A Guide to Unscrambling Egg Cartons

How do you feel about the eggs you are currently buying?

What type are they again? Cage-free or free-range, or was it free-roaming? Are they pastured? Wait, isn’t milk pastured? Or was it pasteurized?

If this is at all confusing to you, trust me you are not alone. The reason these labels are confusing is because THEY ARE MEANT TO BE CONFUSING!

All the above terms have a very healthy, conflict-free connotation to them.

Pastured brings up idyllic scenes of lively hens roaming around a perfectly grazed farm first thing in the morning just as the dew begins to drop off of the grass and the sun begins to rise behind a white picket fence over yonder.

Well, let me apologize in advance for being the bearer of bad news, but this is not how things usually go down on Old McDonald’s farm.

Instead, fine gentlemen who have their MBA in marketing and work in the egg farming business have spent more hours than you or I could ever imagine coming up with terminology that is specifically meant to tug at our heart-strings.

Is this devious? Maybe, but it is the reality of the marketplace that most of us must use to find our food.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to employ the latest in cryptographic technology to unscramble the mystery.

Scroll down to find a comprehensive explanation of every label you could possibly find on an egg carton.

American Humane Certified — This one is interesting.

When I was initially writing this post, I used information that I found on the humanesociety.org website stating that “This label allows both cage confinement and cage-free systems. Each animal who is confined in these so-called ‘furnished cages’ has about the space of a legal-sized sheet of paper. An abundance of scientific evidence demonstrates that these cages are detrimental to animal welfare, and they are opposed by nearly every major US and EU animal welfare group. American Humane Certified is a program of American Humane Association.”

Shortly after publishing my post, I was contacted directly by the AHA claiming that these statements were incorrect. After further research, I found that The Huffington Post also supports the information set forth on the HSUS website. Based on the confusion, I am currently uncertain about the productions that the AHA oversees and cannot recommend their certification to my readers.

Animal Welfare Approved — A personal favorite certification of mine, which only offers its label to family owned farms that own a flock size of 500 birds or less. Sizable ranging for the hens and foraging access to outdoors is required.

Properly pastured laying hens raised on a family farm are usually allowed to be outside everyday, mate at will, and choose their own diet. Eggs produced with this type of care are quickly garnering the title “beyond-organic.”

Antibiotic-free/Hormone-free — Largely unregulated claims. While it is illegal for any egg laying hen to receive hormones, “Hormone-Free” is simply a marketing gimmick. In any case, unless a third-party certification is in place, there is no way to be sure of the validity of these claims.

Cage-Free — Prohibits cages, but access to the outdoor is usually limited to a few small doors (think doggie doors) in an overcrowded henhouse. A cage-free designation says nothing about the quality of animal feed.

Certified Humane — Prohibits cages, prohibits antibiotics, but does NOT require outdoor access. While these hens are treated significantly better than those on conventional farms, it is still not a stand alone certification that I am comfortable using.

Conventionally raised — 2–4 hens are placed in a single wire cage that is approximately 2 square feet. These cages are stacked one on top of the other, several stories high in a warehouse. Laid eggs move along on a conveyor belt. Hard pass.

Free-Run or Free-Roaming or Free-Range — This is one of the trickier ones, as it really inspires visions of chickens doing laps around their respective farms, getting in a good cardio pump before they start poppin’ out your breakfast.

The truth; this term is very similar to “cage-free” in that cages are prohibited and limited access to outdoors is required. The animal feed, however, is not regulated.

Food Alliance Certified — Very similar to Certified Humane with the added boon that some outdoor access is required.

100% Natural/Naturally raised — 100% a marketing gimmick. Every egg laid since the beginning of time has been a “natural” egg.

Omega-3 enriched — The term only claims that the hen was fed a diet rich with omega-3 fatty acids. Think of this one as feeding vitamins to hens to make up for a nutritionally deficient diet. The truth is that properly pastured eggs have up to twice the amount of omega-3 of factory-farmed, omega-3 enriched eggs.

Organic — Prohibits cages, prohibits the use of antibiotics, requires access to the outdoors, and requires organic animal feed.

While an organic label does not necessarily mean that the chickens were fed an omnivorous diet optimally rich in nutrients, this is what I tend to use as my baseline standard when egg shopping.

Pasture-Raised/Pastured — In theory, this would mean properly pastured hens laying perfectly eggs with burnt orange yolks. However, it is NOT a regulated claim which means it is effectively meaningless.

United Egg Producers Certified — You will find this logo on many generic supermarket eggs because it basically means that they’re generic supermarket eggs. Considering this certification permits inhumane farm practices and caging, you will want to steer clear.

Vegetarian Fed — Prohibits animal byproducts in feed. The problem is that hens aren’t vegetarians, they are omnivores!

Healthy Hens Produce Healthy Eggs

It is now widely accepted that raising hens intensively — indoors or confined on dirt feedlots — is not only bad for animal welfare, but also destructive to human health and the environment. You only have to look at the headlines about the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, environmental pollution from intensive farming systems, and animal welfare abuses to see that the conventional food system is broken.

Looked at from an evolutionary standpoint, hens have always been omnivorous foragers and require plenty of outdoor access to fill themselves on a natural diet revolving around insects and greens.

Hens did not evolve to live on top of each other in small huts contaminated with their own feces, nor did they evolve to be fed a cereal grain-based diet. In fact, a strict vegetarian, grain-based diet inevitably makes hens sick (hence the antibiotics administered to conventionally raised hens).

After all, the proverb is “The early bird gets the worm,” not “The early bird gets the omega-3 enriched, vegetarian feed!

The bottom line is this; if hens do not have a chance to continually roam free and forage for a diet naturally designed for their species, they won’t be able to produce high quality eggs, it’s really that simple.

The premier egg farmers in the industry employ a mobile henhouse that provides their laying hens with a new piece of pasture to forage on each morning.

As you will soon see, there is a difference and it can be noticed directly in the quality of the egg.

Is Finding Quality Eggs Worth the Effort?

If there is so much commotion about the welfare of hens and the quality of the eggs that they lay, then why should you even bother to eat eggs at all?

Briefly, eggs are a fantastic source of protein, fat, and fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.

If you choose to eat eggs, please do not be of disservice to yourself and discard the yolk, this is old school Conventional Wisdom that is highly inaccurate. An egg’s yolk is one of the most nutrient dense super foods that mother nature has to offer. I recommend that you enjoy them liberally.

However, a chunk of this nutrition is only afforded to the eggs of hens raised in a humane and sustainable manner.

According to a 2007 study that compared eggs from properly pastured hens to eggs from conventionally kept hens, pastured eggs have:

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more Vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more Vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene

The picture below is my photograph and shows two different eggs.

The egg on the left is a Certified Humane egg that I purchased from Whole Foods. The egg on the right is a pastured-raised egg that I purchased from Skagit River Ranch, a local farm in Sedro Woolley, WA that sells its products at the Seattle farmers market.

You can tell how the yolk from the pasture-raised hen is dark orange; this is the natural color of an egg yolk. High quality eggs will also be much more viscous, as you can see how the egg white of the pasture-raised hen remains held tight around its yolk.

On the other hand, the egg white from the supermarket egg is runny and has spread across the entire bowl.

TL;DR: Raise Your Own Hens

Just Kidding.

Although I’m serious if you are…

Practically speaking, if you go to the farmers market for only one item, go for the eggs – the difference in quality is remarkable when compared to generic supermarket eggs.

If a farmer makes the effort to bring his/her eggs all the way to the market to sell directly to you, the consumer, it is very likely that they practice sustainable, health-conscious farming practices. To be sure, you can find the name of the farm that supplies your eggs and research it yourself. Most farms that sell at farmers markets have some type of online representation because they know their consumers like to do their due diligence.

The easiest way to find out what you’re buying is to ask questions, people at farmers markets LOVE to talk about the quality of their food and they’ll be thrilled that you want to know more.

If farmers markets are not an option for you, I would suggest calling your local health food store to find out if they sell Animal Welfare Approved eggs.

Otherwise, organic eggs can be found at any self-respecting grocery store nowadays, so you should never be too far away from a quality egg.

For other ways to source local, sustainable eggs, you can search for a local farmer near you or join a community supported agriculture program to receive farm fresh food delivered to you on a weekly or monthly basis.

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