How to Read an Egg Carton
Here’s what you need to know to sift through and understand the many options when shopping for America’s favorite breakfast staple.
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Q: When I go to the natural food store to purchase eggs, I get confused by all the different choices. What do all the various terms mean? And which type of egg is the healthiest? —Jean R., Austin, Texas
A: Most shoppers feel exactly the way you do. As complete little packets of protein and nutrients that are easy to cook and use in recipes, eggs are a popular food. Yet misleading labels don’t make it easy for average shoppers to make informed choices at the store.
The vast majority of eggs sold in the United States come from caged chickens, and as public opinion has turned against these practices, increasing numbers of consumers are seeking out cage-free and organic options. But the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin nonprofit that promotes natural foods, says that these products aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. So it pays to become better educated on this topic.
This guide will cover the most commonly seen terms used on egg cartons, followed by information on labels that are certified or verified to meet certain standards. Before you read what follows, prepare yourself: many of the terms on egg cartons are downright cagey or deceiving!
What do all the terms on an egg carton mean?
Simply put, cage-free eggs come from hens that do not live in cages. The chickens have more room than caged hens, but they can still be confined in very close quarters inside a building. They may also have little or no access to the outdoors.
Free-range eggs are produced by birds that are allowed access to the outdoors for at least part of the day. They have more space than their caged and cage-free peers, but they don’t get outside as much as you might think. According to USDA regulations, “free range” only means that the chickens were allowed “access” to the outside—with no specifications about the quality or the duration of that outside exposure.
Pasture-raised eggs come from hens that were raised outdoors on pasture. Although the term isn’t regulated by the USDA, it is being used by sustainable farmers to indicate chickens that are raised in the outdoors and eat not only grass but also wild plants, bugs, and worms—a chicken’s natural diet.
Not surprisingly, true pasture-raised eggs are more nutritious than their conventional cousins. An egg testing project conducted by Mother Earth News in 2007 found that the benefits of pasture-raised eggs include:
- 2/3 more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta carotene
- 4–6 times more vitamin D
Other label claims that are popping up on egg cartons include:
—This is a newer term that conjures up images of chickens being fed healthy vegetables and grains. But the feed could just be genetically modified corn or soy, which is technically vegetarian as well. Also understand that chickens aren’t natural vegetarians—they also eat worms and insects.
—These eggs are produced by hens fed a diet containing flaxseed, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, anti-inflammatory nutrients that are sadly lacking in most of our diets. While it’s true that these enriched specimens are higher in omega-3s than conventional eggs, wild-caught fatty fish and 100 percent grass-fed beef are still better sources of these essential fats.
Egg Seals from Certifying Organizations
For eggs that meet more rigorous standards of production, look for the following certifications.
A nonprofit certification organization dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals, Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), developed the Certified Humane labeling standards. HFAC does its own farm inspections and takes the USDA requirements for cage-free eggs a few steps further.
Cage-free eggs that are also labeled as Certified Humane come from farms that must have at least 1.5 square feet of space per chicken in their barn or enclosure, unlike the USDA requirements, which specify no minimum amount of space per chicken.
There is currently no legal definition for the terms “free-range” or “pasture-raised” in the U.S., but the Certified Humane label adds extra levels of trust to those terms. Free-range eggs that include the Certified Humane label must have at least 2 square feet per bird, while HFAC’s pasture-raised requirement is 1,000 birds per 2.5 acres (or 108 sq. ft. per bird). The hens must stay outdoors year-round and be allowed to roam freely during daylight hours.
Non-GMO Project Verified
Conventional eggs come from chickens that are fed genetically modified corn and soy. When eggs are labeled with the Non-GMO Project Verified seal, it means that they come from farms that have met standards for GMO avoidance, including the use of feed that doesn’t include genetically modified foods.
Certified organic eggs are laid by hens that live on a diet of organic and vegetarian feed that is free of both GMOs and pesticides. Plus, they’re not treated with antibiotics, in accordance with the USDA’s National Organic Program regulations.
But all organic eggs aren’t created equal. Some come from chickens that are fed organic feed, but raised in confined conditions nearly identical to conventional, industrial-scale egg production, rather than from chickens with access to the outdoors.
Tips for Selecting Eggs
After learning the meaning of the terms on eggs, select the type you buy based on:
- What you can afford
- Farming and production methods that matter most to you
- How you will use the eggs
Other egg shopping tips:
- Most of the time, price is a good indicator of egg quality. Be on the lookout for sales on high-quality eggs.
- The colors of the eggs are purely a result of the genetics of the chicken, and make no nutritional difference.
- “Cage-free” and “free-range” production methods are better for chickens than conventional farming. Either term carries more weight when accompanied by the Certified Humane seal.
- To avoid GMOs, look for Non-GMO Project Verified eggs.
- To avoid GMOs and pesticides, select USDA Organic eggs.
- If you need more omega-3 fats in your diet, know that either omega-3 enriched eggs or pasture-raised eggs provide higher amounts of these essential fatty acids. But understand that wild fish or grass-fed meat are still much better sources.
- If you’re on a tight budget and use eggs mostly for baking, consider buying a slightly lower-quality egg than you would when you make eggs as a main dish.
- For the most nutritious choice for you and the healthiest choice for the chickens and the environment, seek out pasture-raised eggs that also bear the USDA Organic and Certified Humane seals.
Know the Score
To make sure the eggs you buy meet your standards, check out the Cornucopia Institute’s Egg Scorecard at cornucopia.org. National brands of eggs with excellent or very good ratings include Vital Farms/Pasture Verde, Mary’s Organic Eggs, Wilcox Family Farms, The Happy Egg Co., and Blue Sky Family Farms.