One of the questions that I get asked the most often is: “What kind of eggs should I buy?” And I understand why it can be incredibly frustrating – I’ve been there. You go to the grocery store, you get to the egg aisle, and there’s literally two dozen egg labels, all of which sound similar. Some eggs are cage free, some are AAA, some are brown. The cheapest are $2.00 and the most expensive ones are $9.99? So, what egg label should you choose?! It’s incredibly frustrating — I’ve been there. So, I figured I’d start with this question for my blog.
The eggs you choose depends a bit on what I like to call your own food value hierarchy, i.e. what values you prioritize when you make any food choice. For most of us, price is on this list, but I hope that this post convinces you why price shouldn’t be the sole factor and gives you a cheat sheet to what those pesky egg labels mean. A companion post will get more into all the basic (and some not-so-basic) ways you can cook eggs, including but not limited to breakfast frittatas, shakshuka (my favorite!) and French toast.
We’re all impatient, so if you want to just cut to the chase: whenever possible, try to buy local, organic, pasture-raised eggs. If they’re “Certified Humane” or “Animal Welfare Approved” — jackpot.
I typically tend to either buy eggs from the local farmers’ markets, or the Whole Foods Pasture Raised Large Brown Eggs or the Trader Joe’s Free Range Organic Large Brown Eggs. But if you can’t afford or find them locally, or if you want to find out why these are the eggs I recommend, read on to understand what the labels mean.
Common Egg Labels
A quick Google Search will give you thousands of results on what different egg labels mean. But at the heart of it, each label tells you about one of four characteristics – the standard or color (e.g. AA or brown), feed (e.g. vegetarian), outdoor access & confinement (e.g. free range or cage free) and humane practices used to raise the chicken (e.g. certified humane). More on each below.
Standard / Color
This one’s easy so let’s get it out of the way. When a carton says A or AA, it means that your eggs aren’t cracked or misshapen. It’s NOT a safety standard. An AA egg simply has no visible defects (think: blood spots, meat spots, embryo chicks or whatever else). So, any egg you pick up from a supermarket? It’s probably safe to eat. And the egg color? That’s determined by the breed of hen: zero inherent nutritional or taste difference.
So, if you want to make your egg plate Instagram worthy, it’s worth going for the pretty brown AA — otherwise, the white A will do just fine.
Antibiotics are common in chicken feed but seldom used for egg-laying hens. And federal regulations don’t allow the use of hormones or steroids in poultry. So ignore any label that says “Antibiotic Free” or “Hormone Free” — they’re supposed to be!
But “vegetarian-fed hens” — that’s interesting. See, hens aren’t natural vegetarians, so why is this important? Because … this label means that your hen’s diet didn’t contain animal byproducts, like ground up chicken, or whatever else. If you’re thinking that that shouldn’t be in your hen’s diet to begin with, you’re right. But that’s not what the industry standards are, these days.
If your carton doesn’t say “vegetarian-fed” your chicken might have been eating ground up chicken. Gross. But then again, this doesn’t mean that vegetarian-fed is better for you. So, park this one, we’ll get to it in just a bit.
Outdoor Access / Confinement
Before I get into “cage free” “free range” and “pasture raised” (cue pictures of happy hens roaming across green pastures) it’s important to understand what the status quo, an “industrially raised” hen, gets access to.
I guarantee it’s a lot worse than you think.
For traditional egg-laying hen CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation), the USDA requires 70 square inches of space: that’s slightly less than a regular sheet of paper. Your industrial hens don’t even have the space to turn their head, let alone lay eggs in peace, which means there’s a likelihood of higher cortisol (the stress-causing hormone) in their systems. But that’s just the cheapest carton of eggs … what do the other labels mean?
Cage-free, free-range and pasture-raised, the three most commonly used labels, are all voluntary labels accepted by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)— the board that certifies your food products. AMS personnel visit each egg production site twice per year to verify these practices.
Cage-free means hens can roam, instead of being held in battery cages. This doesn’t mean guarantee outdoor access, nor does it specify the actual quantity of space. Free-range is a bit better — based on USDA recommendations, they’re cage-free hens with access to an outdoor area. There are no “diet” implications for either label.
Pasture-raised hens, on the other hand, usually come from smaller farms or companies. And while there are no set standards, these hens usually live outdoors and eat a more “natural” diet (think seeds and bugs).
And then there’s organic. Any carton carrying the USDA Organic seal should come from free-range hens with access to the outdoors and sunlight. So, while cage-free and free-range (or organic) eggs are still better than factory-farmed, pasture-raised eggs are better than both.
The other dark side of industrial production: the lack of humane practices. There are three practices that many industrial egg producers still use which you should be aware of:
- Beak cutting: to ensure birds don’t peck at each other in confined spaces
- Forced molting: where older hens are starved to get one last round of eggs
- Male culling: male chicks are literally thrown into meat grinders alive.
Yep, that sounds like a horror movie. So, wherever possible, look for humane certifications. This can come from several third-party organizations, but watch out for “Certified Humane” or “Animal Welfare Approved” in particular.
Other labels like “All Natural” “Farm Fresh” “No Hormones” and “No Antibiotics”? They literally mean nothing. Don’t pay a dime more for them