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How to Read Egg Labels

By: Caitlin Boyle

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“I always buy the organic eggs,” my dad remarked.

This made me pause. My ‘a few chemicals never hurt anyone!’ Dad buys the pricey organic eggs?

“Really?” I asked. “I didn’t think you bothered to buy anything organic.”

“Well, it’s not because of the pesticides or anything,” he replied. “It’s because the organic eggs come in that plastic carton, and you never have to check for cracked eggs with the plastic cartons!”

Oh. Well, that explains that.

Cage-free, free-range, vegetarian, certified humane organic: the options can be dizzying. While we all have our reasons (whatever they may be!) for buying a certain type of egg, carton labeling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Turns out, half of what you see on the package is merely clever marketing.

“There aren't any big nutritional differences between the different types of eggs,” says Anne Mauney, MPH, RD, who offers online nutritional counseling at AnneTheRD.com. “The main reason to buy different kinds of eggs lies not in the nutrition of the eggs, but whether you care about animal rights and supporting the organic or sustainable food movement,” she explains.

Anne warns that conventional, ‘factory farm’ manufacturers often play on consumers’ green leanings by using certain terms that seem much more beneficial than they actually are.

Here’s a breakdown of what those labels really mean:

Free-Range or Free-Roaming: The United States Department of Agriculture requires that free-range chickens have “access to the outside.” Consumers read “free-range” and picture a bunch of happy hens scampering around a field. In reality, all a manufacturer needs to do to be able to legally call their eggs ‘free-range’ is put a door on the hen house. If the food, water and nests are inside, the hens will probably not venture outside very often -- if at all.

Cage-Free: Cage-free means that the hens who lay the eggs are uncaged, usually in barns or warehouses. From an animal welfare perspective, this is preferable to the alternative, which is to place the hens in ‘battery cages,’ often smaller than a standard sheet of paper. Cage-free hens can stretch, flap their wings and move around; however, they may be de-beaked, a painful process that entails trimming the sharp end of their beaks to prevent fighting and self-harming.

Organic: Organic eggs are produced by hens fed organic feed (which means feed that does not contain genetically modified crops, animal byproducts, or chemicals like pesticides). The hens must not be treated with antibiotics or other drugs, unless there is a serious outbreak of disease. Organic eggs come from cage-free hens that have access to the outdoors.

Humane: The Animal welfare approved label, which is administrated by the Animal Welfare Institute, has the strictest guidelines, prohibiting cages, conventional feed, antibiotics and de-beaking. “Certified humane raised and handled” and “American human certified” indicates the hens are cage-free but may be de-beaked.

Natural: Here’s a label that means almost nothing. The ‘natural’ label is pure hype. All eggs are, by USDA definition, ‘natural,’ because they do not contain artificial colors or ingredients. 

Vegetarian-Fed: This means that the hens were not given feed containing animal byproducts, such as the remains of other farm animals, like pigs, chickens or cows. Hens are not natural vegetarians and would snack on bugs and worms if given the chance, but some consumers find vegetarian hens preferable to hens fed other livestock. It does not mean the eggs are organic or that the hens were treated humanely.

No-Hormones:  Like ‘natural,’ this label is pure hype. The Food and Drug Administration does not allow egg-laying hens to be treated with hormones. All eggs are automatically hormone-free.

Omega-3 Enriched: This label means that the hens were fed a diet rich in omega-3s, which are thought to improve your heart and brain function. “These hens’ eggs will have slightly more omega-3s, but considering how many eggs you would have to eat to reach the recommended omega-3s levels (about a dozen), you'll be better off just buying regular eggs and having salmon for dinner,” says Mauney. 

If you do buy omega-3 eggs, search for ones high in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3s, not alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), as DHA is considered to be more important for heart health.
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Caitlin Boyle

is a professional blogger, motivational speaker, and author of the book Healthy Tipping Point: A Powerful Program for a Stronger, Happier You.  She helps her husband run a holistic health clinic in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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