Eggs are one of my favorite foods, not only because is it a quality protein but you can eat them so many different ways… for breakfast, lunch, dinner… hey it may even be in your dessert. And now they are finally off the naughty list and getting the credit they deserve. Eggs are a complete protein, meaning they contain all essential amino acids we need from our diet, and if raised properly, an excellent source of choline, selenium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, phosphorus, riboflavin, just to name a few.
Every time I mention eggs in a presentation at least one person asks, …”What kind should I buy?” I can understand the confusion; each carton has a different combination of claims printed on them. So let me try to help you answer this question in addition to making a case for pasture-raised eggs from your local farmer.
In order to understand the difference in egg quality, we should start with the hen that lays the egg. After laying a morning egg, a hen’s day is spent roaming their land, foraging, exploring, pecking and socializing. They will peck for seeds, flowers, herbs, vegetables, insects, worms… anything that catches their eye and their appetite. One incredible fact about chickens: they can actually sense what nutrients they’re lacking and therefore will self-regulate their eating patterns to make sure they get those nutrients! Amazing right? What an egg-traordinary gift! And the benefits of that gift are passed on to our meal, by insuring that the eggs are nutrient-dense and balanced… thank you mother hen!
OK, here is when you should brace yourself…. The unfortunate progression of eggs: commercial eggs are from large CAFOs (commercial animal feeding operations – that sounds horrible enough). Some of these CAFOs may have 4 birds to a 16-inch cage, adding up to 100,000 birds in one building. Because of the high demand, and drive for high profit, the chickens’ environment, feed, health and even their anatomy is altered and controlled. Yup, even their anatomy. I won’t get into this, but a quick Google search can provide more detail if you really want to know. Below I will review the claims we see on packages, the possible loopholes, and the reasons why this claim has come about.
The Hens’ Environment:
Cage Free: These hens are not confined to cages. Ideally the cage-free label indicates that hens can roam freely, spread their wings, and have access to nest boxes, but unfortunately it doesn’t indicate or demand they have space to do so. Nor does is require any time or access to the outdoors. They may still be confined to an indoor space, sometimes with racks of hens to the ceiling for optimal storage. Regardless of whether the practice of these ‘cage-free’ birds matches the image it conjures, this label does not indicate feeding practices, outdoor space, or quality of the less than natural living conditions.
Free Range: When I think free-range, I think of a bird roaming a farm, pecking and feeding in a natural environment. In some cases this may be true, but the only requirement for this label is ‘government-certified access to the outdoors’. This label may be used even if the access to outside areas is a small opening in the corner of a large building, and that opening doesn’t have to be open for very long. Furthermore, the outside area doesn’t have to have grass, food, or anything natural for the ‘free-range’ label to be granted.
Pastured-Eggs: The label informs us that these chickens may spend some time (no specific amount) on a pasture. This may indicate that part their life, day, or hour is spent o a pasture to roam free.
Pasture-Raised: These chickens spend the majority of their lifestyle outside to roam free, eating their natural foods, sometimes with the addition of some commercial feed. These hens are not caged or manipulated in anyway. They live in either a pasture, meadow, fallow fields, or even the woods, peaking at what the environment provides them.
The Hen’s Diet/Feed:
Chickens that live in nature, hunt, scratch, and peck the ground for anything they can find, both plant and animal. This often constitutes a diet of grass, seeds, legumes, insects, worms and sometimes even mice, lizards, and snakes. This diet provides a variety of nutrients and proteins that is an ideal and complete diet.
Grain-Fed: The most expensive part of raising chickens is feed, therefore large farmers may supplement feed with more grains or corn. This may be fine in moderation, but the real question is, ‘what else are they eating?’ and ‘what is the quality of their diet?’. In order for the hen to be healthy and therefore lay a nutritious egg, it needs a diet with adequate sources of energy, vitamins, minerals and water. So really this label doesn’t give us much information and may not be a label to boast about.
Soy-Free & Corn-Free: Chickens that eat corn and soy will have an imbalanced omega-3/ omega-6 ratio, making these poultry and egg products inflammatory foods for humans.
Omega-3 Enriched: All eggs contain omega-3 fatty acids, but the amount depends on what omega-3 sources are eaten by the hen. Eggs are typically high in Omega-6 fatty acids, which are a natural part of a human’s diet, but can be inflammatory if consumed in a much higher ratio than omega-3s. (More than a 4:1 ratio, the typical American diet can be up to a 30:1 ratio). For this reason, a common practice has been to supplement hen’s feed with omega-3s oil. Adding omega-3s to a hens diet has a positive benefit, but they may still be commercially raised chickens with omega-3s added to an otherwise poor diet and lifestyle. Additionally, check to for the term ‘Organic’ to be sure that the added omega-3 oils are highly processed and continue to refer to the environment the hen is raised in.
Organic: Organic does assure us that the hens have not been given antibiotics or processed and pesticide-laden feed. It doesn’t assure us that the feed is part of their natural environment. Choosing organic is a great option, but again… check the environment and the feed.
Look for Certified-Organic! Certified-Organic prohibits cages, antibiotics, requires organic feed, but still allows manipulation of the hen’s anatomy and forced molting (Google if you are curious… but its not pretty).
Brown Eggs: There is no other way to say this… this is B.S. Many people assume that a brown egg is more natural and nutritious. The reality, it is just the breed of hen that lays it… no matter what the feed or environment.
With all that said, the best option when choosing eggs is pasture-raised, organic, and omega-3 enriched. If you have a local farmers market, talk to your local egg farmer. Mine loves to tell me what he feeds his hens each week… its veggies, seeds, legumes, and he makes sure the grass and outdoor area is optimal and natural.
When you compare a commercial egg to a pasture-raised egg, you will see the difference. The yolk is a bright yellow or orange color. The yolk will, and should, change color throughout the year, as it is influenced by the diet. If you don’t believe me, look at the nutrition comparison:
Pastured Eggs vs. Commercial Eggs
3 x more Vitamin E
1.5 x more Vitamin A
8 x more Beta-Carotene
3 x more Omega-3s
1/3 less cholesterol
¼ less saturated fat
Note about the egg yolk: Don’t throw it out!!! When you throw out the yolk you may be reducing your calories but you will also be throwing out 100% of the omega 3s, vitamin A, D, E, and K, and carotenoids, and 90% of the B-vitamins (B5, B6, B12, folate, choline) and minerals: calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper and iron. In addition, you will be tossing the majority of the eggs’ manganese, thiamin, biotin and selenium.