There’s a lot more to buying eggs nowadays. I know I’m not alone when I go to the grocery store and feel overwhelmed by the vast array of choices. The questions I used to ask myself when purchasing eggs were simply brown or white, and large or jumbo? Who knew eggs would come in so many varieties; cage-free, vegetarian fed, organic, pastured, omega-3, etc. Is one choice tastier, healthier or safer than the other? With such varying prices is there really a difference? The descriptions below will help take the guesswork out of buying eggs, the mystery out of exactly what is in that carton and what these labels mean.
White Eggs or Brown Eggs – The color of the egg is determined solely by the breed of hen that laid the egg. The most popular breed used to lay white eggs are White Leghorns, and most often used for laying brown eggs are the Rhode Island Reds. It may be the earthy color that makes brown eggs so appealing, but brown eggs have no health advantage over white eggs. They contain equal protein, fat, vitamin and mineral content. Brown eggs get their color from the substance protoporphyin, which is derived from hemoglobin. It occurs naturally as the egg is formed. Is there a taste difference? I have had both white and brown eggs and I have never tasted a difference. Some people claim that brown eggs are slightly stronger in taste than white eggs. Brown eggs usually cost more than white eggs, because the hens that produce brown eggs are larger and require more care and feed. This extra cost is passed on to you and I, the consumer. So, if you are a budget-minded shopper like me, white eggs are the way to go!
Organic Eggs – There are regulations that govern what can be labeled “organic”. In order to qualify for the USDA organic certification, the feed used for the hens’ diets must be grown on land that has been free from the use of synthetic, toxic and chemical fertilizers and pesticides for at least 3 years. Also, no genetically engineered crops are permitted. These hens must also not receive any vaccines, hormones or antibiotics to qualify as organic. So, organic eggs would be totally free of all these chemicals. Certified organic eggs are the choice for anyone concerned about the presence of antibiotics and growth hormones in eggs (and we should all be concerned about that!). Although eggs are labeled organic, it has nothing to do with how the animals are housed, that’s a different subject (read on). They can be kept in any kind of caging system, but are typically cage free.
Vegetarian-Fed – This means that the hens are only fed a vegetarian diet, no meat or fish by-products. Hens are kept in cages or indoors and do not peck any worms or grubs. Eggs from vegetarian-fed hens are less likely to harbor disease-causing organisms, but these hens may still be given antibiotics and/or hormones.
Free-Range Eggs – Simply put, free-range eggs are laid from hens that have the opportunity to go outside at will and spend some portion of their day roaming outdoors. According to voluntary regulations, chickens are supposed to have free access to fresh air, grass and sunshine all day. However, since the U.S. does not really have a legal definition of what constitutes “free range”, it’s a little sketchy and unfortunately, in some cases, that can mean hens are kept in close quarters and allowed outside anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Eggs laid by true free-range hens are nutritionally superior, and higher in vitamin A and other nutrients, because the chickens have access to greens and insects (I’m sure the sunshine helps, too).
Cage-Free Eggs – This label, in my opinion, is very deceptive. This just means that the hens are not kept in conventional “battery” cages, but there are no regulations in place to govern care beyond that. It really depends on the farm. They may have a large space in which to live or they may not. They could be shoulder to shoulder in a warehouse or in an open barn with bedding material on the floor and nest boxes to lay their eggs in. It also does not mean the eggs have more nutrients.
“Pasture-Raised” Eggs – According to the USDA Trade Descriptions, “birds are raised outdoors using movable enclosures located on grass and fed an organic diet (without hormones or non-organic additives) and/or raised without antibiotics (drugs that are intended to prevent or treat animal illnesses)”.
These hens are able to eat the food that chickens would naturally eat; such as greens, insects, etc. This creates an egg that many people find much tastier. With more vitamin A, lutein, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and Omega-3 fats their nutritional profile is better, as well.
Omega-3 Eggs – These hens are allowed to eat out in the pasture and are also given flax oil, flax seed and/or another source of this fatty acid in their feed which dramatically increases of the amount of Omega-3 fat. So these nutrients, in turn, pass on to the egg. These eggs actually do have more Omega-3 fatty acids in their yolks! They reportedly have up to 7 times the amount of Omega-3 fats as standard eggs.
Pasteurized Eggs – Eggs are not required by law to be pasteurized. The pasteurization process, which consists of heating the egg to 140 degrees Fahrenheit for 3 and a half minutes, completely kills bacteria without cooking the egg. This process could also be done for packaged egg whites that are commonly used in cooking or for low fat diets. Since pasteurized eggs reduce the risk of contracting a salmonella infection, they are a smart choice for very young children, the elderly, and individuals with a weakened immune system.
What is “humanely-raised”? – You may be seeing this on egg cartons soon (if you haven’t already). Organizations such as Humane Farm Animal Care, are coming up with definitions which include no cages, and hens having at least 1.5 square feet of floor space. Free-range hens must have outside access, and doors to the outside which allow more than one hen to exit at a time. De-beaking is allowed, but some of the other inhumane practices, such as “forced moulting” are not allowed.
The bottom line is that chickens that are allowed to live a natural life and fed a healthy diet produce the healthiest eggs.
The egg is back on the healthy food list. Despite its high cholesterol content, it is high in protein and relatively low total saturated fat. Eggs also provide vitamin A, riboflavin and other minerals and vitamins. All of the fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol is in the yolk of the egg. One large egg yolk contains 5 grams of total fat, 2 grams of saturated fatty acids, 213 milligrams of cholesterol and 60 calories. The egg white only contains 15 calories.
What exactly do these U.S. Grades mean?
There is very little actual regulation, but there are some definitions published by the USDA which are called “Trade Descriptions” which most poultry farms conform to, even though they are voluntary.
The grade is based upon the interior quality of the egg and the condition and appearance of the egg shell. The grade is not based upon the weight, in other words, eggs of any grade may differ in weight/size.
The 3 consumer grades for eggs are:
U.S. Grade AA eggs have yolks that are high, round and usually free of defects. Their whites are thick and firm. The shells are clean and unbroken.
U.S. Grade A eggs have yolks that are high, round and usually free of defects. The shells are clean and unbroken. This is the quality most often found in grocery stores.
U.S. Grade B eggs have yolks that may be wider and flatter than eggs of the higher grades. The whites that may be thinner. The shells must be unbroken, but they may show slight stains or marks. This quality is not found in retail stores often.
When appearance of the egg is important U.S. Grade AA and A eggs are the best choice. All grades of eggs are fine for general baking and cooking use.
- Always check the date on the egg carton.
- Check to make sure there are no cracked eggs.
- Refrigerate eggs to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. (I never refrigerate my eggs… but all the info I found indicates one should. My bad?)
- Cook eggs thoroughly so both the white and yolk are firm (this kills salmonella).
- Be sure to wash utensils, surfaces and hands with hot water and soap whenever you are handling and/or preparing eggs.
- For recipes that call for a raw egg (like mayonnaise or Caesar salad dressing) be sure to use pasteurized eggs.
- If you are lucky enough to be collecting eggs from your own backyard, be sure to wash the eggs in soapy hot water, dry and then refrigerate.