From “cage-free,” to “free-range” and “pasture-raised,” the labels on egg cartons can be confusing. Add in labels like “certified humane” or “certified organic,” and suddenly picking the right egg can feel more complicated than finding Mr. Right on Tinder.
So let’s break down what these egg labels actually mean, because when a dozen eggs can cost up to $18, it’s best to know what’s in your carton.
If you’ve seen the label “pasture-raised” on your egg cartons, you might picture a flock of happy hens pecking around a farm yard. This image is sort of accurate: In order to receive the label of pasture-raised, hens must be given 35 to 108 square feet of outdoor space. Alternatively, commercial eggs (also called battery-cage eggs) come from hens that generally get only 67 square inches of cage space, which is sadly less than the size of a standard 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper.
Pasture-raised eggs cost more than commercial eggs, but experts believe that these eggs may be more nutritious for you (not to mention better for the hens who are laying them).
“It’s possible that pasture-raised eggs have more nutrients like vitamins A, D, E, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids when compared to conventional or standard eggs,” registered dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman tells The Huffington Post. “That’s because the hens have more access to nutrients from grass, alfalfa and clover, as well as access to the sun, which can boost vitamin D levels, too.”
Cage-free eggs are not the same as pasture-raised eggs. Unlike pasture-raised hens, cage-free hens do not necessarily get to go outside. In fact, the term cage-free means that they probably don’t get to go outside. Instead, they have around 1 square foot or 1.25 square feet of floor space each and they have access to perches and nesting boxes.
However, animal cruelty experts say that the term cage-free is misleading.
“USDA cage-free standards do not require facilities to provide hens with access to the outdoors. They only require that facilities don’t keep hens in battery cages,” says the Humane League. “So, even in cage-free facilities, hens still spend a majority of their lives in dark, windowless sheds — a far cry from the wooded areas that chickens prefer to live in.”
Hence, if you are choosing eggs based on how humanely the hens are treated, then you should be aware that cage-free doesn’t equal an idyllic farmyard life for the layers.
Free-range hens do get to go outside and enjoy the sunshine. However, the free-range label means that the hens have 2 square feet of pasture at minimum. (Alternatively, pasture-raised hens must have 35 by 108 square feet of pasture, at minimum.) Still, it’s a better life than that of the hens who live their entire lives inside a warehouse.
And, nutritionists believe that this humane treatment matters when it comes to egg quality and the benefits it offers to consumers. Past research has found that pastured-raised hens lay more nutrient-rich eggs. Researchers from Pennsylvania State University found that pasture-raised eggs have:
- Twice as many omega-3 fats
- Three times more vitamin D
- Four times more vitamin E
- Seven times more beta-carotene
This is partly because hens that can go outside get to diversify their diet, such as by eating bugs and plants as opposed to just commercially produced chicken feed. They also get essential vitamin D from getting to be outside in the sunlight. Hence, while free-range hens often get less outdoor space than pasture-raised eggs, their time outdoors might mean that their eggs are more nutritious than that of hens who never get to go outside.
Another category of egg labels to consider is “certified humane.” In order to earn this label, hens must not be caged or crated. They must be offered an enriching environment, including perches, nesting boxes and dust bathing areas. In essence, the label means that hens can behave as they naturally would if they were not farmed animals.
However, it doesn’t mean that they can go outside. The label simply means that the hens aren’t caged and that they have a humane environment (i.e. their beaks aren’t cut and they aren’t starved to induce molting). If you want to be sure that the hens who lay your eggs have been able to go outside, you still must look for labels like “free-range” or “pasture-raised,” because certified humane only means that the hens have been treated better than commercial hens.
Certified organic eggs must have come from hens that have been given feed without fertilizer or pesticides. It also means that the hens have not been given antibiotics. Certified organic eggs must also come from hens that have been allowed outdoor space. Organic egg farms must offer 2 square per egg-laying hen (the same as free-range hens).
When you see this label on an egg carton, it means that the hens who laid the eggs were given feed that was supplemented with flaxseed and possibly fish oil as well. However, the jury is out on whether or not eating omega-3 rich eggs really offers more benefits than a traditional egg.
In fact, research has shown that you will get more omega-3 fat if you eat eggs that come from hens who were able to go outside. So even if your egg carton doesn’t feature the “omega-3” label, as long as you choose eggs that are pasture-raised or free-range, you are going to get that extra omega-3, compared to if you bought standard commercial eggs from battery-caged hens.
If you are really trying to get the most bang for your buck when shelling out for eggs, consider whether or not the hens can go outside and live as Mother Nature intended. Healthy, happy hens equal healthier eggs that not only taste better, but are better for you.