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The Educated Consumer: Egg Carton Labels 101

eggsLast week I missed my usual trip to the farmer’s market to pick up fresh eggs. So, I went to the supermarket to buy them later. Not having been there in a while I was surprised, and confused, by what I found. There were dozens of cartons covered with all sorts of different slang and lingo, big words with little explanation. When I purchase dairy and produce I like to vote with my dollars, only buying products I believe to be morally and environmentally sound, and in this case I was completely stymied. What were the absolute best eggs to buy? What does all this lingo mean? After a little bit of research I managed to answer my own questions and I want to share what I learned with you.

Farmer’s Market Eggs (Unlabeled): Buying eggs at the farmer’s market is usually the best way to guarantee you’re getting eggs from healthy, happy chickens. These eggs tend to be the most nutritious as well since the chickens are allowed to eat their normal, natural diet and spend time outdoors. Speak with the farmer at your local market to understand how they raise their chickens. They are usually happy to share their story and you will want to give them a vote with your money.

Hormone Free: The FDA banned the use of hormones in chickens in 1959, after they had a disastrous effect on consumers and proved to do nothing to stimulate chicken growth. Since the use of hormones has been widely illegal for many years this label really doesn’t mean anything.

Natural/All-Natural: This word sounds appealing but lacks meaning. There are no official parameters surrounding it’s use. It is mostly put on labels to make people feel good.

Vegetarian Diet Fed: This is slightly perplexing since chickens naturally like to subsist on a diet of worms and insects. Why do they need to be vegetarians? A vegetarian diet means they are fed no animal by-product, which is good, but bears little resemblance to their natural diet. It also means they probably are fed synthetic vegetarian food which does not help their eggs to be particularly nutritious. This label also has no bearing on the treatment of the animals. Vegetarian diet fed chickens could easily live in cages or on barn floors without access to sunlight and fresh water.

Pasture Raised: This is the best, and often rarest, label to find. The natural, healthiest way to raise a chicken is to let them walk about freely outdoors, eating their normal diet of grubs and insects. Unfortunately, raising chickens this way is costly and labor intensive. The best place to find these nutritious and morally sound eggs is at the farmer’s market or a local green market. (See Farmer’s Market Eggs above).

USDA Organic Certified: To earn this badge the farmer must comply with USDA standards of raising chickens on organic feed and having access to the outdoors. They also guarantee the chickens have never been given antibiotics – something none of the other labels can stand by. These eggs are usually slightly more expensive then more conventional eggs, but are many times more nutritious. If you can’t find pasture raised eggs, USDA certified is an important label to look for.

Free Range: While we all would like to believe that free range chickens spend their days roaming about like pasture raised chickens, sadly, they don’t. This term means that chickens have access to the outdoors, but doesn’t necessarily mean they go outdoors. They often live in cramped barns with one small door they can use to get outside, if they can find it. These chickens are still raised on synthetic feed, reducing the nutritional value of their eggs, and are poorly treated.

Cage Free: At first look this seems like great label, nobody wants eggs from chickens that have tortured living in cages their whole lives. Unfortunately, while this label ensures that is not the case, it means that the chickens live indoors on barns floors, by the thousands, for their entire lives. The term “cage-free” has no legal regulation.

Certified Humane: This label attests that the chickens are treated well, not as cruelly as birds confined indoor in cages, but not what they are fed. It’s a good label to find, knowing that the chickens are not abused, but it doesn’t mean much in terms of their nutritional value of their eggs.

United Egg Producers Certified: Deceptively simple, this label merely means that the chickens have been given food and water. There is no regulation around the actual treatment or feeding of the chickens. It most means that the eggs have been mass-produced and the chickens live in far less-than-optimal conditions.

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