Understanding Egg Labels 101

Editor’s Note: With the arrival of Clara, I’m taking a short maternity blogging break. I’m excited to welcome several guest writers, among them, Katie of Kitchen Stewardship. Welcome, Katie!

It brings my heart great joy to see frolicking chickens. You may think I’m exaggerating, but the chickens at my favorite farm prefer to hang out in trees and lay their eggs anywhere but the hen house, so “frolicking” is pretty accurate.

The eggs laid by these happy chickens are truly the best in my city – a deep yellow, almost orange yolk, and so much flavor it spoils me. I find other eggs almost tasteless now that I’ve experienced the product of hens who eat bugs and grass, run around, and act like the chickens God created them to be.

I’m sure going straight to the farmer is not a realistic option for everyone, so when you’re standing in front of the egg display at the supermarket, how do you choose from among the baffling number of options presented to you?

Your Basic White Commercial Egg

Most eggs in the supermarket are grown on a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO), where thousands of birds are in one building, and there may be 4 birds in a 16-inch cage. Waste is a big problem. These chickens eat grain, soy, and possibly animal by-products, including other chicken parts.

Term: Free range

Most of the time, “free range” chickens live indoors. Sound counter-intuitive, but the regulations for the term are written such that chickens must be allowed “access” to the outdoors. That may just be one small door and small yard for thousands of chickens. The chickens are so used to being inside that they don’t actually break their routine to explore outside.

The USDA recommends a foot and a half of space per bird, so even though they’re not caged, they’re not exactly running free. These chickens (might) get (some) exercise, which is better for them than the CAFO chickens, but just slightly.

On the other hand, if a local farmer says “free range,” he probably means his chickens can run around outside and get at what they need.

It’s definitely worth asking for clarification.  “Do the chickens run around outside?”

Term: Cage free

Cage free birds do NOT have access to the outside but also have no cages.  Therefore, their lives are pretty much the same as most free range chickens, minus the door nobody uses.

Term: Grain-fed

This doesn’t mean a whole lot when it comes to chickens. It’s actually good for chickens to eat grubs and bugs; it improves the nutritional quality of their eggs. Grain-fed is the industry’s way of sounding good to consumers who assume that chickens only want to scratch at piles of grain all day.

Term: Added Omega 3s

Chickens are fed extra flax seed or other omega-3 rich foods (including fish) to make their eggs healthier. No promises on living conditions or chemicals though. (Note: Usually only increases the ALA content of the eggs. See this omega-3 post for details on why ALA is the least important of the Omega-3s!)

Term: UEP Certified

Find a list of United Egg Producers guidelines here.   (Note: I’m not impressed. Many CAFO white eggs have this label.)

Term: Organic

Whatever the chickens are eating was grown without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. They receive no antibiotics or hormones. Few requirements for living conditions: A foot square doesn’t really allow room for exercise. Even organic eggs can have not-really-edible products on them in the washing and sealing phases.

Term: Vegetarian fed

You can be certain your chickens aren’t eating other chickens, feathers, or waste by-products of other animals. Always reassuring.  They’re a little step over plain old white eggs for a big price jump.  For me, not worth it.

Term: Brown Eggs

Brown eggs don’t really mean anything, health-wise.  The chicken’s breed determines the color of their eggs.

Term: Pastured

Chickens live outside and can eat green grass, bugs, grubs, and whatever they would naturally like to eat, along with, usually, a serving of chicken feed from the farmer. Pastured eggs also look completely differently than regular store eggs.

Remember that brown eggs don’t really mean anything, health-wise.  The chicken’s breed determines the color of their eggs.

What About Nutrition Content?

These eggs come in an awful range of prices as well. How to tell which is best? For yourself, you can compare the nutrition facts of the fancy egg carton to those of the generic egg, below:

  • 213 mg cholesterol
  • 1.6 g saturated fat
  • 1 IU vitamin E
  • 35-40 mg omega-3s

Make sure you’re getting a big enough health difference to be worth what you’re paying!

Pastured vs. Commercial Eggs

If you can find a farmer who answers all the questions right, you may not be able to read the nutrition labels, but others have done it for you. Check out how much better eggs from well-raised birds can be:

Most of the eggs currently sold in supermarkets are nutritionally inferior to eggs produced by hens raised on pasture. That’s the conclusion we have reached following completion of the 2007 Mother Earth News egg testing project. Our testing has found that, compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain:

  • 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

These amazing results come from 14 flocks around the country that range freely on pasture or are housed in moveable pens that are rotated frequently to maximize access to fresh pasture and protect the birds from predators.

(source: Mother Earth News)

Are Eggs Healthy?

Eggs, like butter, have gotten bad press in the past. Our household of two adults, a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old can easily go through four dozen eggs in a week, no guests, no fancy brunches. So I guess I’m sure hoping that the research showing how eggs are healthy trumps that showing the opposite!

What do you do with all those eggs?

I find that when we make grain-free recipes, a lot of them call for 3-6 eggs. Double or triple it for leftovers, and you’re going through cartons like crazy. Some of our favorite eggy dishes:

What variety of eggs do you buy and why?

About KatieK

Katie Kimball is a mother of three from Michigan who spends a ton of time in the kitchen making real food with whole ingredients and then blogs about her successes and failures at Kitchen Stewardship. Visit KS for real food and natural living dished out in chewable, baby step portions.

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  1. We are actually kind of spoiled. The farm where we get our summer CSA drops eggs off at my house every Thursday. They are an organic farm, and the chickens roam around, have access to all the bugs and the extra veg from the garden. I always wonder about the “vegetarian fed” chickens, because they are omnivores. I guess it is a good thing they aren’t ingesting other chickens. The farm fresh eggs are the only ones that we eat, and we are planning on getting some chickens this spring so that we can have our own eggs, 10 times better than anything you can get at the store 🙂

  2. We live in a small enough town that many people have chickens in their backyard. I check my local classifieds if my regular “egg lady” doesn’t have any eggs for me on one week. I love to see chickens that are practically part of the family. And my family complains if I have to buy store eggs because they are so white! They don’t look or taste the same at all.
    We eat lots of eggs, too. They are good cheap protein for my growing family, and the way I buy them, I don’t have to worry about their producers ruining the environment. Give me a fresh egg from a family farm over a mass produced chicken breast every day, please!

  3. Tonight, I’m speaking before my city council AGAIN as part of a group trying to get urban hens clarified as legal in my city. Do you know more than 150 major US cities allow urban hens?!
    My family goes through many eggs each week as well! Little did we know a few years ago how much we would prefer a fresh pastured egg over my standard Costco egg! Now, if I could have my own micro-flock…. 😉

  4. Simple Living with Diane Balch says

    Wow, I assumed that organic eggs are free-range too. Without getting fresh eggs from a farm it seems that having antibiotic, and free-range, organic eggs is harder to come by then I thought. Very upsetting.

    • Amanda S (mindfultable.ca) says

      In Canada, organic eggs must be free range as well, and how many hens you can have for a given space is clearly defined and audited, which is not the case with free-range labels. I’m not sure if it’s the same in the US, but I would assume so since the Canadian and US standards have equivalency.

  5. I tend toward brown eggs, I think the taste is a bit different, better…I know, I know…no difference…it’s probably psychological. I go for as free everything as I can get and will look for it to say pastured. I am new to my area and know there is a huge year round farmers market so hoping they have “regular” chicken eggs…some day when I get into a house I will get my own chickens!

  6. Awesome article! Thanks for educating us 🙂

  7. Thanks for breaking this down! This was a really thorough and informative post!

    I was thrilled when I recently found a place in my town that sells *true* free range eggs. The hens live in the backyard of a darling frame shop/art gallery. The woman who owns the business got the hens for her sons, who are homeschooled. It is a place I pass by all the time, but didn’t know they sold eggs until a friend mentioned it. I would say, if you want local eggs ask around. 🙂

  8. maybe it’s because I’m a little tired this Monday morning – but really I got to here “act like the chickens God created them to be” and stopped reading. I don’t usually care but really? It’s a food blog. Please try and keep religion out of it.

    • Hey Lisa! When I invite someone to guest post, I truly allow them to express themselves any way they like. If Katie wants to refer to the chicken’s creator, that is her prerogative. I truly hope your Monday picks up and hope that you’ll come back to read the rest of the article. It’s packed with well-researched info!

      • Thanks Aimee – day didn’t get any better but I truly appreciate you taking the time to respond to this old, tired, cranky lady.

    • Hey Lisa, Sorry to crank up your Monday morning… 😉 At my own online “home” I pull in stewardship and creation a lot, but let’s just pretend I wrote: “chickens who act like chickens” just for you over here, okay? I am just a loud-mouthed guest, so I’m glad you can still read Aimee without worry. 🙂 Katie

  9. Katie – Since I live in the same area as you, would you be willing to share where you get your eggs from?

  10. Mrs. Graham Gardens says

    Great Post, Katie!
    You’re such a great source for this kind of information. We love our brown-egg-laying flock and I am always tickled to serve up healthy eggs to my family.

  11. I really loved your post! I’ll be pinning this on pinterest!

  12. Linda McHenry says

    Sooo happy we have our own hens! We live on a 50’x185′ city lot with 5 hens and 2 bee hives……plus all the vegetables I can cram in the veggie plot. There is truly nothing like having your own fresh eggs. We are totally organic….get their feed from a local business that carries Scratch & Peck feed http://www.scratchandpeck.com/. We’ve never had to use antibiotics or any chemicals and have an extremely happy health flock. Hope Karen has luck with her City Council…..if helpful, I can try and dig up our city’s code.

  13. I am so lucky. We have a locally-owned grocery store chain that has a big Buy Fresh, Buy Local group of products, including eggs. I just checked and my eggs are Free Range and vegetarian fed. They’re also brown eggs. Because I know the farm that these eggs come from I know that the chickens do spend time outdoors. Thanks for this primer! It’s a big help.

  14. Wow! This was very informative. I knew there were differences but wasn’t really sure what they were.

  15. “…the chickens God created them to be.” That’s excellent. Thank you for this explanation and research.

    My family eats lots of eggs, too. I asked an employee at our local food coop about the certified organic label, vs. eggs distributed by a family farm with a label stating that the eggs had no antibiotics, pesticides, hormones used in feed, etc. but not “USDA Certified.”

    He said it’s a pretty good bet (though he couldn’t guarantee) that those eggs (much less expensive per dozen) were organic, just like the eggs with the certified organic label – but that label costs farms lots of money, thus costing consumers lots of money.

    Thoughts on that?

    • Rhonda,
      Many thoughts, yes! 🙂

      Organic certification is super expensive, and as I wrote in the post, doesn’t necessarily guarantee great eggs b/c the regulations are such that they don’t ensure time outside, just that it’s “available.” I actually prefer your second option, the small, local farmer who raises chickens with integrity but no label. They’re not all perfect, but you can usually talk to the farmer and ask about the feed (non-gmo and soy-free are other things I listen for in their answer). Less expensive always makes me happy….

      🙂 Katie

  16. And here I thought I was doing good by buying Free Range. Darnit. I will hunt for the ever elusive pastured and see if I can find it…thank you for the excellent info.

    • Windy,
      You probably won’t see “pastured” on a carton – just because that’s more of a term people used because “free range” was getting exploited. If you find a farmer who knows what “pastured” is, buy eggs there! 😉 Katie

  17. good2Bqueen says

    Really enjoyed this article. Truly informative and eye-opening! Thank you for sharing.

  18. This is an excellent and informative article. I’m so lucky to have two sweet girls (Lucy and Ethel) that provide our family of three with enough pretty brown eggs for our needs. They have full run of our backyard and get along fine with our three dogs. We’re thinking of adding another two to the flock so we can share with our family and friends.

  19. ShirlleyFai says

    I am never familiar with egg labels and even how it is cooked by people…But thank you for this very informative and interesting post…

  20. Mrs. Chaos says

    My husband is intollerant of eggs, so we go through far fewer than your family! Wow! Our daughter and I usually go through about two dozen every three weeks.
    I used to buy our eggs every week from the farmer’s market but it moved and is no longer particularly convenient. I loved it because not only did I get awesome eggs from well cared for hens but I returned te cartons each week and they were re-used almost immediately instead of going in the garbage or compost. I now buy eggs from the supermarket 🙁 but I do always spend the extra (yes, extravagant extra considering) for cage free eggs. After seing the pictures of hens at the farmer’s market, coupled with the poor cows I saw years ago on a road trip that literally could not move, I knew I’d rather pay extra so that in the least, the hend laying my breakfast can stand up, lay down, and turn around if the alternative is no movement options whatsoever. I need to get active in looking for an egg source replacement, amongst other food sources. Thanks for the reminder.

  21. One thing I’ve noticed is the actual feel of farm eggs. I haven’t bought eggs from a store in years. Non-commercial eggs are heavier and when you crack them, the shells are much thicker. This is due to the increased weight (=health) of the egg. Thanks for this very informative article because people really need to know what’s in their food and how it’s made!

    I’ve been an environmental food activist for years, writing on all sorts of issues that connect food, the environment and your health. Add to this, a pretty good idea on the food industry and its ways — grocery store food isn’t what one thinks it is.

    One of the MOST important things is that people MUST get involved and be vocal about their food choices. The old addage: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease”, is certainly true. There are millions of us “squeaky wheels” and people don’t realize how much power we actually have. Knowledge is power. Silence is acceptance. One of my favorite sayings is by Frank Serpico, NYC Detective, (Retired): “Sometimes you have to go up against the odds to do the right thing.”

    Let’s do it, folks — for our children and our planet!

  22. Thank you, Katie and Aimee, for this excellent post. I will be referring to it often!

  23. Good job explaining all the various terms on labels! They are so confusing when I just want a good quiche!! I would make one reminder, the farm raised or pastured birds eat not only bugs and grass but dead things as well. They often eat each other and other things that wind up in their space. That is not a turn off for me as that is nature…but it is merely fact.

  24. I agree that eggs are healthy and nourishing. We use about 3 dozen per eggs a week with our family of five a week. Through my previous work I had an opportunity to visit an enriched colony egg laying barn last summer in California. I think you would consider this commericial egg production. I was very impressed and felt comfortable in buying eggs off my grocery story shelf after seeing how large egg laying farming families raise their chickens. I left feeling better knowing where my eggs came from in the USA. Here’s my blog post on it: http://www.pinkepost.com/2011/06/what-foodie-farm-girl-learned-on-egg.html

    • What a cool experience! Visiting the farm is always the best way to feel comfortable with your food, whether the operation is large or small. I just tend to trust the farms that I CAN visit rather than those that are still a question mark under a label for me. 🙂 Katie

  25. Thank you so much for explaining all this! Looks like it is time to find a local farm to buy eggs from!

  26. How interesting! I guess from all those descriptions, I would go for Pastured.

    We buy eggs from the farmers market, and thankfully they’ve gotten a lot better. So much so that the egg yolks are now bright orange whereas before they were still light yellow like how the look at the grocery.

  27. Great tips! Will definitely keep this handy the next time I head to the grocery store for eggs. I’m so looking forward to farmer’s markets starting up again.

  28. Amanda S (mindfultable.ca) says

    Nice breakdown of the various types of eggs.

    One that I noticed was missing is “free run” eggs. We’re starting to see that label on grocery store eggs in Canada. Basically it means that the chickens are free to run around in a barn and are not caged. So it’s essentially another way of saying “cage-free eggs”. Maybe the US uses the term “cage free” and Canada “free run”?

    In Canada, neither free-run or free-range have legal definitions or legal space requirements for the hens. I believe there is an industry standard. I also understand that it isn’t as much space as required for the organic label, which does have a legal requirement.

    When I see “free range” eggs, I try to find out how the birds were raised to make sure that they aren’t just free-run hens who had some access to the outdoors.

    I’m lucky that near me there are a couple of brands selling truly free-range eggs. When I can’t find those, I go organic as the next best thing since there are legal definitions and auditing requirements.

  29. The chicken’s breed determines the color of their eggs. Thanks for the explanation about Pastured and Commercial eggs.

  30. Amber | Bluebonnets & Brownies says

    This is such an awesome article. I’ve got to find a local farmer to get my eggs from, for sure.

  31. Katie,

    I have enjoyed having our own eggs when we have had chickens. I however do not like taking care of the chickens so we only have chickens when someone else wants to take care of them.

    My husband decided a couple of years ago that we should have chickens. I thought that it was great because we would get eggs. Our chickens do run free where ever they want to run but, the problem is my husband likes the roosters because they are pretty so I think we ended up with more roosters than hens which poses a problem with getting eggs as.

    I do get a few eggs which is nice.

    Great post on eggs.

    Dee Ann

  32. Great post, Katie! Egg labels have always confused me a bit.

  33. Thank you for your response, Katie!

  34. We raised our own eggs for many years. I try to find a farmer locally with egg these days. When I have to buy them from the store we usually only use them for baking.

  35. Question: there are so many things that loose their nutritional value when cooked too high and/or too long (raw honey, yogurt, coconut oil…). Are eggs the same? Differnt types of nutrients here, so maybe not??

    • Ashley,
      You know, that’s a good question – I’m thinking the list you gave just has different things going on than eggs – honey has enzymes that would be killed (eggs have them too, actually, so many people consume raw eggs; any cooking at all will kill those pretty quickly), yogurt has probiotics (living bacteria), and it’s heat-sensitive Vitamin E in coconut oil. Most if not all benefits from eggs are not going to be heat sensitive…but they DO taste better if cooked slowly on low! 🙂 Katie

  36. I think eggs are amazing! It’s incredible what you can do with them and I love the taste!
    I enjoyed reading this article. The controversy about eggs being healthy or not keeps going back and forth! I figure at some point in time, they will be ok to eat again. Nice article!

  37. Excellent post! When people hear that I never get eggs at the supermarket, they are always asking me these “labeling” questions. I can’t wait to share this. We are lucky to get eggs from pastured hens – the color of the yolk, the shape of the eggs, the taste… are all so incredibly different from what is sold in stores. The useless labels drive me crazy but now that I know what real eggs should taste like, I could never go back anyway.

  38. Florence18Moore says

    Every morning, I prepared an egg for breakfast because as what I have read egg bring a huge help for maintaining an healthier body… Especially to my children…

  39. farm fresh eggs and non vegetarian fed chickens are fed groundup dead cow, that died from poor living conditions and other diseases. also I was hoping for some info on fertilized eggs vs unfertilized eggs.

  40. also the term farm fresh was not addressed, which means the birds are in tight living conditions, pumpedwith hormones and antibiotics, and given a zap of electricity to get them to lay eggs more frequently resulting in a faster turn over and more money for the farmer

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