When buying eggs there are a number of confusing and misleading terms used to describe the product and the conditions under which they are produced – but with a bit of research, you can cut through the marketing hype. Here are a few facts that will help you to make informed decisions when buying eggs.
~ White, green or brown?
Eggs naturally come in a variety of colors, depending on the breed of the chicken. Although it’s tempting to think a brown or green egg is a better egg, it’s important to note that shell color is not a good indicator of the quality of the egg.
~ Medium, large, extra large?
Eggs come in a variety of sizes depending on the breed, but also depending on the age of the hen. Size is important if you’re following a recipe where the ratio of moisture to dry ingredients are critical, such as cakes or soufflés. If you’re baking a cake, consider weighing the eggs rather than relying on the “large” eggs you’ve purchased being the same as the “large” eggs used when testing the recipe.
Eggs labeled “organic” or “free-range” are typically more expensive in the grocery story than conventional eggs, but unfortunately, they aren’t always as “organic” or “free-range” as one might expect. However, eggs grown locally by hobby farmers are usually cheaper than supermarket eggs labeled as organic/free-range, and may actually be closer to the “ideal” egg than those labeled
~ Commercial feed versus “free-feeding”?
When considering the quality of the eggs you buy, you first need to know what the laying hens are fed. Factory-farm hens are fed cheap commercial feed which consists of corn, soy, cottonseed and a wide variety of additives. Commercial feed may also contain animal by-products, including ground bones, feathers, other animal “parts” and manure, as well as commercially raised grains.
Commercial feed, especially in a large-scale factory farm, is laced with antibiotics, which are passed on to the eggs and to the consumer. And of course, those commercially raised grains contain pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.
The natural diet for a “free-feeding” chicken consists of insects, plant material, seeds and “left-overs” – chickens are efficient scavengers. While chickens may work over a manure pile, they’re looking for seeds, not looking to dine on manure.
~ Caged, cage-free, free-range or pastured?
After the quality of the feed, the hen’s living conditions are the next thing to consider when buying eggs. Caged hens live their lives in cramped dirty cages, often pecked by their roommates or injured by the cages themselves. They may also be force-molted (starved for five to 14 days) to increase production – hens don’t produce eggs during their natural molts which can last weeks or even months.
Cage-free may sound better, but in truth, the hens are keep en masse on concrete floors with no access to daylight or natural feed or feeding. Cage-free hens are also fed commercial feed rather than getting a more natural healthy diet.
Free-range may sound like the best choice, but this can also mean the hens are confined to a pen and they may still be fed cheap commercial feed. The USDA definition of free-range is that the chickens “have access to the outside” – but doesn’t specify that “outside” is an area for natural foraging.
The designation “pastured” is ideal. Pastured means the hens have access to a more natural feed – grasses, bugs, seeds – in a more natural feeding environment – spending most of their day scratching and foraging for food.
While it’s tempting to believe that eggs labeled organic are healthier and the hens are producing eggs in a more natural environment, this may not be the case. “Organic” only means the hens are fed organic commercial feed – they don’t necessarily have access to a more natural diet of insects and plants, nor can they feed naturally by foraging.
~ Good for you?
Eggs – the right eggs – are not only a great source of protein, but of Omega-3 fatty acids, various B vitamins, vitamins A, D and E, antioxidants, and traces of iron, phosphorus and magnesium. Truly free-range eggs may also be lower in cholesterol by 33%, lower in saturated fat by 25%, and have more vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and carotene than factory eggs. There is also evidence that free-range eggs from free-feeding hens are less likely to harbor salmonella.
How many eggs you should eat depends on a variety of factors, including who you ask. Exercise habits, age, cholesterol levels, general health need to be considered as well. Talk to your health care provider to determine how many eggs you should eat per day.
~ Good for the environment?
When deciding between cheap factory eggs and more expensive humanely raised free-range eggs you might want to consider the environmental impact of factory farming in general. Also, consider that locally purchased eggs have less of a processing trail, and are transported shorter distances – lower fuel consumption.
~ Good for the chicken?
Finally, when buying eggs you may want to consider the hens. Animals aren’t meant to live their lives in cages, and while there is no scientific evidence that a content animal produces better quality food, might it be good for one’s karma to eat humanely produced food?
~ How do you know?
Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to know if an egg is “good” until you crack the shell. The first indication is the yolk. A bright yellow or orange yolk is an indication the hen had access to live plants. If an unbroken yolk doesn’t spread across the pan, if it holds a ball shape within the white, it’s probably a fresh egg. If you’re making hard-boiled eggs, fresh eggs are difficult to peel – older eggs, while still good, will peel easily with a minimum of effort.
So how do you find a good egg? Find a reliable supplier and ask about their chicken’s diet, living conditions, whether the hens are fed commercial feed and if so, how much and whether the hens are ever force-molted. If possible check out the hens yourself. Ask if you can bring them a few treats like melon rinds, vegetables, left-over fruit or even egg shells. Watching a flock of hens enjoying a natural diet may change your mind forever on where you buy your eggs.