Making Sense of Egg Labels

Eggs have gotten very confusing. There are so many different varieties, it’s hard to know what to buy. Is it really worth spending $8 on a dozen eggs when I can get them for $3? What’s the deal with the yellow vs. orange yolks? Does it even matter? So many questions. My head spins at the grocery store. My mission has been to figure out what all these words mean and which ones are important. I also wanted to figure out what the deal is with the yellow and orange egg yolks. 

All Natural– This means nothing. All eggs are natural. It just means you’re not eating a plastic egg, I suppose.

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Conventional Caged Chickens   Photo: farmsanctuary.org

Conventional Battery-Cage Farming-95% of eggs are from caged hens, which are overcrowded, not even enough room to stretch their wings out. Each hen has the space equivalent of a sheet of paper. Hens can be starved for 7-14 days to make them produce more eggs (forced molting). No one checks conditions. Typically, they are given cheap food, GMO crops, antibiotics and animal by-products.

organic-valley-inside-1Cage-Free-Out of cages, not necessarily outside or given sunlight. May be running around inside on  a concrete floor in overcrowded conditions. No way to tell. Could be force molted. No one checks to verify condition claims, unless certified organic. Does not regulate feed or antibiotic use.

Certified Organic– Out of cages. Required to have access to outdoors, but no requirements for amount of time spent outside. Could be force molted. A 3rd party comes to verify condition claims. Organic mostly refers to the food they are fed. Eggs DSC00688are produced without the use of pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Antibiotic and hormone free. GMO-free.

Vegetarian Fed– No animal by-products in feed. Feed is mostly soy and corn. Keep in mind chickens are not vegetarian. They also eat meat. So that means they are missing an important part of their diet. They should be eating bugs and grubs as well. Chickens that don’t come outside in the field don’t have access to bugs and grubs.

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Free-Range– Out of cages. Required to have access to outdoors. Usually this means a screened in porch/area. Could be grass or concrete. No requirements for amount of time spent outside. May not even make it outside. Could be force molted. No one checks to verify condition claims. May still receive GMO crops, antibiotics and animal by-products. Free range may mean something different to a backyard farmer than it does to a commercial farmer. A backyard farmer may use it interchangeably with pastured. The only way to know is to visit the farm.

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Hens free-ranging outside of housing. Photo: Egg Farmers of Alberta

Free-Roaming– Same as free range

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Pasture-Raised Chickens   Photo: Compassion in World Farming

Pasture-Raised-(not the same thing as pasteurized) Chickens are raised in pastures free to forage (hunt and peck) for insects and worms. They are also able to get the exercise and sunshine they need for proper egg laying. No animal by-products in feed. Since pasture-raised is unregulated it is only verified if the farm is certified. Ideally, most nutrition comes from foraging (plants, seeds, bugs, grubs) and diet is supplemented with grains.

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DSC00687Certified Humane-Must be out of cages, must have space to move around. Does not require outside access. No animal by-products in feed. Forbids forced molting, 3rd party verifies conditions. This is a good certification. Most of the rest have low standards.

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White, brown, pink, blue, green, speckled, tan eggs-Egg colors are based solely on the breed of chicken and the blending of breeds to make new egg colors. It doesn’t have anything to do with health of diet or chicken. They are pretty though, right?

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Animal Welfare Approved– Certification showing true cage-free DSC00583environments, actual outdoor time, forbidden forced molting. This is probably the best certification.

No Hormones– Doesn’t mean too much because it is supposed to be illegal to give poultry hormones.

No Antibiotics– Doesn’t mean much for eggs. Egg laying chickens aren’t usually given antibiotics. If they are, they are supposed to be pulled from egg laying until the antibiotics clear their system. The chickens for meat are the ones that get the antibiotics.

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Non-GMO Project Verified– Chicken fed only non-GMO foods/grains.

Some egg facts

Cloudy whites– This means they are fresh. The cloudiness dissipates  over time. It is due to carbon dioxide.

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You can see the yolk on the left is flatter and stretched out. The yolk on the right is taller, more compact. It even comes to a little point. This is the fresher yolk. That yolk also has a deeper color.

Tall yolks vs. flat yolks– Tall yolks mean a fresher egg. Flat, stretched out egg yolks mean older eggs. They are perfectly fine to eat.

Blood spot on egg– Due to broken blood vessel on the yolk. Not harmful. Fine to eat the egg.

Odd smell– Some type of bacteria. Better to play it safe and discard the egg.

Pink whites– Not good. Discard the egg.

Shelf life- Fresh eggs can last two months in the refrigerator.

Are pastured eggs more nutritious?

A 2007 study by Mother Earth News compared the nutrition in conventional eggs with that of pastured eggs. Here are the results.

Pasture raised 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
  • 4-6 times more vitamin D
  • Protein levels remained the same.

The pastures chickens forage on should be covered with vegetation, not barren dirt. The grasses they eat boost the nutrition of their eggs.

All eggs have omegas. Enriched eggs have processed oil added to the feed, like flax oil. Pastured eggs have omegas increased by eating greens like alfalfa and clover.

So what’s a person to do?

It appears the best/most nutritious eggs are eggs that are both pasture-raised and organic.DSC00689

However, you have no way of verifying claims unless they are certified or you visit the farm.

The best way to know whether any of these claims are true is to buy from a local farmer. We stopped in at a farm recently and bought two dozen green pastured eggs that were just collected. We knew the chickens were actually pastured because we could see them running around in the field. The eggs were also certified.

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This is a handy rating system of the most common egg brands. Organic egg scorecard by the Cornucopia Institute. Check out how your eggs scored.

The downside is that depending on where you live these eggs can be pretty pricey.  They are cheaper in areas where there are many farms. We don’t have many farms around us and a dozen pasture-raised, organic eggs can cost $8-10. Decide what’s important to you and go with those eggs, or just by the best you can afford.

Even if you can’t afford the better eggs or don’t have access to them, conventional eggs are still a very healthy food to eat. So go for it.

I would say however, the pastured eggs are not always the best for baking because the sizes can be random. Most recipes require large eggs. Some of the eggs in the pastured dozen can be on the smaller size.

Why are some egg yolks orange and some yellow?

Orange yolks mean the chickens are eating foods with more pigment (phytochemicals) and xanthophylls, a type of carotenoid (beta carotene is another type). Lutien is an example of a xanthophyll. Plant examples that contain these are marigolds, yellow corn, dark greens such as kale, zucchini, broccoli, alfalfa, orange peels, carrots, pumpkin, squash, peppers, etc. The health benefit here is that carotenoids protect your eyes from age related macular degeneration and prevention of other diseases.

While an orange yolk may show the chicken has a more varied diet and a more varied diet increases the micronutrients, the protein remains the same.  It doesn’t necessarily mean a healthier chicken or egg. Marigolds petals can often  be added to poorer quality commercial feed. The orange yolk does show the presence of carotenoids which are beneficial to your health.

If you have a pastured egg that has a yellow yolk it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong or substandard about it. Apparently, yolk color can be easy to alter. There are other countries that prefer the yellow yolk.

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These were both labeled as organic, pasture-raised eggs. You can see by the yolk color that one chicken ate more carotenoids, the other had none.

I was told orange yolks were more nutritious and tasted better. I want to see if that is correct. I think we touched on the nutrition part already. Now, what about taste?

I over the last few weeks I bought caged eggs, cage-free eggs, Omega-enriched eggs, and pastured eggs from Texas and PA, local farm in NJ and store bought NY and PA. The NY eggs stated that during the winter months the hens don’t get pastured. Which makes sense, because the ground becomes frozen and bugs are scarce. I suppose that would be true for most northern areas.

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Omega-enriched egg (bottom) and pastured local NJ egg (top)

The above eggs are the omega-enriched eggs and the pastured eggs I bought in NJ. The yolks look about the same. The enriched eggs are a dark yellow because their website says yellow corn and marigold petals are added to their feed. I didn’t notice any difference in taste. There is a size difference because one is a large egg and one is a small egg.

 

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Conventional caged eggs (right), Pastured eggs (left)

These are the caged eggs and the pastured eggs from NY. The caged eggs actually look darker than the pastured ones.

 

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Omega-enriched egg (bottom) and the pastured egg (top)

Above are the omega-enriched eggs and the pastured ones from TX. The pastured egg definitely looks a bit more orange. The omega egg is more of a dark yellow.

I think the darker yellow yolks are becoming more common, because even the caged chickens are being given corn and marigolds to eat (which are probably the cheapest way to get carotenoids).

We need to keep in consideration the area of the country the eggs come from. In the northeast the weather is now cold and bugs and fresh plants may be more difficult to come by, so the diet of the pasture-raised  chickens may be different than during the warmer months.

Regarding the taste, I don’t have those sensitive taste buds, but I think some of the pastured eggs did have an eggier taste. On the whole, most of the eggs were similar in taste.

Do you notice more than a small difference in the taste?

I’ll have to have another taste test when it warms up and the  chickens are eating their preferred diet.

What kind of eggs do you eat?

 

Resources:

http://www.motherearthnews.com/natural-health/free-range-eggs-zmaz09fmzraw.aspx

http://www.takepart.com/sites/default/files/egglabelsrevised_round1million.jpg

http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=92

http://news.psu.edu/story/166143/2010/07/20/research-shows-eggs-pastured-chickens-may-be-more-nutritious

http://modernfarmer.com/2013/12/marketing-perfectly-colored-egg-yolk/

http://www.cornucopia.org/2014/12/eggs-not-always-theyre-cracked/

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