The health claims on eggs are endless and you’ve even seen “Gluten Free” plastered across the carton (yes, eggs are naturally gluten free). Your last purchase claimed to be certified by United Egg Producers, but does it mean something or is it just a marketing ruse? Keep reading to find out what lingo is profitable for your health, your conscience, and your wallet.
Interpreting the claims:
- Certified Organic – The USDA National Organic Program does require that the birds eat only organic, all-vegetarian feed, and that antibiotics and pesticides are not used. Hens are kept out of cages, but inside large warehouses or the like. Their time out of doors is not regulated (nor is the use of concrete yards restricted). They may have their beaks cut or be starved to induce molting (egg-laying).
- Vegetarian Fed – Feed may not contain animal products (which means the hens’ favorite worms and grubs are off-limits, but so is the use of feathers and chicken feces). But the label doesn’t address anything related to the living conditions (e.g. caging practices, antibiotic use, etc.) of these hens.
- No antibiotics/No hormones – This one’s a marketing hoax. But, note that no hormones for egg production are even approved by the FDA, so even eggs not labeled this way still would not contain antibiotics or hormones.
- Omega-3 – Eggs naturally contain a small amount of omega-3 fatty acids, but the hens’ diet may be supplemented with fish oil, alfalfa meal, algae, or flax seed. Most egg cartons will tell you how much omega-3s you’ll find in each egg, but there isn’t a regulatory agency involved.
- Cage Free/Free Range – The USDA doesn’t regulate the term “free range” when it comes to egg production. However, these hens have access to the outdoors and aren’t sitting in a cage all day, but there are no regulations on the length of time they see the light of day or what they eat. Critics argue, however, that when pens are so crowded, many hens can’t even find the small door that provides “access” to the outdoors. Some producers have taken to labeling their eggs as coming from “free-roaming” birds to suggest an actual outdoor lifestyle. However, this term is also not regulated. Farmers of cage-free birds can de-beak and starve their chickens for molting (egg laying) purposes.
- Pastured/Grass Fed – It sounds like it only pertains to the hens’ diet, but this label says a lot more. It suggest that the hens have “free range” of grassy areas, perform their natural behaviors, and do not live primarily on grains or live in crowded warehouses. Pastured eggs aren’t necessary organic, but if the farmers care enough to let them roam free, chances are they care about the other details, despite not having the “certified organic” label. Some research has suggested that eggs coming from pastured hens may also be more nutritious than conventionally-produced eggs.
- Certified Humane – The same as Free Range, except the birds aren’t as crowded, and they molt naturally. Also, this Humane Farm Animal Care program is third-party audited.
- American Humane Association Certified – These birds may be uncaged, but aren’t required to have access to outside by the American Humane Association, who monitors and audits through a third party organization. Hens live a roomier life and are allowed to perform their natural behaviors, like nesting, perching, dust bathing, and spreading their wings (but since foraging requires outdoor access, the birds may go without this activity).
- United Egg Producers Certified (i.e. UEP Certified)–These hens live with restrictive cages and cut beaks, yet this voluntary certification is very popular among egg producers (notice I didn’t say “farmers”). And recall the “natural behaviors” listed above: these hens don’t get these privileges. But, isn’t it admirable that this organization protects hens against forced egg laying through starvation?
- Animal Welfare Approved – This standard, established by the Animal Welfare Institute (and third-party audited), is the most honorable of welfare standards. The birds live cage free, perform their natural behaviors, have full beaks and molt naturally! The catch? None of the eggs you find in the supermarket have been approved by this program.
So what does all this mean?
Your best nutritional bet is to choose grass-fed or pastured eggs. These eggs are thought contain higher amounts of vitamins A, B12, E, folic acid, beta-carotene, and essential fatty acids. Humane treatment, sustainability, and nutrition were considered on all accounts. Some research even claims that these eggs contain 10% less fat, 34% less cholesterol, and twice the vitamin E and omega-3s than factory farm-raised eggs. If you’re worried about cost, then local, pastured eggs may not be a regular item on your plate. But, if the claims about pastured eggs are true, then perhaps you could eat them half as often and get the same nutritional value!
To find local, pastured eggs in your area, check out Local Harvest.