Grocery Shopping 101: Eggs
I’ve been working on some new stuff for my Smart Shopping courses, and since Easter is around the corner, I thought I would take a closer look at eggs, and see if I can’t help make sense of all the label terms out there when it comes to buying eggs.
During the months the Farmer’s Market is open, there are a couple of vendors that bring farm fresh eggs, but you usually have to get there pretty early to get those. But most people aren’t lucky enough to be able to get to the Farmers Market or otherwise have access to such fresh eggs, so they rely on their local grocery store, or maybe a local co-op or Whole Foods. And when you check them out, you can sometimes find quite a variety of eggs, all making some sort of claim. So hopefully this will help you sort through some of the gobbledy-gook.
Commercial White Eggs
First up, the vast majority of eggs sold come from “concentrated animal feeding operation” (CAFO), or what’s commonly called a factory farm, where thousands of birds are kept in one building and there may be up to four birds per 16-inch cage. Economically, this is what gives us eggs that cost under $2 per dozen. Many stores carry nothing but eggs from such producers. These chickens are typically fed grain, soy, and possibly animal by-products, including other chicken parts. The manure and other waste generated on these farms can be a huge problem.
Now let’s take a quick look at some of the other phrases you’ll maybe find on a package of eggs. These terms all have specific standards that have to be met for the producer to use them, but as you’ll see… some sound better than they may actually be.
Free Range: When you hear “free range”, it likely conjures up images of chickens pecking away at the ground as they roam about the farm. Yes, the smaller, local farmer likely does let the chickens actually roam about, but in most cases the reality is that free range chickens live indoors.
According to the regulations for use of the term, chickens only need to be allowed “access” to the outdoors in order to be called “free range”. It may be just one small door and a small outdoor area for thousands of chickens. And the reality is, the chickens are so used to being inside that they don’t actually break their routine in order to explore outside. And the USDA recommends just 1-1/2 square feet of space per chicken, so while these chickens may get some exercise… the conditions are only slightly better than your typical CAFO farm.
Cage Free: “Cage free” simply means just that. They are not kept in a cage. It has nothing to do with access to outside, in fact it’s likely they have no access or they would use the term “free range”.
Grain-Fed: This is another health-washing term. It sounds great to us, but when it comes to chickens doesn’t mean squat. It’s good for chickens to eat bugs and grubs, it add to the nutritional quality of the eggs they lay.
Added Omega 3s: This has nothing to do with the living conditions of the chickens. It simply means they’re fed extra flax seed or maybe fish-meal (both rich in omega-3s) as a way to beef up the level of omega-3s in the eggs they lay, making them seem healthier. I say seem because it typically only boosts just one part of the omega-3s, the ALA. While your body can convert ALA into the EPA and DHA it prefers… it’s not a very efficient process. This is really not much more than a gimmick to try and get you to pay a premium costs based on the latest buzz-words. You’re better off getting the omega-3s your body needs by incorporating chia, flax, and/or fish into your regular diet.
UEP Certified: UEP is the United Egg Producers. It’s an industry group that sets some basic standards outside of government oversight, and really doesn’t mean much. It’s a voluntary program and many CAFO farms are certified.
Organic: This means that whatever the chickens were fed was grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, etc. and that the chickens receive no antibiotics or hormones. There are few requirements regarding the living conditions, such as at least one foot square foot per chicken (which doesn’t really allow room for exercise). Are they better than CAFO eggs? Sure, but by itself this on a label doesn’t tell you much.
Vegetarian Fed: It means they aren’t fed other chickens, feathers or other animal by-products. It’s reassuring, and a slight improvement over CAFO eggs, but again… on it’s own doesn’t mean much and wouldn’t be worth the extra cost they’re likely charging.
Brown Eggs: Brown eggs have nothing over white eggs health/nutrition-wise – if the chickens were raised in the same conditions. They simply come from a different breed of chicken.
Pastured: These are chickens like our great, or great-great grandparents probably raised. They were outside, eating green grass, bugs, grubs, and whatever they would naturally like to eat along with the feed the farmer gives them. You’ll likely also notice a distinct difference in how these eggs look compared to regular store eggs.
Pasteurized: These are simply eggs that have been pasteurized in order to reduce the possibility of food-borne illness in dishes that are not cooked or lightly cooked – such as making your own mayonnaise.
Are They More Nutritious?
These eggs are going to come in a wide range of prices from less than $2 for a dozen to over $5 in some cases. How do you know what’s best? Below are the nutritional stats on a “generic” egg. Compare to whichever one you’re looking at and see how they stack up and decide for yourself if the cost is worth any benefits you find.
- 213 mg cholesterol
- 1.6 g saturated fat
- 1 IU vitamin E
- 35-40 mg omega-3s
In 2007, Mother Earth News printed the results of some testing they did that compared regular eggs versus those from pastured chickens…
Most of the eggs currently sold in supermarkets are nutritionally inferior to eggs produced by hens raised on pasture. That’s the conclusion we have reached following completion of the 2007 Mother Earth News egg testing project. Our testing has found that, compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain:
- 1/3 less cholesterol
- 1/4 less saturated fat
- 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
These amazing results come from 14 flocks around the country that range freely on pasture or are housed in moveable pens that are rotated frequently to maximize access to fresh pasture and protect the birds from predators.
(source: Mother Earth News)
The Bottom Line
Most guidelines are going to say to limit egg consumption to about 3 a week. I personally believe eggs have gotten a bad wrap, and after talking with a number of medical professionals I have no problem telling my clients that even having a couple eggs a day can easily be part of a healthy diet, and even if you’re buying some of the most expensive eggs out there, they’re still a very economical way to get some good nutrition.
Even eggs from a CAFO farm aren’t going to be “bad” for you. So shop based on what’s important to you, and shop smarter now that you know what all those terms on the labels really mean.
If you’d like to learn more about reading food labels to help make better decisions, check out my Smart Shopping classes.
Just for Fun
Here’s a recent video from the folks over at Household Hacker with 14 Incredible Edible Egg Tricks! with some great ideas on using those eggs once you buy them.