Have you wandered through the egg aisle at your local grocery store recently? Talk about information overload! There are so many different labels, certifications, and varieties of eggs that it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed by it all. But all of that is going to change today! I want to help unravel the mystery of all those different kinds of eggs, so our trips through the egg section are filled with certainty rather than doubt. :-)
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So buckle up, because today’s post is all about eggs! Or is it all about chickens? Regardless of which came first, we’re talking about eggs and the chickens who lay them. :-) There are two common types of distinctions made on egg carton labels, and we’ll be talking about both! The first is housing types, or the kinds of conditions that the hens live in, and second I’ll cover diet types, or the kind of food that the hens are fed. I’ll talk about each one, and what difference each distinction makes (or doesn’t make) in terms of the price and quality of the eggs. So let’s get started, shall we?
The eggs produced by chickens in conventional housing are usually the most budget-friendly. You can find them for about $1 per dozen at most grocery stores. Chickens in conventional housing are kept in “battery” cages at all times, with 24/7 access to food and water. With these kinds of cages, farmers can keep more egg-producing chickens in a smaller space, and then sell those eggs for a low consumer-friendly price.
Many stores and restaurants have recently turned to “cage-free” eggs. “Cage-free” eggs aren’t inherently different from conventional eggs, the chickens are just housed differently. In a cage-free facility, the hens are allowed to roam around instead of being kept in a small cage all the time.
It’s not clear whether cage-free facilities are more humane than conventional ones. Some egg producers will even argue that the birds have a better quality of life in cages, citing a smaller chance of the birds hurting themselves or each other. Ethical aspects aside, cage-free chickens are still crowded in their laying houses. And because the farmers aren’t using space as efficiently, their costs are higher, and that premium gets passed onto the consumer.
Free-range eggs have much of the same requirements of cage-free eggs, with the added requirement that the chickens have “access to the outside.” The chickens have an outdoor area they have access to, but it is usually just a small patch of yard. Many chickens choose to simply stay inside, even when they have access to a “free-range” yard. Otherwise, the diet for free-range chickens is quite similar to cage-free birds, and most birds still only have have 2 square feet of space to themselves.
Pastured or Pasture-Raised Eggs
Pastured eggs are one of the best options available in stores, but they’re also one of the most expensive egg options. For the most part, these hens are kept in mobile coops at night to roost and lay eggs. But during the day, farmers release the chickens into pastures where they are can forage, take dust baths, soak up the sun, and just be chickens. While the nutritional content of eggs is pretty much identical across all housing varieties, there is some evidence that eggs from pastured chickens are an exception. Some sources suggest that pastured eggs have more vitamins and less cholesterol due to the chickens’ increased access to sunlight and a highly varied diet.
Farmers provide these hens with feed which is certified organic. If eating organic is important to you, organic-fed eggs could be a good option for you. But keep in mind that there are fewer certified organic feeds than standard feeds, so the chickens may end up with a more limited diet overall. And of course, organic eggs are definitely more expensive than conventional ones!
The hens that produce Omega-3 eggs are fed a diet with plenty of Omegas, such as kelp, flax, and linseed. This makes for a more nutritionally beneficial egg, offsetting fats in the eggs that are not as healthy.
Some egg-laying hens are fed a vegetarian diet. But did you know that chickens aren’t actually herbivores? They’re omnivores, just like us! (Fun fact: the modern chicken is the closest living relative to the great Tyrannosaurus Rex!) Chickens love to eat insects, worms, even small mammals if given the chance. Vegetarian-fed eggs come from chickens that aren’t getting their usual sources of protein, and may even be protein-deficient.
When it comes to buying eggs, there are a lot of buzzwords and designations that can make it a confusing choice! Hopefully the information above will help you make that decision with confidence the next time you’re at the store. To find the very best quality eggs from happy hens, seek out local farmers and/or CSAs! If you call around enough, you’re sure to get in touch with someone who has a chicken coop, or knows someone who does. Because happy birds lay the most delicious eggs, in my opinion. :-)