What Kind of Eggs Should I Buy?

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.

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  • You can also find many sources of Animal Welfare Approved eggs on its website at http://www.AnimalWelfareApproved.org. I have found this search engine to be helpful in finding pasture raised eggs from farms, farmers markets, coops, CSAs, retailers, etc. I hear they are also launching a new database with comprehensive listings!

  • This is probably the best article I’ve read on the subject so far, except it fails to mention a few facts which I think consumers have a right to know.

    Virtually all egg laying hens are killed when their egg production declines (at about 1 1/2 years of age). Some are gassed and discarded like trash, others are sent to slaughterhouses where they are painfully shocked in an electrified water bath to paralyze them and loosen their feather before having their throats slit open and being dunked in a scalding hot feather removal tank (often while still fully conscious). The lucky ones simply have their throats cut and are then allowed to choke to death in their own blood.

    The article also doesn’t mention that virtually all of the male chicks of egg laying breeds (250 million a year) are killed as soon as they hatch. Common killing methods include grinding them up alive in giant blender-like machine, suffocating them to death in trash bags or simply allowing them to die from suffocation or dehydration inside trash bins.

    I know, it’s not pretty, which is why I think all of these so called “humane” marketing schemes are misleading. There is nothing humane about needless killing. Considering eggs are not necessary for human health, the best thing each of us can do to ensure that we are not paying people to abuse animals for a product we don’t even need is to adopt a healthy, plant-based diet.

    Here are some helpful suggestions:

    Cooking without eggs: http://www.mfablog.org/2009/05/vegan-baking-cooking-without-eggs.html

    Vegan scramble: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRfPkJC2fJ4

    Vegan fried “eggs”: http://www.meettheshannons.net/2010/08/vegan-fried-egg.html

  • Ya that’s true…..It should be organic, cage free, veggie diet, & certified egg producers as well as Omega 3 egg too. I prefer eating brown eggs because they taste more better & the egg yolk are not that bad………..The yolks taste fresh when I fry it semi-cooked & the whites are clear than white shelled eggs……..That’s my comment ok.

  • Except when it comes with organic eggs they’re more pricey than regular white eggs……..Because the brwon eggs are more free than the white eggs + the white leg horn are caged chickens as well than the free brown chickens,….right? Remember what Gov. Arnold S. said we should be buying caged free hens than caged hens chickens because they are not confined in cages…………They’re free.

  • The United Egg Producers is a discredited trade organization with a sordid history of consumer fraud and animal cruelty. The “UEP Certified” program allows hens to be confined in cages that provide each animal less space than a sheet of paper to spend her life. More at http://www.humanesociety.org/uep

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