Today, you may find cheap eggs at the store difficult to pass up buying. However, this article may help you reconsider what you allocate towards your egg budget in the future.
I’ve had a lot of questions over the years from coworkers, friends and family about the vast choices when buying eggs. Those labels are rather tricky, I agree, so I’ve compiled some information to help you decipher labels with more confidence.
It’s been awhile since I have evaluated my egg buying. We have been buying an organic, cage free, vegetarian fed brand for 3 years now. After doing this research, I will looking for a few other items in my egg purchasing. At the end of this article is my final recommendation for egg purchasing.
The USDA regulates this type of organic labeling. Organic hens are raised on organic feed. Organic feed cannot be treated with pesticides, herbicides, or insecticides. It cannot contain GMOs or animal byproducts. They won’t be grazing on grass that has been sprayed with toxic chemicals. Nor can the hens have been fed any additives that contain these chemicals or GMOs. Thus, these hens produce, by definition, organic eggs.
‘Eggs marked with the USDA’s National Organic Program label come from uncaged hens that are free to roam in their houses and have access to the outdoors. The hens are fed an organic diet of feed produced without conventional pesticides or fertilizers.’ 
This sounds perfect and ideal. However, to be organic, the chickens are only required ‘reasonable access’ to the outdoors, but this does not guarantee them a certain amount of time outdoors, nor do current regulations outline a finite definition of outdoor space. The definition is very broad: Outdoor space could be a patch of dirt or an add-on ‘porch’ type area off of a main hen house or barn.
These hen houses are usually overcrowded. Often organic farm standards are better in regards to spacing (they will give the chickens more space to help prevent disease). Depending on the farm, outdoor space may be more conducive to real grazing. It all depends on the farm.
Organic also means they can never be caged while at the farm.
The chickens are allowed much more access to the outdoors to feed on grass, insects, seeds, land wild plants and flowers. Their eggs are high in Omega-3’s due to what they consume, which for a chicken, is a truly natural diet.
‘Hens are allowed to range on fresh pasture. Often they are housed in trailers that can be towed to different fields.’ 
The birds also engage in more normal behaviors since they are free roaming, such as natural cleaning methods, being outside during the day, and returning to the safety of the coop at night with their brood.
‘The birds can also engage in their natural behaviors, including “dust bathing,” which cleans their feathers…’ 
These hens are not typically altered, such as having their beaks clipped, as they need their beaks to graze on outdoor food choices. Also, because they are not being fed traditional ‘feed meals’ for their primary food source, they won’t typically over consume food. Chickens that grow too large too quickly have health problems, such as weakened limbs.
Free Range or Free Roaming
Free range basically means the hens can walk about independently (not in a cage). They may still go through the process of beak clipping, since they are still in a hatchery or barn most of their lives and they often will still be living in close and packed quarters.
Technically the USDA regulation of “allowed access to the outdoors’ can be interpreted in many different ways depending on the farm (commercial hatcheries are often worse).
According to the Article ‘Farm Fresh? Natural? Eggs are Not Always What they are Cracked up to be’ by Anders Kelso on NPR’s site:
‘hens usually live in aviaries: massive industrial barns that house thousands of birds. Each bird has, on average, 1 square foot of space.’
I have free range to roam about my cubicle at work, but it’s still only a 6 f.t x 6 ft. square space. I don’t want to live here and I would not appreciate 5 other coworkers sitting in this space with me all day.
So, the idealized notion of a chicken walking about in fresh air and preening it’s feathers in the sun and then coming inside after a long day outdoors to sleep, is often not the case with ‘free range.’
It all depends on the farm, so you have to do your research on the company and their practices. A free range, organic local farm may very well have those happy chicks you imagine.
The chickens and hens are not kept in cages. This is definitely a step up from caged chickens, however, they may still be kept in a crowded barn or in an overcrowded area. They are probably still ingesting GMO’s or being exposed to toxic chemicals in their feed, unless labeled organic also. (Recall, to be USDA organic they must be cage-free).
It’s a novel idea they are not kept in cages but ultimately if the only label is ‘cage free’ I would personally source for eggs with a humane certification and a guarantee of organic feeding practices.
Again, the beak trimming issue really bothers me. Chickens peck at the ground to source for food, such as insects. Their beaks help them clean themselves and rid their feathers of parasites. The ends of their beaks may also help them navigate direction-ally and find their outdoor access in crowded areas.  
When living in close quarters (even though cage-free) their beaks are trimmed so they don’t feather peck at each other and cause injury. Feather pecking can be gentle and natural, but it also becomes an aggressive behavior in poor living conditions.
Vegetarian Fed Hens
They were not given any animal by-products for feed. This is another label I am not very comfortable with. I can eat vegetables all day long and be a ‘vegetarian’ but if they are not organic vegetables, I would be consuming pesticides and herbicides. No, thank you.
Did you know chickens actually enjoy eating worms and insects? So, if that’s what they eat if they are outdoors living the good life, how are the vegetarian fed hens only eating vegetarian diets?
They are being fed feed and they are probably not living mainly outdoors in an open pasture if they are labeled ‘vegetarian fed.’ If they were outdoors, they would be consuming insects and bugs, like grubs and could not be considered omnivorous. One article I read from the Washington Post pointed out that 100% vegetarian fed hens often fall ill for lack of proper nutrition. 
Another label for ‘labels-sake.’ Poultry in America cannot be injected with added hormones. Any company can tout the claim ‘no added hormones’ in their chicken and egg products.
It’s like saying a banana has no artificial coloring added.
Natural means nothing added. Eggs are natural by nature, but how the hen was raised or what items she was fed or medications given is not factored in. Any chicken raised and given antibiotics or even caged: those eggs are still labeled ‘natural’ or ‘all natural.’ Living in a cage is not natural.
There is no indication with this label as to the quality of food the hens are consuming.
‘Conventional “chicken mash” is based on corn and soy, but it can also include slaughterhouse waste—which may be tainted with any of the germs that infected the animals themselves, says Michael Greger, MD, director of public health and animal agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States.’ 
Are you starting to reconsider buying the eggs whose price cannot be beat?
Pasture grazing chickens will product more nutrient rich eggs higher in Omega 3’s. Grazing naturally is doing something to better the quality of the eggs produced.
According to a Pennsylvania State study:
‘Compared to eggs of the commercial hens, eggs from pastured hens eggs had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fats, more than double the total omega-3 fatty acids, and less than half the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids,” she said. “Vitamin A concentration was 38 percent higher in the pastured hens’ eggs than in the commercial hens’ 
You will often see ‘High in Omega-3’s’ added to the label of Cage free or Organic eggs since they are more likely to be high in these nutrients. However, the Omega 3 ratios are higher since they animals are feed fed that is higher in these vitamins. For example, flax seed may be added to their mash or meal to increase their Omega content.
Grade A, AA, and B eggs
Eggs are attributed a grade based on their interior quality.
- Grade A eggs have a thicker shell and the egg whites are thicker.
- Grade AA eggs have an even thicker egg white than A.
- Grade B have a thinner egg white.
Grades can make a difference over which eggs are better for frying or better for baking (thinner is better). Grades aren’t used to explain how the chickens are raised, what they are fed, or how they are treated.
A fresh AA egg will also have a long shelf life than a fresh A grade egg.
What about Brown vs. White Eggs? Without going into a lot of detail, my research basically yielded that egg color depends on the type of the chicken. Organic eggs are not necessarily brown, for example. It’s the type of hen and I am not into taxonomy so we will leave this topic at the above briefing.
In my experience brown egg shells are thinner and crumble easier, you just have to perfect your cracking technique. If you hard boil eggs, add 1 TBSP of baking soda to the water and the shells are much easier to pull off.
The Final Scorecard: Farms and Brands
You may need to visit either a Whole Foods or Specialty store to find the best type of eggs in regards to organic plus humane treatment. Another suggestion is to find a local, organic farm that raises hens for egg production and call to ask some questions. You could even ask for a tour of their farm. They may welcome children to visit also. It could be a fun family activity!
My Final Recommendation on Eggs
You need to look for a combination of organic, ‘pasture raised,’ and a humane certification from an organization such as Certified Humane, to find the best quality eggs in regards to non-toxic, humane, and nutritional reasons.
Like anything in life, if you send your husband to the store and he comes home with just ‘organic eggs,’ give him some grace. This label reading can be tough, it can also pinch your budget! We tend to save our egg consumption for hard boiled or scrambled eggs since we buy more expensive types.
If you use eggs often in baking, consider egg substitutes, such as flax seed. I have never had any issues substituting one or two eggs in a baking recipe.
- Mash 1 TBSP ground flax seed (contains Omega’s and Fiber!) plus 1-2 TBSP water, let sit 10 minutes. Can be substituted for 1 egg. Perfect for cookies, muffins, and pancakes.
- 1/4 cup applesauce can be substituted for 1 egg, in baked goods that are moist, like brownies.
- My favorite spice bread recipe I use pureed or mashed bananas instead of eggs. You don’t taste the bananas. You can substitute up to 2 eggs this way.
What is the definition of humane treatment?
I’ve decided to migrate the last half of this article to a separate article about Humane Standards in regards to egg production and hen raising. If you still have questions about the following, then you will want to read this article that will be posted soon.
I do realize some readers do not want to know much more than above, but I do urge you to read the article. I will add a link when it is done. As an egg consumer, these humane topics are difficult to research and report about., but we need to be aware as consumers.
What is the definition of humane treatment? Currently poultry is excluded from the federal Humane Slaughter act. If you wish to look into this more click here for Farm Sanctuaries website or for PETA.
I am currently not a vegetarian or vegan, although I did practice vegetarianism (no meat) years ago, I still consumed eggs and dairy products on occasion. Eggs are an excellent source of Choline, B Vitamins, Selenium, and Iodine but they can be found in Vegan sources as well.
- Rex Barnes. AMS Poultry Program Deputy Administrator. ‘Eggstra! Eggstra! Learn All About Them.’ April 6, 2012 blogs.usda.gov http://blogs.usda.gov/2012/04/06/eggstra-eggstra-learn-all-about-them/
- Michelle, Stacey. ‘Best Eggs: Organic, Free Range, or Conventional?’ November 3, 2011. www.prevention.com
- Kelto, Anders. ‘Farm Fresh? Natural? Eggs are not Always What they are Cracked up to be.’ December 23, 2014. www.npr.org
- Wikepedia. ‘Feather Pecking.’ www.wikepedia.org
- Article: ‘Research shows eggs from pastured chickens may be more nutritious.’ July 20, 2010. news.psu.edu
- Freire, R., Eastwood, M.A. and Joyce, M., (2011). ‘Minor beak trimming in chickens leads to loss of mechanoreception and magnetoreception. Journal of Animal Science,’ 89:1201–1206
- Whoriskey, Peter. ‘People love chickens that are vegetarian fed, but chickens are not vegetarians.’ April 29th. Accessed October 30, 2015. www.washingtonpost.com
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