Remember when the only decision you made when buying eggs was small, large or jumbo? Even then, it wasn’t really a choice, because who buys anything other than large? Now you’re presented with such choices as natural, organic, vegetarian fed, free range and what seems like a dozen different stamps (supposedly) guaranteeing humane treatment. When the price ranges from $2-7, it’s important to know what’s worth the extra dollars.
Local, organic eggs are your best choice. I usually get mine from Wil-Moore farms at our local farmers market. Eggs purchased locally are the most sustainable option – if pastured and organic, they are your most nutritious option too. Not only is there a difference in nutrition, but there is a huge difference in taste. The yolk is deep orange has an incredibly rich flavor. The white, or albumin is thicker and won’t spread as much. Aesthetically, this makes a more appealing poached egg…and it keeps me from cursing like a pirate when peeling boiled eggs.
Farm fresh eggs are definitely worth the price tag, but sometimes it’s not convenient to get a hold of them. We’re often out of town for the weekend farmers market, so until a market selling local produce opened near our house, I was frequently left in the grocery store, pondering my 3,478 choices.
To save you the hassle and confusion, I’ve created a simplified guide to most of the egg labels you’ll see. Save this reference guide for your next grocery trip.
Organic: Organic not only refers to the feed, which is organic, free of animal by prodcuts and GMOs, but also ensures some degree of humane treatment. In industrial egg production, hens are commonly kept in tiny cages, smaller than the size of a piece of paper. Cages are not allowed in organic egg production and hens must have access to the outdoors, although it may be limited. Usually, large scale organic egg producers build a porch attached to the henhouse, which counts as outdoor access. Use of antibiotics is limited. They are not allowed to be used as a preventative measure, a practice linked to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, antibiotics are only used during an outbreak of infection or disease.
Free Range: Free range is a difficult term to interpret, mostly because it’s not regulated. The FDA has provided the loose definition as “hens are allowed access to the outside.” So while this term might bring to mind visions of hens roaming through open fields, pecking at bugs and generally living a pleasant little life on the farm, it might not be the case. Some farmers may allow their hens to live free in large fields, while others, generally larger producers, may only provide a concrete porch attached to a crowded hen house. Also, free range eggs may not necessarily be organic or antibiotic free. If humane treatment of animals is important to you (and it should be!), do your research!
Cage Free: This means hens were not raised in tiny cages, but it does not mean the bird has outdoor access. Generally, hens are kept in a henhouse, but they might not have much more room than if they were kept in a cage. Cage free does not mean organic. Hens may be given antibiotics, as the crowded environment increases the risk of disease. This term is not regulated.
Vegetarian Fed: This means hens are fed a diet free of any animal by products. Since the discovery of “mad cow” disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, there has been concern about the presence of animal by products in animal feed. The disease developed because cows are legally allowed to be fed rendered cow carcass, which besides basically being cannibalism, is incredibly unsafe. Eggs labeled vegetarian fed ensures the hens were not fed animal by products. If purchasing organic eggs, this is also ensured.
Omega 3 Enriched: Nutritionally, this is a good thing. Hens are fed flaxseed or fish oil to increase the omega 3 content of their eggs. This label does not ensure the hens are treated humanely, antibiotic free or fed organic, animal by product free food. Eggs from pastured eggs naturally contain higher amounts of omega 3 fats.
Animal Welfare Approved: This is the most highly regulated of animal welfare labels for eggs. It is reserved for family farms. Hens are allowed constant access to outdoors and shelter. Beak cutting is not allowed. Hens are fed a vegetarian diet and no antibiotics are administered.
Certified Humane: Certified human is a regulated term which basically means hens have enough room to engage in natural activities, like perching and nesting. Cages are not allowed, but hens may be kept indoors or outdoors. No antibiotics are administered.
American Humane Certified: Hens are allowed access to adequate food and water and room to perform natural activities. Cages, hormones, and non-therapeutic antibiotics are not allowed, but beak cutting is. Hens may or may not have access to the outdoors. This certification is very similar to certified humane, but is considered slightly less stringent.
Antibiotic Free/Hormone Free: Since the use of hormones is banned in poultry production, hormone free is somewhat misleading. The prevalence of antibiotics in the egg industry is a bit of an unknown with the egg industry claiming minimal use. Either way, the label antibiotic free isn’t regulated, so it’s impossible to vouch for accuracy. If you purchase organic eggs, that will ensure it is antibiotic free.
Natural: This means nothing. Zilch. And not just for eggs.
- 2 large sweet potatoes, diced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 4 cups Brussels, halved
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 6 eggs
- 3 ounces roquefort cheese, crumbled
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Place the sweet potato, onion, and Brussels sprouts in a large baking dish. Toss with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 15 minute until tender.
- Remove the baking dish from the oven. Carefully crack 6 eggs over the top so you don't crack the yolk like I did. Sprinkle the cheese over the top. Return to the oven and bake for another 15 minutes until the whites are set and the yolk is still runny. Let sit for a few minutes then serve, being careful not to break the yolks.