Eggheads: which egg labels to trust

Aerial view of a half dozen brown eggs in a cardboard carton with one egg cracked open and empty.

Not all eggs are made equally. 

This isn’t exactly new news. Whether from friends, a PETA protest, anti-McDonald’s campaigns, or just from your own research, you’ve probably heard something like it before. As is with any food item out there, some eggs are grown, produced, and sold with integrity. And then there are others that are absolutely not. 

Here’s the crazy truth. Approximately 95% of all eggs in America come from battery cage chickens — ie, chickens crammed into cages with almost no space to move. 

Read that one more time: 95%! That seems like a considerable amount of unsavory eggs when you think about all the nice labels that are stamped on egg cartons. Cage-Free, Organic, All Natural. What’s a conscious consumer to do? 

It’s time to clear things up and demystify the terminology. I’m talking egg labels here, and identifying the friends and fraudsters amongst the group. 

Egg Labels - The Fit Foodie - The Joya Life
(Photo from The Fit Foodie)

Cage-Free

True to its name, cage-free chickens are free of their cages. The birds live in massive industrial barns that can house thousands of chickens at a time. 

This might not be the quintessential red barn you pictured, but it allows the chickens to roam the barn freely, stretch their wings, and lay their eggs in a nest. These are natural chicken behaviours that are important to their wellbeing. 

 

Free-Range

You would be forgiven for assuming that free-range means chickens are out running in a field. However, free-range is actually the same as cage-free but with additional access to the outdoors. The aviary has a few doors that lead out to screened-in porches, varying in size and flooring (cement, dirt, maybe grass). 

As the term free-range isn’t overseen by any governing bodies, producers are free to interpret the definition of “outdoor space.” In other words the space can be as large or small as the producer sees fit. 

 

Pasture-Raised

This term may be the closest to achieving the idyllic farm image. Pasture-raised chickens spend the majority of their time in the outdoors with access to a barn. Again, there is no governance over this term and therefore no rules stating the size of pasture per number of birds. 

However, pasture-raised chickens have access to a diverse diet of grass and bugs in addition to their farm feed. Some farmers even rotate their chickens from pasture to pasture to ensure the birds’ diet remains varied. Egg Labels - The Joya Life

Omega-3

Eggs labelled with Omega-3 indicates that their nutrient profile is higher in these healthy fatty acids. This occurs when the chickens themselves are fed a diet high in Omega-3s, such as by adding flaxseed to their corn feed. 

 

Organic

When calling something organic, we’re referring to the whole shebang. To be certified, organic eggs must come from organic hens. This means an organic diet, organic habitat, and no antibiotics or hormones. 

It’s also required that organic eggs come from free-range chickens, so their outdoor space has to be free of pesticides too. 

 

No Hormones

This is an interesting label because it’s not incorrect, but it’s definitely a marketing ploy. 

Growth hormones are illegal in the poultry industry in America, so the term is superfluous. Yet some poultry producers will package their eggs with this undeserved designation to try to convince consumers to buy their product. 

 

Farm Fresh

This term is also unwarranted and is only intended to entice customers. In the words of Paul Shapiro, the vice president of the Humane Society of the U.S., “It literally means nothing.”

 

All Natural 

Another redundant term! There is no weight or meaning behind these words, and again it was probably just conjured up as a marketing ploy. 

Egg Labels - Food52 - The Joya Life
(Photo from Food52)

Boxed Egg Whites

Okay, so this one isn’t exactly a label, but boxed egg whites are out there and are pretty interesting. Allow me to explain. 

Eggs come in three grades: AA, A, and B. Grade AA and A eggs are sold as whole eggs, while Grade B eggs are too low in quality to sell in store — except when they’re sold in a liquid format such as egg whites. 

These grades are based mostly on appearance. Grade AA eggs have thick shells, firm whites, and high rounded yolks. Grade B, on the other hand, has flatter yolks and thin watery whites, with stained shells. Because the appearance and functionality are less than desirable (Grade AA is supposedly the best for poaching) Grade B eggs are cracked open and sold in something that resembles a mini milk carton.

 

Food for Thought — A Thought for Food

When it comes to interpreting egg labels, you have to be smart. Remember that labels like No Hormones, Farm Fresh, and All Natural don’t mean or guarantee anything. And although Cage-Freeand Free-Range might not fulfill your ideal image of a farm, they are better then battery cage birds. Pasture-Raised eggs are probably the best eggs to purchase in terms of highest quality of life for the chickens. 

But if you want to be certain about where your eggs are coming from, you could always consider backyard chickens! The city of Toronto recently launched a 3 year pilot program for backyard chickens in four neighbourhoods. See if yours is one of them, and learn more about Urban Hens TO.

 

(Header image by Caroline Attwood)