Decode the carton labels and learn more about what matters most when buying this protein-packed staple
What constitutes a good egg? Aside from opening the carton to make sure none are cracked or look suspicious, you can only tell by its carton. And that carton can be mystifying. For only one ingredient, eggs are defined in a myriad of ways: organic, vegetarian-fed, free-range, cage-free. Where do you start? Well, where the egg came from: a chicken. And since they don't talk, the next best thing is a farmer who raises them. Tyler Jones, owner of Afton Field Farms sheds some light on those confusing labels, as well as his tips on how to make shopping for eggs a little easier. (Be sure to check out these 7 things you didn't know about eggs.)
What to look for
Local farms: "Chances are the farm is smaller and chickens are looked after more responsibly," says Jones. It's also worth asking your grocery store about its generic label because some stores supply their eggs from local farms.
Pasture-raised: "Pasture raised is your best bet as the chicken gets to forage and move around," says Jones. The label means chickens have access to a pasture environment and a barn, with room to forage. However, how a farm defines "access" can vary. "If a farm is producing eggs on an extremely large scale, it's rare that it is running hundreds of thousands of chickens out on pasture." Some farms are spacious, some are cramped, some feed off varied plots of land, and some feed from just one.
Cage-free: At the minimum, you want to make sure the carton has this label. "Chickens raised in battery cages aren't allowed to express any physiological movements they were intended to express and they're stuck in a box they can't be turned around in." Basically, this means the chicken isn't confined to a cage and can walk around, although it doesn't guarantee outdoor access.
Free-range: This means the chickens are cage-free, but also have outdoor access. Similar to pasture-raised, "access" can mean a few different things. A free-range label can indicate that chickens are out on pasture the majority of their lives, or it can mean there's a door to a pad of grass, says Jones.
What to question
Organic: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) mandates that organic eggs must come from chickens that are free-range and fed organic feed (meaning no synthetic pesticides), but there's reason to be skeptical because most farms that have the seal are large farms that don't have great conditions. "Organic isn't necessarily the end all, be all," Jones says. "A company could have an organic line of eggs, but they may not be checked closely."
What to ignore
Vegetarian-fed: "Chickens are omnivores, so vegetarian feed means they're not being fed a natural diet," says Jones. So instead of natural proteins from worms and insects, vegetarian fed chickens are most likely getting protein from soy or fortified corn.
No hormones or antibiotics: It's illegal to inject hormones into poultry, and antibiotics are rarely used in the egg industry. So advertising as such isn't really saying much.
The color of the egg: "The color of the egg only has to do with the chicken's breed, and doesn't reflect what the chicken eats or how it's raised," Jones says. So wheat bread vs. white bread isn't the same as white eggs vs. brown eggs.
Many of these terms and labels that aim to define eggs have varying degrees of certainty, so a little research into the farm or carton you typically reach for should make things a little clearer. "It's impossible for everybody to source their food straight from the farmer, but the more opportunity you have to do that the better, and the more informed you'll be about your food," says Jones.
Not much of an egg fan? See why eggs are one of the best foods for weight loss and try these 20 quick and easy ways to cook eggs.