Which eggs should I buy?
Free-range. Cage-free. Organic. Pasture-raised. Vegetarian-fed. No added antibiotics.
The list of labels slapped on egg cartons is endless. And endlessly confusing! Of course, the first question is whether you should even be eating eggs in the first place. Although there’s been much debate, I believe a limited number of eggs can fit into a whole-food, plant-based diet.
So, that leads us back to the refrigerated aisle: To make it even more confusing, multiple agencies, including the USDA, regulate egg labels and consumer information. Here’s what each term means -- and which ones matter.
Cage-free: This USDA term means that hens are not confined to a cage and can roam around as much as they want … but if you’re picturing chickens running about outside with a big red barn in the background, think again. Cage-free does not even mean that hens have any access to the outdoors … or much space to move around at all. And many indoor facilities tend to be crowded and the air quality may not be great.
Free-range: This is another USDA term, and this one does mean that there is access to the outdoors. But, contrary to what you’d expect from something labeled “free-range,” that access can be theoretical: The door to the outdoors may be open only rarely, for example.
Vegetarian-fed: This one is self-explanatory, although chickens are naturally omnivorous.
Hormone-free: The FDA bans hormones, so all eggs should be hormone-free, making this label fairly meaningless.
Organic: This USDA certification means that the chickens were fed an organic diet. In order to be organic, eggs must be from free-range chickens.
Certified Humane/Animal Welfare Approved: Third-party groups administer these labels, and they’re probably the most meaningful from an animal-welfare standpoint. Eggs labeled “pasture-raised” by Certified Humane come from chickens with much more space to roam.
The bottom line: It’s so confusing that it might just drive some people to build a chicken coop in their backyard!
Another option is getting to know a farmer at a farmers' market or stand. That’s a great way to assure that what you are eating is free of a lot of pesticides and hormones. And that the eggs you’re purchasing come from hens that were well cared for. Best part is that the price may be similar – or better - than what you’ll find at your grocery store.
If making fast friends with a farmer is not realistic for you, my advice is to pay attention to the “organic” label if you’re mostly concerned about health and look for Certified Humane/Animal Welfare Approved labels if you’re primarily worried about the conditions of the animals.
And remember that it’s probably best to eat eggs in moderation, anyway. So, don’t stress TOO much about which carton is best!
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