There are so many choices of eggs on the shelves that even I get confused at times. I've decided to break down the different types of eggs, labels, wording and what it all means to help you as a consumer. There's a few categories of eggs you will see on the shelf at any basic grocery store.
1. USDA Eggs
2. Certified Organic Eggs
3. Free Range Eggs
4. Cage Free Eggs
- Cage free with access to the pasture
- Cage Free & Organic
- Cage free organic with sunlight barn & porches
- Cage free organic with access roam free, nest and perch in a covered barn & outdoor access ( I wish I made this up but it came off of an egg carton label)
5. Pasture Raised Eggs
USDA Eggs are the basic food grade eggs which pass government tests to be sold to consumers as food. They have a grading system. They are locked up in cages, wings and beaks cut off (to prevent the chickens from eating each other as feed) and the conditions are extremely bad.
Grade AA – have thick, firm whites, yolks are high and round, and are best for frying or poaching (most common)
Grade A – are similar to AA eggs, except for the whites are slightly less firm (most common)
Grade B – have thinner whites and a flatter yolk, and are commonly used for liquid, frozen, dry egg products, or scrambles (often what you find in food service, prepacked foods and hotels)
Certified Organic Eggs- This pertains to the feed that they are giving the chickens. This means their food is certified organic (non gmo, because certified organic can not be GMO) It does not account for the condition the chickens are kept in. You must look at the label to ensure it also says- cage free, free range or pasture raised organic to know they are not in a cage.
Free Range Eggs- the USDA requires that free-range eggs come from chickens that have some access to a small, fenced patch of cement (which they may or may not use). Free-range chickens might eat non-organic feed and are sometimes given antibiotics or other drugs. They have to have access to outdoors but there is not a determined set amount of time.
--Organically raised chickens must be free range by organic standards BUT not all free range chickens must be organic. Look for Organic Free Range Eggs
*** Caveat- Organic certification can be costly for a small farm. Many small humanely raised farms who practice biodynamic farming can not spend the money on this certification. However, they are the best farms to buy your eggs , meat & produce from. If you physically meet your farmer at a market, farm or side of the road there's a good chance they are one of these farms. If you are buying them off of the shelf you should look for a certified organic raised label.
Cage Free Eggs- These chickens are not locked up in cages- they can supposedly spread their wings and lay eggs in nests- however they can be in tight quarters in a hen house with little to no access to sunlight. They experience many of the same issues that basic grade chickens have because of the tight quarters.
Pasture Raised Eggs- These chickens have access to the pasture meaning they are not kept in small quarters inside of a hen house but legally there is no set time that they can be outside according to the USDA "they have access to the outdoors for an undetermined period each day" So how do you know? Well there is a certifying organizationHumane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) "Pasture raised" HFAC certification requires 108 square feet per bird, and for the chickens to be outdoors year-round in rotating fields, with shelter only to protect them from very inclement weather or from predators. They must have 8 hours of continuous artificial or natural light and 6 hours of darkness everyday. Feed and lighting patterns must be recorded. Perches must be accessible during the day and night times. You can read more details here Nesting Hens.
Pasture raised chickens are allowed to roam free which means they can eat from the ground including worms and feed which is natural for them, They get in sunlight and exercise and yield a much more nutrient dense egg full of vitamins A, E, biotin, Beta Carotene & Omega 3's . These eggs have better flavor and usually a brighter yolk.
Now that I confused and probably scared you I am going to explain the difference in feed.
Chickens should naturally eat from the ground which includes worms, bugs, grains seeds and greens. When they are in a farm they are given "feed" -this feed can vary and this is why you will see "vegetarian diet" on packaging which usually means they don't get to roam a pasture and they are being fed a mixture of corn and grains. It is important to check for Certified Organic Vegetarian Feed if this is the case. Remember Certified organic means Non-GMO. Why do we want Organic Feed? Well because what the chickens eat will manifest itself in the nutrient density of the egg.
Some farms will practice forced molting- this is preventing the chickens from eating for 7-14 days to cause them to lose their feathers and increase the quality & quantity of egg production. Think of it as a human female who loses her menstrual cycle because she hasn't eaten enough food. Except after that stage where she begins to lose her hair & nails and stops her menses she is suddenly extremely fertile. "The purpose of forced molting is therefore to increase egg production, egg quality, and profitability of flocks in their second or subsequent laying phases, by not allowing the hen's body the necessary time to rejuvenate during the natural cycle of feather replenishment."¹ Forced molting will not occur on any certified organic farm.
What's up with fortified eggs such as Omega 3 or Biotin enriched? Chickens are fed flax seeds to increase their omega 3 levels. Biotin naturally occurs in eggs. I would suggest getting your Omega 3s from fatty fish but if you are a vegetarian it can't hurt to buy Omega 3 fortified eggs. ² ³
What about the color of my eggs? Is brown better than white?
No, the color of the egg is simply dependent upon the type of chicken. Some farms have brown eggs, some have white and some even have blue eggs. Kinda like us, we all have different skin tones and so do our offspring. (Although I have yet to meet a blue baby)
Fun fact- when you buy eggs off of a farm they are all different sizes and colors, They would never fit into a nice egg carton -all perfectly sized and shaped- because they are all natural.
This is all awesome information but now that I know all of this what the heck am I looking for in the store? Here's a list of priorities when buying eggs. Keeping in mind that the better quality (of life) of the egg the more expensive they are.
1. Look for organic pasture raised, cage free, or free range eggs.
2. If pasture raised is a priority look for a certified pasture raised egg with the label on the package.
3. Vegetarian feed is not important unless you are buying lower quality eggs such as USDA graded eggs.
4. Omega 3 fortification can help the omega 3 content of the egg.
5. If you have a local farm or farmers market get your eggs fresh from them. Some urban cities have weekly farmers markets around town or drop off spots from local farm that allow you to place an order every week. CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are another option.
6. Look for sales at your local market for pasture raised eggs. When they do go on sale stock up. Eggs stay fresh a decent amount of time.