Understanding Different Egg Labels
February 29, 2016
Egg Labels: So Hot Right Now
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re staring at the rows of eggs in your local supermarket. “All-Natural”, “Cage-Free”, “Farm Fresh”, “Omega-3” – they all sound great, but what do these terms really mean? And is that expensive brand worth the price or should you just grab whatever is cheapest?
Let’s take a look at some of the most common buzzwords found on egg labels and what they actually mean:
What’s not to love about an all-natural egg? It certainly sounds healthy and might even suggest that the chickens in question are living better than most.
The truth is that “all-natural” doesn’t mean anything in particular. It’s actually a bit of an ironic term, since farm conditions for most chickens don’t even come close to what a bird in the wild would experience. Just because an egg is sold with this label doesn’t mean that the chicken that laid it eats a “natural” diet or is allowed to roam freely in the sunlight.
In many large-scale farming operations, chickens are confined to small cages for much of their lives. This isn’t done simply to be cruel, but rather for the sake of efficiency, and as a means of keeping the animals separate from feces. Still, it’s true that the result is not a pleasant life for these birds.
The term “cage-free” does mean that your eggs come from chickens that have not been confined to individual cages. But it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily roaming free in sunny pastures either. Most cage-free birds are confined to the inside of a building where they are kept together in massive crowds. Because the costs to run these operations are usually higher, the price of the eggs may be as well. In face, Massachusetts will likely vote on its 2016 ballot on whether or not to mandate that all eggs sold in the state come from cage-free hens.
The “certification” in question here comes from the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Organic Program. Eggs with this label must come from hens that live uncaged, eat an organic and all-vegetarian diet, and have some amount of access to the outdoors (although the frequency and quality of access is not regulated).
This term probably conjures up an image of a local farmer, rising each morning to collect and deliver cartons of eggs – cartons that will be sold the same day. And that reaction is exactly what the folks in marketing are hoping for.
Much like “all-natural”, the term “farm fresh” has no technical meaning, and there’s no reason to assume that these eggs are fresher or sourced more locally than the other brands on the shelf. It sounds nice but it’s all hype and no substance.
Hormone-Free / Antibiotic-Free
While it is true that eggs with these labels are free of added hormones or antibiotics, the terms are still a little misleading. It is actually quite rare for antibiotics to be used in poultry and hormones are banned outright by the FDA. You might as well slap a “rat poison-free” label on the carton as well!
There is some evidence that getting adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet has beneficial effects – like reducing inflammation, lowering blood pressure, and keeping your brain healthy.
Some farms feed their hens an omega-3 supplement in addition to their regular food, which results in eggs with a higher content of these helpful fats. For people who are especially health-conscious, these eggs might be worth paying a small premium.