How much do you think about the quality of the eggs you are eating? If you’re like me, the ever-increasing choices make it more confusing by the day: free range, cage free, organic, Omega-3, grain fed, . . . pretty soon we’re going to need a manual. And now, there’s another player in the mix: pasture-raised eggs.
Because eggs find their way to our table at all times of day, in one form or another, I wanted a closer look at this indispensable ingredient.
I should know eggs. I’m a city dweller now but grew up on an old-fashioned farm. First it was my grandparents’ farm and we went to visit and help out almost every weekend. Then, my parents bought it and built a new house so my grandparents could live out their years in the old farmhouse.
By old-fashioned I mean there were no machines for us. Not even a tractor. We used draft horses to do the heavy work. We plowed the fields, raised our animals, churned our cream, picked our corn, apples and strawberries, and had our own eggs from chickens on the farm.
Those chickens went outside every day and picked in the grass, eating whatever chickens like to eat, supplemented with grain. The flock was overseen by a cantankerous old rooster named “Henry”. As a girl, Mom would send me to gather eggs from the chickens. I had to keep an eye out for Henry because he sure kept an eye out for me! Apart from that difficulty, I never imagined any other way of raising chickens and getting eggs.
Now I get my eggs the way most people do. But it’s no longer just a matter of taking them off the shelf. Look at all the categories!
Much has been written about the deplorable conditions of factory egg farms. The chickens live in monstrous conditions in a space just big enough for the bird, about equivalent to a sheet of paper, are fed an unnatural diet of hormone-charged grains and live a life of producing more eggs than is normal for about 2 years, at which point production will understandably drop and the chickens will be considered useless and therefore destroyed.
It’s distressing to think about even if you don’t find chickens particularly cute (due to a certain person’s memories of a mean rooster . . . ).
Don’t expect to see cartons labeled “factory eggs.” But near as I can tell the cheapest eggs are probably factory eggs. Let’s take a look at the other categories:
Chickens in cage free conditions are still kept indoors but are at least allowed to roam around in a barn. They are fed primarily soy or corn and still only have about one square foot of space per hen. These hens rarely if ever see the light of day.
When I started to see the option for “free range,” this became my preferred egg. “Much better”, I thought, “These chickens live like our farm chickens, no cage and free to roam outdoors.” Turns out that’s not necessarily true. Apparently, “free range” now means the chickens could still be horribly overcrowded, but they’ve got a little door allowing them “outside.” And if the space “outside” is a tiny patch of dirt? Well, that qualifies also. Somehow I feel less able to pat myself on the back for purchasing free range eggs.
To be considered organic, the hens must be fed a diet free of chemical additives, animal by-products, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. The hens also must be kept in a cage-free environment, with access to the outdoors, even if the access is only a small enclosed pen. The organic label is definitely a plus for me, but it does not necessarily ensure a complete diet and the best conditions for egg production.
If you are trying to be heart-healthy, you are almost certainly aware of the need to increase Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. Eggs labeled as “Omega 3” are from hens fed a diet supplemented with flaxseed and sometimes fish oil to boost Omega 3’s in the eggs. However, the presence of DHA vs. ALA (the two forms of Omega 3) as well as the lack of studies on other nutritional values make the overall benefit difficult to assess.
Why are some eggs labeled as “grain fed?” It almost seems that egg producers are trying to distract us from recognizing that an all-grain diet is not natural for a chicken! Even Wikipedia agrees, chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians.
Pasture raised refers to chickens that spend a significant amount of time outdoors eating a natural diet. At least one supplier, Vital Farms, defines this as at least 108 square feet of pasture per chicken. This provides enough space for the chickens to roam and eat grass and bugs and for the land to rejuvenate naturally, without the use of pesticides or herbicides.
In other words it took them a long time to get back to what is essentially the old-fashioned approach.
From an animal welfare view alone, this obviously is a better egg to buy. But the nutritional findings are also surprising: Pasture raised eggs are nutritionally superior to regular (factory) eggs, says Healthline. And pastured eggs are higher in Vitamins A, E and Omega 3s as well as lower in cholesterol and saturated fat, according to a 2007 report by Mother Earth news and a published study in 2010. Another study showed that outdoor hens produce eggs with 3-4 times the Vitamin D found in eggs from hens raised indoors.
For my comparison, I bought factory eggs and several types of humane-branded, nutritional eggs.
Just eye-balling them makes a big difference. Basically, all look better than the 99¢/dz factory (white) eggs.
The factory egg yolk is pale yellow while the others are richer and deeper in color. In fact, the yolk of the pasture-raised version is nearly gold.
So as not to have egg on my face, I should acknowledge the real cost difference. My corner convenience store sells factory eggs for 99¢ a dozen whereas my local grocer sells organic pasture raised eggs for $6.99 a dozen!
Can you taste the difference? That’s for you to judge. IMHO, I feel that pasture raised eggs do have a richer taste, although it may be a little psychological for a former farm girl.
Overall, I feel better consuming humane eggs. And I’m sure that as more people buy those eggs, the price will fall.
Another way to look at this: One hundred years ago, all eggs were pasture raised. Now, unless we’re careful about our food, we could be eating eggs significantly inferior to our ancestors’.
For those who want to take full control of their egg quality, consider raising your own chickens. Many communities now allow homeowners to have a limited number of hens. No roosters - I guess no one wanted early morning cock-a-doodle-doos. Even more inventive? This article from Your RV Lifestyle describes how to successfully travel with chickens in an RV! It's a fascinating article, as I would've never guessed that you can take your chickens "on the road" 😃.
Bottom line, what’s the best way to buy eggs? Personally, I say direct from the farmer. If you have access to a farmer’s market, there’s sure to be eggs available. But, don’t assume they’re better. Ask the farmer where the chickens spend their time. I’ve found they love to talk about it. The typical response: “Why, they run around my yard all day!”
These are the farmers that get my dollars.
Thank you for writing the truth about "cage-free" and "free-range" eggs, Sula. The chickens and I very much appreciate it!
You and the chickens are welcome! It was so startling for me to realize that all of my assumptions regarding those terms were way off!