Do you stand in front of the egg display and wonder what are the best eggs to buy? I get it! I do it, too. As if understanding nutrition labels wasn’t confusing enough, claims on egg cartons seem to have a life of their own! The truth is, some of these claims are meant to help us make healthy, ethical, and sustainable choices at the grocery store, while others are nothing more than marketing ploys (I’m looking at you, “natural” food labels).
Hormone-Free / No Added Hormones, Natural & Farm Fresh
Any egg carton label reading hormone-free is just one example of a marketing tactic that’s commonly used, as the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) prohibits all US egg producers from injecting egg-laying hens with hormones. This makes any “hormone-free egg” claim highly misleading because egg-laying hens in the US do not receive added hormones. That said, there may be naturally occuring hormones and hormone-like substances in many of the foods we eat, including plant and animal foods like eggs, soy, peas, legumes, meat, and dairy products.
The same type of marketing is used for eggs labeled as “natural” as all eggs are technically natural. When you see the word natural on a carton of eggs, it simply means nothing has been added to them (which is the case for all eggs sold in the US).
Farm Fresh is another misleading claim that may sound appealing, but has no regulated meaning.
So if claims like hormone-free, no added hormones, natural, and farm fresh are basically bogus, which phrases on egg cartons should we actually pay attention to as conscious consumers?
Read on to find out!
Cage-Free, Free-Range, Pasture-Raised, Humane & Organic
Among some of the most confusing labels on egg cartons are claims such as organic, cage-free, free-range, humane and pasture-raised. These phrases are geared toward ethical, health-conscious consumers, but what does each claim really mean? And how can we be sure they’re truthful?
Let’s break it down:
- Cage-free eggs come from hens that are not kept in cages (on the contrary, conventionally sold eggs come from caged hens). Living conditions are often still very crowded for cage-free hens, however, and hens are typically fed diets of corn and soy. Unless cage-free hens are also free-range, they are not given access to the outdoors.
- Free-range eggs come from cage-free hens that also have some outdoor access. Living conditions are often still crowded and outdoor space (as well as time spent outdoors) may be limited, however. The diets of free-range hens typically consist of corn and soy.
- Pasture-raised eggs come from uncaged, free-range hens that have regular access to the outdoors and a nutritious, omnivorous diet. This allows hens to roam freely during the day and forage for worms, insects, grass, and bugs before heading back to the safety of their barn at night. A 2010 study conducted by PennState even found that pasture-raised eggs were more nutritious than conventional eggs; eggs from pastured hens contained more vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids, and a healthier omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
- Certified humane eggs are typically cage-free, free-range, pasture-raised, or all three. Looking for egg cartons with certifications from third-party organizations such as Certified Humane®, Certified Animal Welfare Approved, Global Animal Partnership, or American Humane Certified™ can help you to make the most ethical decisions as a consumer, as these certifications ensure that all egg-laying hens were treated humanely. Check out this chart from the ASPCA to compare the different certifications you’ll find on egg cartons.
- Organic eggs are certified organic by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). They come from free-range or cage-free hens on certified organic farms or facilities, and they’re fed organic diets without antibiotics, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), arsenic, poultry by-products, or synthetic pesticides.
A Quick Note on Organic Eggs
Hens living on organic farms may or may not be truly cage-free or free-range, as this varies widely by producer (larger producers are less likely to comply with cage-free/free-range regulations). The Organic Egg Scorecard from the Cornucopia Institute is an egg-cellent resource for buying eggs that aren’t just organic, but also cage-free, free-range, and truly humane.
To summarize, it’s often best to look for eggs with multiple claims and certifications on the carton (such as certified organic, pasture-raised, and humane-certified).
And of course, be sure to do your own research before heading to the grocery store or farmers’ market!
Other Claims on Egg Cartons
Along with the claims I’ve discussed above, some egg cartons also display phrases such as vegetarian fed, pasteurized, grade AA, A, or B, and omega-3 enriched.
Here’s what these claims mean:
- Vegetarian-fed eggs come from hens that consume herbivorous diets. This isn’t necessarily a good thing since chickens and hens are omnivorous creatures that rely on plants, insects, and bugs for nutrition.
- Pasteurized eggs are not the same as pasture-raised eggs. Pasteurized eggs have been lightly heated to kill potentially harmful bacteria that may be present in the egg (such as salmonella and other foodborne illnesses).
- Grades AA, A, and B refer to an egg’s quality, thickness, firmness, and appearance. Grade AA eggs are considered the highest quality, followed by A and B.
- Omega-3 enriched eggs come from hens given fortified feed containing flaxseed, fish oil, or algae. But you don’t necessarily need omega-3 enriched eggs to reap the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids; fatty fish, walnuts, soybeans, and chia, flax, and pumpkin seeds are all rich in omega-3 fats.
I know this is A LOT of information to keep in mind when shopping for eggs, but a little bit of conscious consumerism goes a LONG way when it comes to your health, the planet, and the welfare of animals. Knowing how to interpret those oftentimes confusing and misleading labels on egg cartons will help you to make the best possible decisions when visiting grocery stores, local farms, and farmers’ markets near you.
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