What's with all the Fancy Egg Labels?
So you're standing in the supermarket looking at all the different egg options. Prices range from just under a buck all the way to nearly $7+ a dozen. The more expensive eggs come in a fancy carton with pictures of hens walking around in the grass, but are they really better? Natural feed, Non-GMO, vegetarian diet, cage-free, free-range... What do all these terms mean and how do you know what to buy? Let's take a closer look at what these terms actually mean.
Farm Fresh - Unfortunately, this term literally means nothing. All eggs come from a farm. The little known fact is that most of the eggs in a supermarket are 4-6 weeks old by the time you buy them. If you want truly farm fresh eggs, you will need to buy them from an actual farm.
Cage-Free - If you've watched Food Inc., you've seen the horrifying images of chickens crammed in tiny cells barely large enough to turn around in. Cage-Free at least gets them out of those cages, but it's only slightly better. These hens typically spend their lives confined within a hen house rubbing feathers with 20,000 other hens. The floor is covered in a thick layer of manure and someone walks through it wearing PPE once a day to clean out the dead birds. At least they're not in cages though...
Free Range - This term conjures ideas of hens walking freely in open fields, pecking at the ground, and chasing grasshoppers. Unfortunately, this is hardly the case. In a free-range system, the hens must have "access" to the outdoors. This "access" can be a small door that is seldom used. The outdoor area can be a screened-in porch or even a covered cement area. Even if it's not, the hens won't travel far from the house and will quickly gobble up every blade of grass within 200 feet of that tiny door.
Vegetarian Fed - This claim means that the chickens are not fed feed containing animal byproducts. Chickens are omnivores and naturally eat just about anything. A healthy diet for a hen contains both vegetables and meat. In their natural environment, a chicken will consume mice, snakes, bugs, worms, lizards, plants, and most anything that is small and moves. Vegetarian feed is not a natural diet for a chicken.
No Hormones - That's great, although it is actually illegal to give chickens hormones. If you keep reading the label, it will usually say something to that effect.
Non-GMO - The main reason to genetically modify plants is to make them resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in many popular weed killers. When you find this term on a label, it indicates that the chickens have not been fed feed from plants that were genetically modified. Warning! Non-GMO does not mean that the feeds are free of chemicals. Many grain farmers use glyphosate or other poisons to kill the plant right before harvest. This technique only works on Non-GMO plants. If you are trying to avoid those chemicals, you need to purchase eggs from hens that are fed Organic feeds.
Organic - These eggs must comply with the USDA Organic program. They must be Cage Free and Free Range as listed above. In addition, their feed must be certified organic as well. Most of these eggs come from larger free-range hen houses with "access to outdoors." At least you avoid glyphosate and all the other chemicals which are likely present in conventional feeds.
Pasture-Raised - This is perhaps the "Gold Standard" in egg production. Hens spend their lives out on pasture with room to roam and express their chickeness. They get grass, bugs, worms, grasshoppers, and the like which lead to those dark, rich egg yolks. Pastured eggs are typically packed with more nutrients, vitamins, and omega 3 fatty acids as compared to other eggs. Different farms will have different pasture management practices. In order to maintain the health of both the pasture and the chickens, they should be rotated to fresh pasture from time to time.
Hopefully, this has cleared up some confusion on some commonly used terms. All the government-regulated terms have defined minimum standards and that is usually what you will get from the conventional industry. The best way to know how the hens are treated and what the quality of your eggs will be is to visit the farm or at least talk to the farmer that produced them.