.
Chickens love to eat grass. The shiny coating on the grass is fat, and it naturally contains the right balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. When hens have no access to the outdoors, farmers "fortify" their feed by adding flax, marine algae, and/or fish oils, to ensure the eggs have a high omega-3 fatty acid content.
Vegetarian-fed hens eat feed containing no animal products. Chickens are naturally omnivores so these chickens are definitely not pastured because it's natural for them to scratch the ground for insects and grubs. There is no regulation about what "vegetarian feed" is.
I hope this clarifies the meaning of what you read on egg cartons. Pasture-raised chickens lay the most nutritious eggs. But all eggs are powerhouses of protein, and they provide many essential vitamins and valuable minerals. And new research shows eggs do not raise cholesterol, and they may reduce the risk of strokes.
So in spite of super-confusing labels, enjoy the incredible, edible egg — truly a super food!
Sources: www.backyardchickens.com, Paleo Pete, Kris Gunnars, Michal Ofer, Dr. Jacquie Jacob.