We go through a lot of eggs in our family. From breakfast to baking they’re in our diet every day, so when I started paying attention to what was in our food it was really important to me to choose the right ones. The problem was when I stopped blindly reaching for the cheapest egg carton and opened my eyes to all the different ones available I became kind of paralyzed by all the choices. Natural, Organic, Free Range, Cage Free,Vegetarian Fed, No Hormones, No Antibiotics, Pastured, Certified Humane, etc. the choices can be overwhelming! To help unscramble the options (:-)) I’ve done some research to figure out what exactly these terms mean and what’s important when buying eggs. It comes down to 3 things:
1. The diet the chickens were fed.
2. How the chickens were raised.
3. How fresh the eggs are.
How do these translate to the terms on packages? For an easy cheat sheet here’s what you should look for in order of importance.
Feed and Handling
What the chickens eat -and how they’re raised, which often go hand in hand -affect how the eggs taste. I bought some eggs from our farmer’s market last weekend and cracked one into a pan alongside an egg from the grocery store. As you can see, there’s a big difference! (Also, I think it’s worth noting that although farm fresh eggs are usually expensive these were only $4/dozen and they were taken from the hen that day!)
1.) Pastured, Pasture-Raised and Organic (says both)
These are the best eggs to buy. The hens live outside and happily peck around in the grass eating greens, worms, and bugs. Yep,worms and bugs. They’re not exactly vegetarians by nature! You can find these eggs at your local farmer’s market, some independently owned grocery stores and nationwide at Whole Foods (look for the Vital Farms brand).
If you can’t get Pastured eggs, at least get Organic eggs. These chickens are fed a diet that is free of pesticides, GMOs, and antibiotics and are required to be given access to the outdoors. However, it’s important to note that just because the birds “have access” to the outdoors, it doesn’t mean that they actually go outside. Some organic factory farms satisfy this requirement by providing a tiny screened “porch” (some are only a small patch of mud, gravel or slab of cement) with egress only enough to provide 1 to 3% of the birds access to the area. Many of these organic factories house up to 100,000 hens in one building. But, a lot of small to medium organic farms do provide a lot of outdoor space, and more importantly, encourage their birds to use it.
Some of the best organic brands are Born Free in New England, Pete and Gerry’s on the East Coast and Organic Valley nationwide.
Some of the worst are Land O-Lakes, Horizon Organic, and most private-label (store) brands (sorry, Trader Joe’s).
I think people are starting to realize that organic eggs are preferable. I saw this sign at the supermarket today.
3. ) Free-Range
The term “Free-Range” means the chickens are not caged and have access to the outdoors. However, “access” does not mean they actually go outside, and “outside” may just be a small covered cement porch area. They’re often packed together in warehouses which breeds bacteria, which leads to antibiotics (which end up in your eggs). They’re also often given hormones to promote egg production (which also end up in your eggs). And their feed may contain at best, pesticides and genetically modified ingredients and at worst, feather meal, blood meal, bones, and other waste.
Similar to Free-Range, but they do not have any access to the outdoors. So, in addition to their unsavory diet they’re also breathing in plenty of fecal dust.
These are the poor chickens that started the movement toward all of the above labels. They are sometimes kept 8 to a cage with no room to even stand up or turn around. The treatment of these chickens can be so inhumane that EU and California have outlawed this practice all together.
And what about the other marketing terms, like “Natural”, “Omega 3s” and “Vegetarian Fed”? It’s best to not even pay attention to these. There is no regulation on the term “natural” and Omega 3s are highest in pastured chickens eating a natural diet– BUT can also be increased in every other type of egg by adding flax seed to the chicken’s diet. As for “Vegetarian Fed”, why is this a good thing when chickens, when in their natural environment, do not eat a vegetarian diet?
Cracking the Code on Freshness
The last criteria for a good egg is the freshness. We all know to look at the sell-by date, but did you know that eggs that come from a USDA inspected plant are also required to have a “Pack Date”? Eggs are required to be packed within 30 days of laying (although they’re usually packed within a week) and the pack date must be within 30 days of the sell-by date. This means that if you buy your eggs close to their sell-by date they can already be almost 60 days old!
When looking at an egg carton, the “Pack Date” is the 3 digit number usually right above the expiration date. The digits stand for the day of the year the eggs were packed. For example, January 1 would be 001 and so on to 365 for December 31.
Keep in mind that refrigerated eggs can stay “fresh” for at least another 2-3 weeks beyond the sell-by date. If you’re in doubt about whether an egg is still OK to eat just drop it in a bowl full of water. If it sinks to the bottom it’s good, if it floats throw it out!
For more information on the best (and worst) egg brands to buy visit http://www.cornucopia.org.