With so many ways to eat them, it’s no surprise that eggs are a staple in diets around the world. Eggs are a nutritional powerhouse, providing a good source of high-quality protein and 13 essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12, choline, and lutein. But when it comes to buying eggs, what should you look for?
Head to the store and you’ll be confronted with many different labels. Organic, cage-free, all-natural…trying to decide which eggs to purchase can be tougher than catching a cab in midtown at rush hour. Egg types are typically defined by the hen’s living conditions and diet. Interestingly enough, with the exception of “certified organic”, the US government does not have a set definition or requirement for egg carton labels. So how do you know what you’re buying? Check out our egg carton label guide below.
Certified Organic. Despite this being the only designation defined by the FDA, organic does not necessarily the best living conditions. This label only regulates what a hen eats, but does not specify how they live. So while their diet must be all organic, free of pesticides and antibiotics, the hens can still be held in small barns, and forced molting through starvation is allowed. Learn more here.
Certified Humane. This label addresses the hen’s living conditions. They are not allowed to be kept in cages and requirements are in place to prevent overcrowding. That being said, they are allowed to be kept solely indoors. While the FDA does not regulate the term, there are third-party organizations that check compliance. Forced molting by starvation is prohibited.
Cage-Free. While this term means that hens are not kept in cages, it typically does not include outdoor space and often can mean thousands of chickens in one barn with little room to move about. These hens are usually fed a commercial, grain-based feed.
Free-Range/Free-Roaming. The key feature with free range eggs is access to the outdoors during the day. Hens are not kept in cages and typically have more space to roam, plus they can eat some of their natural diet of plants and insects.
Natural. This classification has no definition and doesn’t mean anything in the context of the hen’s living conditions or diet.
Vegetarian Fed. While this label may sound like a good thing, hens are natural omnivores, so it means less than you think. Vegetarian fed hens could eat their natural diet of plants and insects, or they could subsist entirely on grain-based commercial feed. Living conditions are not specified.
Omega-3 Enriched. The hens are fed a diet supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids, in the form of flaxseed or fish meal. The resulting eggs have a slightly higher omega-3 content than conventional eggs, but the difference is usually minimal.
Pastured. Hens are allowed to roam free outdoors and eat plants and insects (though they may supplement with commercial feed if they aren’t eating enough to meet their needs). The nutritional value of the eggs is generally higher, with more fat-soluble vitamins and omega-3 fats.
Brown versus White
One quick note on egg color – it makes no difference. While brown eggs may look more “natural”, the difference in shell color is due to the breed of the hen laying the eggs. There is no nutritional or health difference between brown and white eggs.
Which Should You Choose?
Pastured eggs may have slightly more vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats, but the extra nutrition comes with a price tag. At the end of the day, eggs remain a good source of protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. If you want to make a personal decision to buy pastured, cage-free or free-range eggs, go for it. But if you can’t afford them, or can’t find them, conventional eggs are still a nutrient-rich option. So go ahead, put an egg on it.