WHAT DO EGG LABELS MEAN
Egg labels. Who would have expected that a food staple as basic as an egg would require so much labeling?
One can no longer assume that an egg is an egg. One egg can be a nutrient-dense superfood and one can be nutrientless and contaminated with chemicals.
Before doing in-depth research, I knew to stick to pasture-raised eggs, organic, if possible. I knew this because food quality has become a hot topic in the media, and it is not difficult to come across articles on the benefits of a pasture-raised, organic egg.
But what exactly do these terms mean?
This label ensures that chicken feed did not contain fertilizer or animal byproducts.
This also means the chickens did not receive antibiotics, and that they had access to food, water, shelter, and the outdoors. The USDA enforces these specifications .
Note: some smaller farms may follow organic protocols but not pursue an official certification due to the cost.
Also referred to as grass-ranged or pastured poultry, means that chickens roam and eat grass.
Their diet is supplemented with grains, legumes, fish meal, oats, corn, and vitamins and minerals, as a diet of only grass cannot sustain chickens. Combining the USDA organic logo with this label indicates that the grass and supplemental feed was not grown or treated with fertilizers and non-organic compliant chemicals.
Pasture-raised eggs typically contain more vitamins A and D, and a higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids due to the amount of time spent in the sun and access to nutritious pasture .
The benefit of having the organic option is that these eggs will not contain significant residue from fertilizers or antibiotics.
Organic meat, poultry, and dairy products are worth the extra cost as harmful compounds can become concentrated once digested by the animal, a concept called bioconcentration .
The good news is that bioconcentration also means that pasture-raised chickens bioconcentrate the nutrients that they got from their feed, particularly the grass, and pass those benefits on to us.
Pasture-raised is also not to be confused with free-range, which means that chickens are allowed outdoors, but not guaranteed to have actually spend any significant amount of time in the fresh air. Cage-free simply means that chickens are not subjected to cages but does not ensure any time spent outdoors .
No antibiotics used or raised without antibiotics
These labels ensure that the chickens were never given antibiotics.
This is not to be confused with “sub-therapeutic antibiotics” or “no antibiotics fed”, as these phrases imply that some antibiotics were administered in some form during the chicken’s lifetime. .
Antibiotics are sometimes necessary. However, when it comes to the food we eat we should try to avoid eating animals or animal products that have been exposed to antibiotics.
Think chicken heaven.
This is a good option when available, and likely very pricey.
It means that chickens were raised without hormones, with a vegetarian diet, and were placed in an environment that preserves water, energy, and habitat .
This standard is more rare, as is it requires more maintenance from the farmer.
This label verifies humane treatment of the animals, including that they are provided adequate food, water, space, and no antibiotic use.
The term free-farmed has similar parameters, ensuring that the birds have humane conditions that allow for natural behaviors, do not receive antibiotics, and receive proper medical treatment .
Simply means that no artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives were added to the food, but tells us nothing regarding how a chicken was raised.
Beyond natural takes this a step further and also ensures that antibiotics, pesticides, and animal by-products were not used.
These standards might vary from store to store, as it is not one with an official certification .
This label implies that the chicken was fed wheat or corn and no animal by-products. It carries no implication regarding living conditions.
Vegetarian fed only sounds great, but it doesn’t always ensure you are getting a high quality product.
This is the ultimate marketing scam as farmers discontinued the use of hormones for chickens almost four decades ago .
Fortunately, taking a survey at my own grocery store, it does not seem that many companies are still trying to profit from this particular claim.
If you see this on the packaging it should be a red flag that the company is focused on mostly profits and not the quality of their eggs.
What do I buy?
I purchase pasture-raised eggs and a combination of organic and non-organic to save a few cents.
I tend to go by the deep orange color of the egg yolk, and my preferred brand, Vital Farms, is sourced from Austin, TX, an hour distance by car from my hometown. Ideally, I would have something more local, but this brand’s marketing makes me feel good about my choice.
They always include a note about the mother hen and her story, and do not add unnecessary phrasing to their packaging such as “hormone-free”.
At the end of the day, the proof is in the yolk!
 Shanahan, C. & Shanahan, L. (2008/2016). Deep nutrition: Why your genes need traditional food. New York, NY: Flatiron Books.
 Stewart, K. L. (2007). Eating between the lines – The supermarket shopper’s guide to the truth behind food labels. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.