Understanding Egg Labels

It’s worth taking a moment to consider how the tending of hens, our most abundant and reliable egg “producers,” has evolved in past decades because it connects to the quality of the eggs we consume.

Background

Factory farming began in the 1920s, and the timing is meaningful. This was just after the discovery of vitamins A and D. Once farmers could add these vitamins in synthetic form to animal feed, there was no longer a need to give animals access to pasture for sun and growth. There was no longer a need to have them live as animals do. So, motivated by a potential for increased profits, farmers moved their animals off of grass and onto industrial farms. The complication was that living in confinement and indoors made animals sick, but antibiotics–which came along in the 1940s–fixed that problem. Today, 80% of antibiotics are used on animals.

Egg Quality

When considering the quality of eggs, there are many factors to take into account. Chief among them istheir balance of essential fats; how hens live and what they eat affects this balance directly and the balance then affects us. Essential fats are called essential because we need them but can’t make them; we have to get these fats from food. They are called “omega-3” and “omega-6.” There is much evidence to suggest that traditional diets balanced these two essential fats, which is what our bodies require. Now, however, most of us consume far more omega-6 than omega-3 fats, causing internal inflammation and perhaps explaining our epidemics of obesity and cancer, as well as high rates of heart disease and neurological problems.

What do essential fats have to do with how hens live and what they are fed? When chickens live indoors and are fed grain alone, they are living in a manufactured environment, which makes their eggs less than what nature intended; these eggs can contain up to 30 times more omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats. Hens on pasture produce eggs with a 1:1 essential fat ratio.  So hens that are outside absorbing vitamin D from the sun and eating bugs for protein have eggs (and meat) that are more nutritious; these eggs are also anti-inflammatory.

The Egg Labels

In the list below, I’ve attempted to decipher the most common egg labels. Some speak to how the hens live, others speak to what they are fed, and a few focus on both.

Pastured: This is the gold standard for an egg. Pastured eggs come from hens that roam free, foraging for grass, weeds, seeds and bugs. The hens return to a hen house at night to roost, nest and lay eggs; they are generally fed grain in the evening. Pastured eggs usually come from small farms, and are often sold at the farm itself, or at farmers’ markets or small health food stores. The label on these eggs will always include the word “pastured.” Because these hens live as hens should–on grass and in the sunshine, running, taking dust baths, eating bugs and pecking at the soil–their diet contains necessary minerals and their eggs have an ideal balance of essential fats. The question to ask the farmer is, “Did these eggs come from hens that live on pasture?”

High-Omegaor Omega-3 Enriched: This label refers specifically to what the hens eat: a diet rich in a source of omega-3 fats like flax seed or fish oil. If your concern is your own health and the balance of essential fats in your eggs, and if you do not have access to pastured eggs, these eggs might be a reasonable option. Note that, like most labels, this one is unregulated so, unless it is specified, there is no way to know the true omega-3 content of the eggs and there is no listing of what else the hens eat other than omega-3 rich foods. In addition, the label gives us no information about how the hens live. These eggs may have a better balance of essential fats than those that follow.

Without grass and sunshine for the hens, the following eggs all have an imbalance of essential fats:

Certified Organic: This label requires that hens be uncaged, but most live inside barns and warehouses. Access to the outdoors is a must, but it can be a small door that the hens neither know about nor use–“access” being the key word. The hens consume a certified-organic feed free of antibiotics, pesticides and genetically-modified ingredients, but beak cutting and forced molting through starvation (to simulate the natural molting that occurs when hens are exposed to sunlight) are allowed. Certified organic eggs are the only eggs is this list that have inspections and enforcement to ensure that guidelines are met. But know that while giving organic grain to hens without giving them access to pasture does make their eggs “organic;” it does not improve the life of the hens or make their eggs more nutritious. The yolks are still pale and the eggs are often shipped long distances.

Free-Range orFree-Roaming: While there are no standards that qualify eggs as coming from free-range hens, these hens are most often uncaged and housed inside barns or warehouses with some access to the outdoors. They can sometimes enjoy natural behaviors like dust bathing, roosting and foraging, but there is no grass, and there are few bugs and little, if any, sunshine. We have no information about what free-range hens are fed, and beak cutting and forced molting are permitted.

Cage-Free: This label makes it seem as if the hens are on pasture, and it is meant to, but cage-free is a marketing term. Hens are uncaged, as the name suggests, but they most often live in a barn or warehouse without access to pasture. Beak cutting and forced molting are permitted. On the other hand, cage-free hens can walk, nest and spread their wings, which caged birds are prevented from doing.

Vegetarian-fed: To my mind, this might be the most misleading label, meant to make the eggs seem somehow virtuous. As I understand it, the label means that the hens’ feed contains no animal matter, but the hidden implication is that the hens are locked indoors. Bugs are a mainstay of a hen’s diet, and even small bugs that fly through the air will be food. To ensure that a hen eats no animal matter, I can surmise that a vegetarian-fed hen must be kept in a warehouse with no access to fresh air. If the point is consideration for all living beings, these eggs miss it entirely.

Fertile: This tells us that the hens that lay eggs live with a rooster, which probably means they are uncaged. But there is no guarantee and the label says little else about how the hens live or what they eat.

Hormone Free: Another label that sounds good, but means nothing. Hormones in poultry were banned in the 1960s.

Natural: This is a marketing term that has no consistent meaning, and tells us nothing about how the hens live or what they eat.

The Take-Home Message

Labels are necessary when we manufacture food, but eggs, in the ideal, are not manufactured. When hens are raised on pasture, we don’t need a fancy name or label; we simply need to know our farmer. Shop at farmers’ markets, farm stands or small health food stores for eggs from hens that live as they were meant to: on grass, in the sunshine, running, taking dust baths, and eating bugs. The egg carton will say “pastured,” and it is really this simple.

Copyright 2011, Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul