Eggs are no doubt a staple of anyone trying to significantly reduce their wheat, gluten and sugar consumption. What’s not to love about these protein powerhouses with endless variations and their reasonably cheap source of pre-packaged goodness. However, a simple thing like buying eggs can send you into a tailspin of confusion. You have all-natural, cage free, omega-6, free range, organic, vegetarian fed, etc, etc. How do you know what each of these terms mean and what should you be looking for? Should you even buy eggs at the grocery store? Where to go?!
Not to worry, I will define what each of the above terms mean, what you should be looking for and the best bet in nutrition (hint: from a local source).
Eggs are probably the cheapest, most nutrient dense food you can buy. However, the source of the egg means a lot more than you may think. The truth is the factory farming systems (which produce a staggering 95% of all eggs sold in the US) have made this confusing on purpose. They want you to think that you are buying a healthy item, when in reality there are many hidden costs to cheap eggs: animal health, animal welfare, costs to the environment, society and your health. The health of the animals you eat, has a direct impact on your health as well.
Here are some facts you should know, but probably don’t want to:
- In a typical factory farming system, a hen has 67 square inches of cage space to “roam”. Imagine living your entire existence in the space of a stand up shower and you get the idea. Most don’t even have enough room to spread their wings!
- There are no restrictions to what the birds can be fed. So, these animals are fed everything from animal byproducts to plastic.
- Many of these hens are given antibiotics to fight off disease since they are in such tight quarters. These antibiotics not only kill the bad bacteria, but also the good leading to antibiotic-resistant bacteria which means – you guessed it, more antibiotics (antibiotics do the same thing in our bodies, yikes!).
- Due to their tight quarters, many of the hens exhibit stres-induced aggression, panic and fear. To combat these “hostile” birds, the rule, not the exception, is beak-cutting. Yes, they literally cut their beaks so they don’t jab each other and create more chaos. Not only this, but they encourage them to molt faster, through starvation, in order to produce more eggs.
So, what do the words printed on your egg carton actually mean and where should you buy eggs?
Natural. As opposed to artificial? This term is essentially meaningless. It is a marketing word used to appeal to the conscientious buyer. The natural label can be placed on any product containing no artificial ingredients or added color and is minimally processed. This label in no way refers to the way the animal was treated, antibiotics or feed given. This does not sounds like the kind of “natural” I’m looking for.
Free Range or Free Roaming. This phrase is used to define poultry. In order to use this label the producer has to prove to the USDA that the hens have “access” to the outdoors. However, the type of outdoors provided, the length of time outside, and if they even go outside at all is not legally defined. Therefore, on a packaging label, this term is essentially meaningless.
Cage Free. There is no legal definition for this term. This does not answer the question as to if the birds had access to the outside. In reality, this usually means they are in overcrowded warehouses “cage-free”. Disturbingly, there is no third-party oversight of this term, therefore, beak-cutting is permitted.
Certified Organic. This term is defined by the USDA as birds un-caged inside barns or warehouses that are required to have outdoor “access”. Again however, they do not define space per animal or ensure that the animal actually went outside. The good news is that these animals are fed an organic, pesticide free, antibiotic free, animal byproduct free diet and they are required to have third party auditing.
Omega-3 Fortified. This means that the hens are fed flax seed, linseed or a direct source of omega-3. However, you shouldn’t rely on these for your omega-3 intake. This term has no bearing on living conditions, animal welfare or health.
No added Hormones. Sounds great right? This might be the sneakiest and most misleading of them all. By U.S. law, poultry cannot be given any hormones. How deceiving! Now, you know and can’t be one of the fooled.
Vegetarian-Fed. All this term means is that these animals can’t be fed animal byproducts. This says nothing of the living conditions, animal welfare or health.
Certified Humane. The birds are un-caged in warehouses or barns: this varies from farm to farm. This term basically means that they must be able to perform natural behaviors such as, nesting and perching. This is third party regulated so that there is a limit to how many hens can be in a given area.
Pastured. This is the BEST option. It doesn’t mean they have access to the outdoors, it means they actually are outdoors for the majority of their life. This term, while not legally defined, is the closest to letting the chicken express their chicken-ness as Joel Salatin would say. This option is by far the best not only for animal welfare and living conditions, but for your nutrition as well. Pasture raised eggs have higher beta-carotene (hence the dark orange color of the yolk), vitamins E and A, omega-3, and less cholesterol and saturated fat than factory produced eggs.
Farm fresh pastured eggs contain “bloom” which is a natural coating on just-laid eggs that helps prevent bacteria from permeating the shell. It is removed in the washing process. Just-laid eggs with a coat of “bloom” on them can sit out on a counter for up to 2 months.
If I am buying in a grocery store, I will look for the certified humane label and organic is better than non, simply because you pay for the chemicals to be out of your eggs. However, the best by far is pastured eggs. These hens have lives that a hen was created to live and it shows in their superior nutrition content.
Research and ask around for pastured eggs near you. Chances are there is a source closer than you think! It may take a little while to get used to paying $4-5 for a carton of eggs as opposed to $2-3, but the rewards are SO worth it! I would much rather be able to look my farmer in the eye than take a chance on what the local grocery store has on the shelf. If you eat tons of eggs like we do, you may be interested in getting a few laying hens yourselves and start providing your egg needs from your own backyard! That is our goal, we will keep you informed of the progress. If you don’t have (or don’t want to re-arrange your budget to allow for it) the money to go out for pastured, the next best option would be certified humane.
- If you want to read a little more about on this subject and the state of our food industry in general, I would highly recommend reading “Folks This Ain’t Normal” by Joel Salatin. I am about half way done and it has reconfirmed many thoughts I had and is shaping many others. If you would rather watch something, I recommend watching this video where Joel Salatin talks about his book to a group of google employees. Very interesting stuff!