Jun. 23. 2016
Articles
McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Dietitian, Founder and CEO

No matter how you define a plant-based lifestyle and if you enjoy eggs or not, it’s helpful to know how to buy eggs and read the labels.

Eggs are an excellent source of protein, fat, minerals, and taste delicious when they’re from happy well-loved chickens!

Yet, there are several things you should know about purchasing or finding eggs to consume following the Nutrition Stripped food philosophy  I want to break down the details as much as possible, so you as the consumer know exactly what you’re getting. There is a lot of lingo tied to eggs and how they are produced, so I’m breaking down what the most common labels actually mean. I always, above all, recommend getting eggs and all animal proteins (if you consume) from a local farmer or someone you know. Happy chickens = happy eggs.

How To Read The Labels For Eggs

Organic

If eggs are labeled as organic, the birds are not living in cages, but still, live inside barns and are required to have outdoor access, though the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is undefined. The chickens are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, but we don’t know how the chickens were treated, how much sunshine received, or what they might be exposed to.

Non-GMO

This doesn’t refer to how a chicken is treated — instead, it means that the hens are fed a diet only containing non-GMO ingredients such as soy, corn, and wheat. That does not mean that the food is organic.

Vegetarian Fed

What the chickens are fed doesn’t contain any animal byproducts, but it doesn’t specify what the hens are fed. In nature, when chickens are free roaming and feeding themselves they actually eat worms, grubs, etc. It can be implied that this label often signifies that the chickens spend no time outside foraging naturally.

Cage-free

A label regulated by the USDA that means the chickens can move freely within the building/hen house and have unlimited access to food and fresh water. Yet there are still no space requirements or time defined for outdoor access. If these are also labeled humane, the chickens must have a specific square footage per chicken, enough room to dust bath (natural behavior), perches for birds to rest, and very low ammonia levels (which are measured).

Free-range

Technically, there are no government-regulated standards when labeling eggs “free-range”. Typically, free-range hens are not caged yet living inside barns and have some degree of outdoor access, but since it’s not defined we don’t know how much exposure to the sun or outdoors they get or the duration. The chickens do get to engage in natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging since they do not live in cages, but other behaviors and treatment of them are not defined. No third party auditing is required for this label. Free-range is also known as Free Roaming.

Pasture-raised

This may be the label most associated with “country” living, but it is not regulated by the USDA and treatment and behaviors are not defined. Pasture-raised can also be labeled Certified Humane (a standard also adopted by Animal Welfare), where the chickens must have 108-square-feet provided per bird. Essentially the chickens are given enough space to roam, and this not only increases their wellbeing but the grounds/environment is kept in better shape because of the rotation of the flock. Not many eggs are labeled both Pasture-Raised and Certified Humane.

Humane

This is also not regulated by the USDA. Besides Humane Farm Animal Care, which operates under the Certified Humane seal and looks after farm animals and food production (you can see their full list of recipients here that must be reassessed annually), there’s also Animal Welfare Approved, which focuses on smaller purveyors (farmers can’t have a flock of more than 500 birds). Smaller flocks tend to be viewed as a more positive living condition.

Natural

Everything these days seems to be labeled “natural” to the point where a natural label kind of means nothing. The USDA defines “natural” as anything minimally processed containing no artificial ingredients. Concerning eggs, the natural label doesn’t have anything to do with space and living requirements, behaviors, and treatment of the chicken (or animal).

Omega-3 Enriched

Eggs already contain healthy fats in the yolk, yet are not particularly high in omega-3’s. This is enriched by adding omega-3 rich foods to the chicken’s diet (most likely in the form of flax, algae, or fish oil).

No Hormones Added

This is a given. Federal regulations have actually never allowed the use of hormones in poultry (or goats and pigs) so this label basically is a marketing ploy. Look for eggs with a label that says no antibiotics used instead.

Brown vs. White Shells

Just like you and I have different skin tones and colors, the same goes for chickens. The labeling or marketing of white eggs vs. brown eggs makes no difference in nutritional value. The color difference is simply based on the momma chicken.

Third-party organizations and certifications to look for when shopping for eggs:

Again, if you don’t include eggs in your diet, then this post probably isn’t for you. However, if you look to eggs for baked dishes or to add protein and volume to your food, then my recommendation is to buy eggs that are humanely produced and are organic, non-GMO, and free of antibiotics. Ideally, your eggs will have one of the certifications above or best case scenario you’ll know the actual farm and farmer that produced the eggs.