Cage-free or free-range? Pasture-raised or organic? Brown or white? Here's what you need to know.
Have you ever stood in the egg section of the grocery store picking up every carton, trying to decide which option is best? If you've ever wondered what the differences are between cage-free, organic, pasture-raised, white, brown and all those other types you see, you're not alone. Knowing your priorities will help you make the best choice. While the nutrient profile is similar across the board, there may be other factors to consider, such as animal welfare, whether the hens were fed an organic diet and cost. Here's what you need to know.
The majority of egg-laying hens in the United States are raised in battery cages, where they're very close together (often without enough space to spread their wings), which makes for a stressful environment. In a cage-free system, hens generally have space to move around, spread their wings and lay their eggs in nests, and, in some cases, engage in other natural behaviors like perching and dustbathing. Many of these farms are third-party audited. While this is better for the hens' quality of life than the battery cages, this doesn't guarantee that the farming methods are completely cruelty-free. For example, it's still a common practice to burn off their beaks in order to decrease risk of injury by pecking and bullying. They may also be transported long distances without access to food or water, or endure starvation-induced molting.
There are a few different definitions for "free-range." According to USDA standards, "free-range" essentially means that the hens have access to the outdoors, though this can be a minimal amount. Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) is a non-profit certification organization that works to improve the lives of farm animals in food production, and HFAC's Certified Humane® "Free-Range" requirement is two square feet per bird and that hens must be outdoors, weather permitting, for at least six hours per day.
In order for eggs to be called "pasture-raised," the company needs to be certified by a third-party organization (though this label is not USDA-regulated). It indicates that the hens have been raised uncaged and with access to outdoor space so they can freely walk around and nest. However, this doesn't guarantee the absence of other adverse conditions. To qualify for the Certified Humane® "Pasture Raised" label, specifically, there are additional requirements are that there must be no more than 1,000 birds per 2.5 acres (108 square feet per bird) and the fields must be rotated. Additionally, the hens must be outdoors year-round, but there must be housing for protection from predators at night or to escape inclement weather.
Many people find that eggs from pasture-raised hens taste more flavorful and that the yolks are a richer yellow-orange color. This is likely because those hens were able to eat grass and bugs in addition to their feed. This may also mean that these eggs will be richer in certain nutrients, especially omega-3 fatty acids.
In order for a company to label its eggs as "USDA certified organic" the hens must be raised following the same standards as pasture-raised eggs, but with the added restrictions of being produced without the use of pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, and the hens must be fed an organic diet without those substances. They also cannot be given antibiotics or fed any animal by-products. Also worth pointing out: Because the USDA's National Organic Program prohibits the use of GMOs, organic eggs are also non-GMO.
The Egg Grading System
The USDA's egg grading system assigns grades (AA, A, or B) based on internal quality factors like thickness of the whites and their freshness, as well as external factors like the appearance of the shell. The thicker whites of Grade AA and A eggs don't spread as easily as Grade B whites, which makes them great for frying. Grade B eggs may be preferable for things like omelettes and batters.
Keep in mind that not all eggs are graded by the USDA, such as those from a local farm. If you see graded eggs being marketed as "cage-free" it means that the USDA needs to verify that the producer meets those "cage-free" standards via onsite farm visits.
What's the Difference Between Brown and White Eggs?
While brown eggs may have more of a health halo than white—likely because we've been conditioned to recognize brown rice and whole wheat products as being more nutritious than their white or refined counterparts—they're actually pretty much the same in terms of nutrient profile and quality. So what's the difference? White-feathered hens tend to lay white eggs, and those with reddish feathers typically lay brown eggs. The reason the brown eggs may be more expensive, though, is that those red-feathered hens tend to be larger and consume more feed.
Which Type of Eggs Should I Buy?
As you can see, the "best" choice can vary. While organic, pasture-raised eggs purchased from a local farmer who treats their hens well may align with all of your priorities, your budget may not allow for that to be a regular choice. If money is a factor, start with one thing to prioritize, such as organic eggs since that dictates what the chickens ate. Don't be afraid to try different brands and learn about the companies and the farmers in your area. There are lots of options, but knowing what's important to you will help you make an informed choice that suits your needs.