Unpacking The Egg Carton

There I was, standing in the egg aisle, hopelessly trying to figure out if "free range, no added hormones, vitamin enhanced, size medium" eggs were better than the "cage-free, antibiotic free, 100% natural, size large" eggs. Both boxes were made of recycled packaging and featured pictures of happy looking chickens running through green fields - there goes that tie-breaker.

I usually just end up going for the cheapest box of eggs with the most nice-sounding labels on it, but always feel vaguely dissatisfied that I don't truly understand what I'm buying - or why I'm paying for this grab bag of premium labels that I also don't truly understand.

I'm sure you can all relate. That's why I decided to sit down and get serious about cracking the egg carton wide open.

So, I've compiled a list of the most common labels you see on your egg cartons in the grocery store and not only defined them, but figured out which ones are the most important to put your money behind. I hope this helps make your grocery trips a little more satisfying and a lot more egg-celent.

What I Learned

Any carton of eggs bearing the USDA Grade Shield has met strict US government verified quality standards. In addition to telling you the quality of your eggs, the USDA Grade Shield verifies any other labels on the carton, such as cage-free or free range.

The USDA Grade Shield and the USDA Certified Organic label are the only labels that are verified by any third party, and are the most important ones to look for.

Some labels flat out don't matter. For example, many cartons boast that they have "no added hormones." However, federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones. So... thanks for following federal law? Labels such as "farm fresh" and "all natural" are also meaningless. Companies who use those labels are relying on consumers being ill-informed, or being likely to buy the carton with the most labels. Don't fall into the trap!

Finally, some of these labels might not mean much for you, but mean a lot for chickens everywhere. Obviously the ideal is to buy fresh eggs from a local source, but I know that's not possible for everyone. Instead, take a look at this list of Certified Humane Producers put together by Certified Humane. This way, you can vote with your wallet and tell the poultry industry that you care about better animal treatment.

Certified Organic

First, only the certified organic label from the USDA's National Organic Program means anything. If a description on the carton cleverly slips the word "organic" into a sentence but there's no USDA label on the carton - way to go marketing team, but please ignore it!

The USDA's organic certification means that the hens were uncaged, allowed free range of their houses, and allowed access to outdoor places. Additionally, the hens were fed a USDA National Organic Program approved organic diet that is vegetarian and free of pesticides and antibiotics.

USDA Grade Certified

Grade refers to shell quality, freshness, and other quality factors. There are three possible grades, AA, A, and B. There's very little difference between grade AA and A, although grade AA is supposed to be fresher.

All eggs that have been graded by the USDA will carry a USDA Grade seal. The USDA Grade seal carries much more importance than just telling us the grade. In fact, any company that produces USDA Graded eggs must undergo facility inspections from the USDA for sanitation, refrigeration, and identification and sorting procedures. (Inspecting the sorting procedures refers to ensuring that non-cage free eggs produced in that same facility as cage-free eggs don't accidentally get sold as cage-free.)

The USDA Grade seal also means that all other labels on the egg carton have been verified by the USDA, including cage-free or free range labels. The USDA visits farms twice per year to verify and inspect the facilities.

Cage-Free

I don't think I'll be shocking anyone when I say that yes, cage-free hens don't live in cages. However, that's just about the only thing it guarantees. Cage-free hens are unlikely to live in a hand-crafted wooden coop with an outdoor run like the ones I often see in front yards in Portland.

Cage-free hens typically live in massive barns or poultry houses with thousands of other hens. They don't necessarily have access to the outdoors, but they typically at least have enough space to walk around, perch, and stretch their wings.

The one important thing to remember is that if the eggs are both USDA Grade Certified and cage-free, then the USDA has certified the cage-free conditions and that label can be trusted.

Free-Range

Free-range means that hens have access to the outdoors. It's hard to know how much access and to what kind of outdoor environment, though, as no specific organization is in charge of verifying free-range facilities.

Many commercial egg facilities do the bare minimum to get the free-range label. The bare minimum often entails having a few doors in the large poultry barn that lead to a small outdoor area that is more often covered with cement or dirt than grass. It's not exactly the free-range, green pasture ideal the pictures on the carton suggest, unfortunately.

However, similar to cage-free, if the eggs are both USDA Grade Certified and free-range, then the free-range facility was verified by the USDA and can be trusted.

Pasture-Raised

If you completely follow the definition of pasture-raised hens, you get a gold star for the happiest chickens. No, seriously. Pasture-raised is supposed to best replicate chicken's natural environment and way of life. The hens get to spend most of their life outdoors, have access to a barn, eat worms, insects, grass, and corn feed.

The giant, inevitable caveat? There's a huge variance in pasture-raised farms. There's no third party to make sure the rules are followed here, so the label is unfortunately untrustworthy.

No Added Hormones

Do you want to know a fun fact? Adding hormones to poultry is actually illegal! So this label means 100%, absolutely nothing.

Any companies who still label their egg cartons as hormone-free are just hoping that most people do what I used to do, and go for the carton with the most labels.

No Antibiotics

It's likely that the "no added antibiotic" label is headed the same way as the "no added hormones" label. The American Egg Board says that nearly all eggs are antibiotic free, and the FDA ensures that any eggs from sick hens who receive antibiotics are not sold.

However, the USDA still allows this label for the moment, and requires documentation from the farmers to verify that the hens were in fact raised antibiotic free.

Natural

This is another tricky label, because nobody regulates it. The USDA says that natural only means that nothing was added to the egg such as flavorings or coloring, and that it has no impact on how the chicken was raised.

Vegetarian Fed

Here's another fun fact for you: chickens aren't vegetarian! Wild chickens are historically omnivores that eat lots of worms, grasshoppers, and other insects.

The diets of vegetarian fed chickens are also unverified by any third party - except, of course, if the carton also has a USDA organic label. The USDA organic certification ensure that all chickens are eating an approved organic diet that is vegetarian and free of pesticides and antibiotics.

Non- GMO

This simply claims that the hens have a non-GMO diet. There's no evidence that this makes a difference in the quality of the egg, or the quality of the hen's life.

Vitamin Enhanced

Hens with vitamin-enhanced diets get fed a diet with added ingredients such as alfalfa, rice bran, and sea kelp. These hens then lay eggs with more nutrients, such as vitamins A, D, and E, and B vitamins.

The levels of these nutrients are pretty low, though, and aren't likely to make a huge impact on your overall health.

Omega-3 Enriched

Another pretty obvious label, this means that the chickens get extra omega-3s in their diet from ingredients such as flaxseed, algae, and fish oils. On average, the omega-3 content of these hens' eggs is increased from about 30mg of omega-3s per egg to 100-600+ omega-3s per egg.

You might be thinking that 100-200+ omega-3s per egg is a pretty high variance, and you'd be right to have suspicions. It sounds great, but it's nearly impossible to know the actual level of omega-3s in the eggs you're eating, and it's often not worth the pay mark up. Plus, the types of omega-3s that have the most health benefits (EPA, or eicosapentaenoic acid, and DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid) often show up in just very small amounts in these extra enriched eggs.

Certified Humane/Animal Welfare Approved

There are a few third-party organizations that actually assess facilities to see if they're humane. Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, and American Humane Certified all have rigorous guidelines and their certification can be trusted.

Brown vs. White Eggs

Alright let's get this cleared up right away. Breed of hen determines color of eggs, simple as that. Brown eggs are not inherently more nutritious and delicious than white eggs.

In fact, the main reason that brown eggs are typically more expensive is that hens that lay brown eggs are larger on average and eat more!

Farm Fresh

This is an easy one. It means absolutely nothing!

Fertile vs. Infertile Eggs

Yup, this means exactly what you think it does. Fertile eggs are eggs that could have developed into chicks because they are laid by hens that have mated with roosters. That doesn't mean you'll end up with chicks, though, because refrigeration stops the growth process.

So far, no nutritional difference between fertile and infertile eggs has been found. The only real difference I could discover is that fertile eggs often have a shorter shelf life.

Egg Sizes

The main difference in size is the protein and calorie content of the egg. Here's a handy chart from the USDA detailing the differences!

Resources

Eggstra! Eggstra! Learn All About Them -- The USDA

Cage-Free Verification of USDA Graded Shell Eggs -- The USDA

A Carton of Eggs - A True Baker's Dozen -- The USDA

How to Decipher Egg Carton Labels -- The Humane Society

Farm Fresh? Natural? Eggs Not Always What They're Cracked Up To Be -- NPR

Egg-Buying Cheat Sheet: What The Claims Mean -- NOLA.com

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