Eggs are a nutrition powerhouse. They are a very affordable source of protein and nutrients. So eat eggs!
Once upon a time, you would go to the grocery store and purchase a dozen eggs. Today, things are more complicated, as there are many different labels on the carton. The labels refer to the living conditions of the hens and how they are fed. But they are very confusing. Some are outright marketing gimmicks. Here’s what you need to know.
- Antibiotic-free, Medication-free – Unregulated term, can mean anything.
- Cage-free – The hens “reside” inside large barns or warehouses. They are required to have outdoor access, but the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is undefined.
- Certified Organic – “USDA certified organic” is a certain improvement over standard living conditions for hens. They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides. The hens are housed cage-free in large barns, and may or may not see the outdoors. They may be de-beaked (to prevent pecking their peers), and starved (to induce molting, which leads to more egg production).
- Farm Fresh – meaningless.
- Fertile – The hens were living with roosters, which means they were likely cage-free.
- Free-range or Free-roaming – This is an unregulated term, but generally implies that the hens are not in cages, reside in a barn and have access to the outdoors. The extent of outdoor access is not defined.
- Hormone-free – Marketing gimmick. Hens never get treated with hormones.
- Natural, All Natural – this is a meaningless marketing term.
- Omega-3 enriched – the hens were fed either fish oil or flaxseed. You get the omega-3 second hand. Omega-3 eggs are unregulated, so you won’t necessarily know how much and what type of omega-3 you’re actually getting.
- Pasture-raised – Unregulated term, but usually means that the hen spends the majority of the year outdoors engaging in natural activities such as foraging. Debeaking and starvation are still allowed.
- Pasteurized – the eggs were heated to about 110 degrees Fahrenheit for half an hour or longer in order to pasteurize them. There is no regulation of this term.
- United Egg Producers Certified – meaningless.
- Vegetarian-fed – no animal byproducts in feed. Keep in mind that chickens are omnivores, and will eat bugs, mice, and any other animal small enough for them to peck and swallow.
Beyond organic, there are several third party certification systems that you may encounter in specialty shops or farmer markets:
- Animal Welfare Approved – flocks can be no greater than 500 hens. The hens are housed cage-free and must have continuous access to outdoor vegetation. Debeaking and starvation are prohibited, and the feed provided is vegetarian.
- American Humane Certified – there are 4 levels of certification. Colony cages – larger cages than standard, but still tiny. Cage-free – hens are housed in large barns and no outdoor access is required. Free range – outdoor access is required, but no duration is specified. Pastured – Outdoor access with substantial vegetation for each hen.
- Certified Humane – Divided to three levels. Regular: hens are cage-free, starvation is prohibited, but debeaking is allowed. Free Range: at least 6 hours of sunlight required daily, but it can be without any vegetation. The highest level is Pasture-raised and requires at least 6 hours a day of pasture access – the hens eat off the land, not just feed.
- Food Alliance Certified – cage-free hens and access to outdoors for at least 8 hours a day. Debeaking is allowed but starvation is not.