Here’s what you need to know to sift through and un­der­stand the many op­tions when shop­ping for Amer­ica’s fa­vorite break­fast sta­ple


Un­scram­bling Egg La­bels What to look for when buying our fa­vorite break­fast sta­ple.


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


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 non­profi t 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 cer­tifi ed or ver­ifi ed to meet cer­tain stan­dards. Be­fore you read what fol­lows, pre­pare your­self: many of the terms on egg car­tons are down­right cagey or de­ceiv­ing!

Com­mon Terms

Cage- Free— 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 confi ned in very close quar­ters inside a build­ing. They may also have lit­tle or no ac­cess to the out­doors.

Free- Range— Freerange 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 specifi cations about the qual­ity or the du­ra­tion of that out­side ex­po­sure.

Pas­ture- Raised— 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 benefi ts of pas­ture- raised eggs in­clude:

⅔ 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 Terms

Other la­bel claims that are pop­ping up on egg car­tons in­clude:

Vege­tar­ian Fed— This is a newer term that con­jures up im­ages of chick­ens be­ing fed healthy veg­eta­bles and grains. But the feed could just be ge­net­i­cally mod­ifi ed corn or soy, which is tech­ni­cally vege­tar­ian as well. Also un­der­stand that chick­ens aren’t nat­u­ral vege­tar­i­ans— they also eat worms and in­sects.

Omega- 3 En­riched— These eggs are pro­duced by hens fed a diet con­tain­ing fl axseed, which is rich in omega- 3 fatty acids, anti- infl am­ma­tory 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 fi sh and 100 per­cent grass- fed beef are still bet­ter sources of these es­sen­tial fats.

Seals from Cer­ti­fy­ing Or­ga­ni­za­tions

For eggs that meet more rig­or­ous stan­dards of pro­duc­tion, look for the fol­low­ing cer­tifi cations.

Cer­tifi ed Hu­mane— A non­profi t cer­tifi cation or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to im­prov­ing the lives of farm an­i­mals, Hu- mane Farm An­i­mal Care ( HFAC), de­vel­oped the Cer­tifi ed 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 Cer­tifi ed 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 defi ni­tion for the terms “free- range” or “pas­ture- raised” in the U. S., but the Cer­tifi ed Hu­mane la­bel adds ex­tra lev­els of trust to those terms. Free- range eggs that in­clude the Cer­tifi ed 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 Ver­ifi ed— Con­ven­tional eggs come from chick­ens that are fed ge­net­i­cally mod­ifi ed corn and soy. When eggs are la­beled with the Non- GMO Project Ver­ifi ed 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 mod­ifi ed foods.

Or­ganic— Cer­tifi ed 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 confi ned con­di­tions nearly iden­ti­cal to con­ven­tional, in­dus­trial- scale egg pro­duc­tion, rather than from chick­ens with ac­cess to the out­doors.

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