Buy Local and Ask Questions
Cage Free, Organic, Vegetarian-Fed, Omega-3 Enriched. What does it all mean
and what should you be choosing at the store? Unfortunately, the regulation of
egg-laying hens is not as strict as that of chickens raised for meat. Each label
on a carton has a potential positive, but each also has a potential pitfall. There is no surefire label to trust unless you talk to your local egg vendor at the farmers’ market. Nonetheless, some guidelines are listed below.
- The best way of knowing how the hens were raised (and thus how good the eggs are) is to buy from local farmers, if possible. Ask if their hens are given access to the outdoors and what their quality of life is; if their feed is organic, vegetarian, omega-3 enriched, or free of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics. Plus, if you’ve ever bought eggs at the farmers’ market, you know how much richer and fluffier that omelette will be.
- Many natural food stores will post a “local farm” option. Do some research on the farm if you can’t talk to them in person.
- Look for a “sell-by” date on cartons.
- Grade AA is the highest quality for an egg (compared to Grade A and
Grade B). Grade AA has a firm consistency of both white and yolk; it is “normally shaped” and has a consistent shell strength.
“Certified organic”: The birds are uncaged and given an organic, vegetarian feed free of pesticides and antibiotics. However, debeaking (removing the tips of beaks to prevent pecking and cannibalism) and forced molting (withholding food in order to cause feather loss, which reboots the egg-laying process) is still allowed, and regulation seems inconsistent on whether they have access to open pasture.
“Free Range”: As discussed with Chicken, “Free Range” chickens may be given access to the outdoors, but they tend to stay indoors near their food and water. Additionally, unlike the requirement for chickens raised for their meat, a producer does not need to prove to the USDA that access to the outdoors was provided for the egg-laying hen. It also does not require certification by a third party.
“Cage Free”: This label–unregulated by the USDA and with no third-party certification–is nonetheless more important for eggs than it is for chicken meat. Chickens raised for meat are most often cage-free, while egg-laying hens are primarily caged. However, “Cage Free” does not guarantee that a hen has access to the outdoors.
“Natural”: Once again, this sounds better than it is. Yes, it indicates that the chicken is free of any additives or artificial ingredients, but the term indicates nothing about quality of life, the use of antibiotics, or organic feed.
“Omega-3”: Hens were fed a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids (greens, insects, flax and canola seeds, fish oils), and their eggs have three to six times more omega-3 than regular eggs. Our bodies do not naturally produce omega-3, which is believed to provide a series of health benefits, such as lowering the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and blood clots. Omega-3 is only present in the egg yolk so eating an egg-white omelet will provide no benefit. However, this term denotes nothing about how the hen was raised.
“Pastured Poultry”: An unregulated term that refers to a modified free-range system in which several birds are enclosed in a large open-air cage that is periodically moved onto fresh pasture, providing up to 20 percent of their diet.
“Vegetarian-fed”: This label only indicates information about the hens’ food, and not their quality of life.
“Certified Humane”: This label is gaining traction on a variety of products like beef, pork, chicken, eggs, and cheese. Chickens do not live in cages and have
the ability to roam, but they may be kept indoors at all times. However, natural behaviors like perching and nesting must be allowed for. Debeaking can occur,
but forced molting is not allowed.
What’s the difference between white eggs and brown eggs?
Nothing. Some hens produce white eggs, and some produce brown ones, and the eggs are nutritionally the same. The higher cost of brown eggs is attributed to the fact that brown-egg layers are larger chickens that need to eat more, but some skeptics say the egg producers are simply capitalizing on the misperception that brown eggs are healthier.
Why are some eggs larger than others?
The main reason has to do with the age of the hen–the older she is, the bigger her eggs. The breed of the hen, her weight, and environemental stress (leading to smaller eggs) can also be factors.
Whip egg whites at room temperature and whip cream at a chilled temperature.