• Siri DeMarche

What Those Egg Carton Labels Really Mean *hint: "cage-free" isn't what you think*

Updated: Jul 25

There are so many labels on various cartons of eggs at your local grocery store, it can get overwhelming. What do they all mean? Why are the prices different and what do they reflect? Is there truly a difference between all of them? Are some better and some worse for your health? What about the health of the chicken? You'll find all your answers below.


First some important stats:

-95% of eggs in the U.S. are from chickens that are raised in battery cages

-100,000 birds can be confined to a single warehouse, with each bird having less than 67 square inches to live in (that's less than the size of a MacBook computer). They are unable to move or spread their wings.

This is the baseline in the U.S.


Brown

Unfortunately, as a society we have been conditioned to associate "brown" with "healthy"- we've got brown rice, whole grain bread...(even though these are not necessarily healthier than their white counterparts)...so we also assume that brown eggs must be healthier too. Nope. Brown eggs are no healthier than white eggs.


All-Natural/Farm Fresh/Hormone-Free

These labels are junk, they're totally meaningless. Chickens actually don't receive hormones. It's like slapping a "gluten-free" on a bag of marshmallows. Yeah, no sh*t they're gluten-free.


Vegetarian-Fed

Chickens are omnivores. "Vegetarian" birds are force-fed an unnatural diet that's bad for their health. Again, it's a ridiculous label. It's like people going to the zoo and saying they want to see a vegetarian lion.


Cage-Free

"Cage-Free" may sound like a step in the right direction, but it's not what you think. "Cage-Free" does not mean "ample space to move around in the outdoors. "Cage-free" means that instead of cages, these chickens are packed by the thousands into multi-level aviaries, still without access to the outdoors. Cage-Free operations cost 36% more to operate, and that cost is passed to the consumer. If you're buying "cage-free" because you think that you're helping to promote sustainable agriculture practices or humane animal practices...it's not really the case. Sorry.


Free-Range

In theory, "free-range" should equate to chickens wandering around open pastures. But the USDA only mandates that these chickens "have access to the outdoors." And unfortunately, "free-range" is very poorly regulated. Access to the outdoors is very different from actually going outdoors. Access to the outdoors typically consists of a couple small doors that lead to a screened-in porch with cement, dirt, and maybe a little grass. In addition, industrial fans suck the ammonia out of the building creating large winds that make it hard for the chickens to get through these small doors.


Organic

Ahhhhhh the magic dusty word. Sprinkle this on just about anything and it turns to gold, right? NO. But at least it's a small step in the right direction...ish. According to the USDA, "organic eggs must come from uncaged hens that are free to roam in their houses and have access to the outdoors." "These chickens are fed an organic diet of feed {which is still likely a "vegetarian-fed" diet} produced without conventional pesticides or fertilizers." While the diets of these chickens may be a step in the right direction, their access to the outdoors is iffy.


Pasture-Raised

These are the eggs that you want. Currently you can trust this label to actually mean what you think it does- chickens with ample time to roam and play outdoors. This term is not regulated by the FDA, so it's important to note that this term could be hijacked by conventional farmers at any time. Even pastured chickens are raised with a variety of standards. For example, many farms might still practice beak-cutting and culling of male chickens. To figure out which farms are best, you can take a look at this Organic Egg Scorecard, which took six years to produce and ranks 136 egg producers on 28 different criteria. Because pasture-raised hens are healthier and happier than their conventional counterparts, this also means that they are healthier for you too.


Compared to commercially raised eggs, pasture-raised eggs have;

  • 2/3 more vitamin A

  • 2x as many omega-3 fatty acids

  • 3x more vitamin E

  • 7x more beta carotene

Here's an easy visual:



References:

Farm Fresh? Natural? Eggs Not Always What They're Cracked Up To Be

How to Decode Egg Cartons

USPoultry FAQ

People love chickens that are "vegetarian fed." "But chickens are not vegetarian

The Cornucopia Institute

Cage-free vs battery-cage eggs

Cage-Free Hens Study Finds Little Difference in Egg Quality

How One Writer Eats Local, Organic Food for Just $300 a Month

Eggstra! Eggstra! Learn All About Them

Egg producers pledge to stop grinding newborn male chickens to death

Orangic Egg Scorecard

Meet Real Free-Range Eggs



Epic Updates, Funny Memes...The biweekly Sunday Scene delivered to you every other Sunday