We love eggs in our house. They’re a great source of protein, vitamins, and other nutrients we don’t always get enough of. Eggs can also be very affordable. Which, like many foods sold at grocery stores, can be a good or a bad thing.
To make sure that you always get the best eggs for you and your family, here’s what type of eggs to look for. And how to read the labels on egg cartons to separate fact from fiction.
Pastured eggs can cost as much as $8.99 a dozen compared to $4.99 for organic eggs. Knowing this, many home cooks get tempted to ask… are they really worth the higher price?
Pasture-raised eggs have a noticeably better taste, texture, and color than eggs laid by conventionally raised chickens. You can tell the difference by the bright-orange yolks that stand up tall when cooked and don’t break, as well as the thick whites that don’t run.
On average, pastured eggs contain 10% less fat, 34% less cholesterol, 40% more Vitamin A, and 4 times the amount of Omega-3 when compared to eggs laid by conventionally raised hens (HFAC).
Other nutritional studies on pasture-raised eggs show that they have 3-6 times more Vitamin D, 70% more Vitamin B12, 50% to 200% more folate, and 7 times more beta carotene (Whistling Hen Farms). The brighter-orange the egg yolk, the more beta carotene the egg contains.
Which Eggs Are the Best to Buy?
Not so long ago, people used to raise chickens in their backyard. Living in small flocks and naturally fed, these chickens were an important source of protein for families.
Until chickens and eggs became big business in the 20th century. Nowadays, the poultry and eggs we eat come mostly from chickens who live in cages, never see the outdoors, and have high levels in stress.
And you get to wonder… who is this really good for? The chickens? The consumer? The environment?
Look for eggs in the grocery store, and you will soon have to choose from many terms and labels printed on each carton. There’s cage eggs, cage-free eggs, free-range eggs, and pasture-raged (or “Certified Humane”) eggs.
Simply said, pasture-raised eggs are as close as it gets to the eggs you’d get if you had a grandma raising hens on the countryside (yet still mass-produced by a company and commercially sold at grocery stores).
Hens who lay pasture-raised eggs live on the outside and eat a natural diet of bugs, worms, and grass that they forage themselves. These hens tend to have the lowest stress levels among commercially raised hens — and get all the amenities a bird could ask for, like perches, nest boxes, and dust-bathing areas.
|Type of Egg||Population Density||Living Conditions|
|19-20 birds |
per square yard
|The hens are kept in battery cages inside large barns. They have limited movement, no access to the outdoors, and usually never see natural light.|
|Cage-free eggs||19-20 birds |
per square yard
|The hens are kept in large barns, but free from cages. They have limited movement, no access to the outdoors, and usually never see natural light.|
|Free-range eggs||13-15 birds |
per square yard
|The hens are kept in barns or “chicken coops.” Pop holes give the hens access to the outdoors. Some hens make use of that access and go to the outdoors. Others don’t and stay inside, never seeing natural light and getting little movement.|
|Pasture-raised eggs||5-12 birds |
per square yard
|The hens are raised outside, on open grass pastures. They roam free and forage for bugs, worms, grass, and seeds (but have access to a barn for shelter). They get the most movement and sunlight.|
Now let’s take a closer look at each of these types of eggs.
In 2019, 76.4% of laying hens in the U.S. were raised in battery cages according to United Egg Producers. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service estimates that 64% of U.S. hens must be in cage-free production by 2026 to meet the estimated demand from consumers.
Cage eggs are eggs produced by chickens kept in cages. These cages are usually 8 ½ by 11 inches in size, which is also why they’re often called “battery cages.” The eggs are also called “battery-cage eggs.”
Caged hens get little-to-no movement and tend to have the highest stress levels than all other hens raised by other methods.
The USDA regulates Cage-free eggs. Cage-free eggs must be produced by hens that don’t live in battery cages. These hens are housed in a building, room, or enclosure that gives them access to food and water — and roam the interior space during their laying cycle.
The fact that these hens can roam doesn’t necessarily mean that they live a happier life. As Rachel Khong, author of All About Eggs, shares, cage-free facilities have more hen-on-hen violence and lower air quality than cage facilities.
The USDA also regulates free-range eggs. They must be produced by cage-free hens housed “in a building, room, or area that allows them access to the outdoors” (USDA). That access is usually given to them through pop holes.
All free-range hens can access the outdoors through these pop holes. But the reality is that not all of them do. This is why free-range eggs may come from hens that have never really seen natural light or gotten much exercise.
Pasture-raised eggs is not a term regulated by the USDA. But the term is overseen by Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), a non-profit organization that issues “Certified Humane” labels to egg producers that meet their strict standards.
When the egg carton says “Certified Humane,” this means that the hens were raised on open grass pastures, with 24/7 access to the outdoors (but also to a barn for cover). The hens are given access to “amenities” like perches, nest boxes, and dust-bathing areas.
How to Read the Label on Egg Cartons
When you read the label on a carton of eggs, you will also come across terms like 100% natural, organic, no antibiotics, vitamin enhanced, no antibiotics, no added hormones, vitamin enhanced, and Omega-3 enriched.
What do all of these terms really mean? And what separates fact from marketing fiction?
The Terms to Look For
Let’s start with the terms and labels that actually make sense and stand for something.
Vitamin-Enhanced and Omega-3 Enriched eggs are laid by hens who, as part of their diet, are fed foods rich in vitamins and fatty acids. This often includes alfalfa, rice bran, sea kelp, flaxseed, and fish oils.
Organic eggs is a term regulated by the USDA. Certified organic eggs come from uncaged hens that freely roam interior spaces and have access to the outdoors. These hens are fed an organic diet, strictly determined by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the USDA.
Local eggs is a term regulated by the USDA. For an egg to be marketed as “local,” it must come from a flock less than 400 miles from the processing facility or within the same state.
Animal Welfare Approved eggs is a standard that requires that each hen that’s part of a flock no bigger than 500 birds gets 1.8 square feet of indoor space and 24/7 access to at least 4 square feet of outdoor space.
When you buy a carton of eggs that has one of the terms above, you know that they comply with the requirements for it from the USDA or from the independent third-party organization that’s issuing it.
What Terms to Ignore
Watch out for the terms below. Marketers love to use them, but they aren’t as meaningful as they seem.
100% Natural doesn’t really tell you anything about how the hen was raised. Instead, it means that no flavorings, brines, or colorings were artificially added to the egg.
No Added Hormones means that hormones weren’t given to chickens. However… producers aren’t allowed to give hormones to chickens by U.S. federal regulations in the first place. So this term is practically meaningless marketing fiction.
No Added Antibiotics is another misleading term. Very few hens are given antibiotics. Those that do are “diverted from human consumption,” which means that the eggs and poultry from antibiotic-fed chickens will not end up on the shelves of the supermarket.
Are Pastured Eggs the Same as Free-range Eggs?
No, pastured eggs (also known as pasture-raised eggs) are not the same as free-range eggs.
Pasture-raised eggs come from hens raised on the outdoors. These hens get plenty of movement and eat bugs, worms, and grass that they forage themselves out in the open.
Free-range eggs come from hens raised and fed indoors who have the ability to go outside via pop holes. These hens spend the majority of their life inside the barn or space they’re kept in.
Why Are Pastured Eggs Orange?
The color of the yolk tells us a lot about the nutritional value of an egg. The more saturated and intense the color, the more nutritional the egg.
Pastured eggs have bright orange yolks, which means that they have plenty of vitamins and fatty acids inside. Several studies of pastured eggs have shown that they pack significantly more nutrients than their counterparts from conventionally-grown hens.
Are Pastured Eggs Safe to Eat Raw?
A study conducted by the British government found that 23% of farms with caged hens tested positive for salmonella, compared to only 4% in pastured flocks and 6.5% in free-range flocks.
There’s a 1/4 chance that you can get infected with salmonella by eating raw battery-cage eggs. That chance decreases on eggs from hens raised by more natural and humane methods, such as free-range and pasture-raised hens.
As a rule of thumb, always consume eggs cooked. This is the best way to keep your chances of getting infected with salmonella to a minimum.
Pasture-raised eggs come at an $8.99 a dozen price, compared to $4.99 a dozen for organic eggs. As they have a significantly better taste, texture, and nutritional value, I think that they’re worth every single dollar.
To buy the best eggs at the grocery store, look for an egg carton labeled as “Certified Humane” and/or “Animal Welfare Approved.” These are by far the strictest and best standards egg producers in the U.S. could follow to make eggcellent eggs while treating the hens with care.
What eggs do you prefer in your household — and why? Let me know in the comments below.