As someone who eats vegetarian-ish, I end up eating a fair amount of eggs. And after watching several food documentaries (it’s not like I have a problem…I can stop anytime I want, okay?), I decided to make sure all those eggs I eat are as nutritious as possible.
So I started doing some research.
Initially, I was searching “free-range” vs. “store-bought” in my attempts to find the eggy truth. But I found out there are way more types of eggs than just these two. And when it comes down to it, only one of them provides a measurable difference in terms of nutrition—no matter how much the grocery store is charging.
Types of eggs
When it comes to understanding eggs, you have to understand the chickens they came from, and what sort of conditions those chickens are raised in. The labels on your egg cartons will tell you something…but not everything.
The commercial food industry is all about semantics. Eggs are no exception.
Last time I counted, there were 7 (yes, SEVEN) kinds of eggs you can buy. This is what they are and what they mean.
You won’t see any egg carton label that says “caged” because no one wants to read that. No one wants to read it, because no one wants to think about it. Laying hens are kept in cages—cages that are so small, the hen might not even be able to stand up or turn around. They can eat, sleep and lay eggs. That’s it. They’re fed a “mash” made up of ground up grains, fish/bone meal and legumes. Mostly stuff they wouldn’t naturally eat.
Instead of being labeled “caged eggs,” the carton won’t say anything. Well, except maybe “AA” or “jumbo.” Companies only put it on the label if they’re proud of it, see.
Hens aren’t kept in cages, but that doesn’t mean they’re gaggling out on a hillside like Julie Andrews a la The Sound of Music. They’re usually kept indoors with no sunlight and no fresh air. Chicken poop is very high in uric acid, and as it decomposes, it creates ammonia. So air quality in these facilities is fairly awful. As far as what these chickens eat? They’re fed the same thing as caged laying hens.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Like a picturesque barnyard somewhere. One similar to the cartoon farm on the egg carton, maybe? Well, no. Probably not. Because a chicken house that leaves the door open for 5 minutes a day can call its eggs “free range.” And the “range” can be full of gravel — it doesn’t have to be full of grass.
These hens pretty much eat the same diet and live in about the same conditions as the hens that produce cage-free eggs. But that 2×2′ door they leave open—which the chickens never set foot out of—means they can stamp “free-range” is used on the label to make you feel good about buying them.
This means that the hens have to be fed an organic diet. Nothing with pesticides, no animal-based products, no GMO products. Also, the hens can’t be raised with hormones or antibiotics.
They’re supposed to have the same level of access to the outdoors as free-range hens…which, as you read above, doesn’t mean much.
I just have to editorialize a little bit and say that I find Omega-3 eggs hilarious. Science has shown that Omega-3 fatty acids are good for us, so egg producers give their laying hens flax seed—which is high in Omega-3s. The hens then produce eggs that are higher in this essential fatty acid.
It doesn’t mean those eggs are organic. Or that the chicken gets treated any better. It just means you can feel like you’re being healthier.
These laying hens are allowed to follow their natural instincts. They get their food primarily through the natural behavior of foraging for grass, seeds and bugs. They spend their days outdoors and sleep indoors at night to keep them safe from predators. In the winter, when foraging isn’t an option, they’re feed a store-bought feed.
There are no USDA guidelines for pasture-raised eggs, like there are for the types above.
Around 2010–2011, a bunch of studies were done on nutrition quality of conventionally raised eggs (cage and cage-free) and free-range. There was no significant difference in the quality of nutrition found between them.
Not surprising, given they pretty much live in the same conditions and eat the same diet, right?
But researchers DID find that eggs from pasture-raised laying hens — in other words, hens that were allowed to forage for insects, worms, seeds and grasses — did have a different nutritional profile. How different?
Well, according to a 2010 study, pretty different.
When compared to conventionally/commercially raised eggs, eggs from pasture-raised, foraging hens had:
- 200% more vitamin E
- 200% more omega-3 fats
- 250% more omega-3 fatty acids
- 38% more vitamin A
If you look into it a little, you’ll find the same is true of just about every other animal food product.
Pastured eggs: Proceed with caution
So this all sounds like pasture-raised eggs would be the best option, for both us and the chickens…right?
Well, like I mentioned above, there are no guidelines for pasture-raised eggs because it’s not a class regulated by the USDA. So it’s hard to know what, exactly, the laying hens are eating, how long they’re allowed to forage each day, and what their living conditions are.
Want to get the inside scoop on where your eggs are coming from?
Visit your local farmer’s market and find a vendor that’s selling pasture-raised eggs. Ask them about their hens’ diet and living area. You can even ask if members of the public are allowed to visit their farm. Many will say you can, allowing you to get a firsthand look at where your eggs come from. You can also try searching for a farm through LocalHens.
Our eggs actually come with a little note from the farmer and her family in each carton!
You should also know that pastured eggs aren’t always pasteurized — this is a process that heats the eggs just up until the point where any harmful bacteria are killed, without cooking or coagulating the egg and affecting its texture. So make sure your eggs are cooked through.
Egg color has absolutely nothing with its contents. Brown eggs are not better or healthier than white ones. Different breeds of chickens simply produce different colored eggs, just like every other bird.
Also, eggshell thickness usually doesn’t have anything to do with quality of the egg. It just means that bird is better able to metabolize calcium and pass it on to the eggs it produces. There are some instances where poor living conditions or disease can impact the quality of an eggshell. But these are outlying cases.
To be safe, it’s always a good idea to crack every egg into a small bowl that allows you to examine it, before adding it to your recipe or to the frying pan. Or in my case, to remove any bits of shell because you’re terrible at cracking them cleanly.