Shopping for eggs isn’t as easy as it used to be. Things can get confusing when you get to the aisle with the egg cartons. You see all sorts of labels on the eggs: cage-free, free-range, organic. Which should you buy? Have you ever wondered what the labels on eggs mean? If so, you’re not alone. It’s one of the most common questions consumers ask about food.
The USDA requires all egg cartons or containers to have a label that shows the date of production and information about the conditions under which the eggs were produced. Let’s look at some of the most common egg labels and what they mean, so you can better understand and buy eggs with confidence.
Cage-free eggs come from hens that aren’t confined to cages. They aren’t necessarily raised in a pasture or free-range environment, but they don’t spend their life in a cage. Instead, they roam in indoor spaces, like a barn, without being confined to a cage. Cage-free eggs are also called barn eggs or aviary eggs.
To meet cage-free criteria, farmers are required to give the chickens access to the outside and provide them with at least 1 square foot of space per bird indoors. It’s better than confining hens to cages but these “outdoor” areas are usually small and crowded, so the birds don’t have much room to move around. However, they do have access to fresh air and sunshine through windows or skylights. Eggs labeled “cage-free” may cost more than other eggs because they require more space, time, and care to produce.
Eggs are labeled “free range” when the hens that lay them have access to the outdoors. However, there is no official government definition for this term, and the USDA doesn’t regulate it. The USDA regulates the terms “free range” and “pasture-raised” for meat and poultry products but not for eggs. So, you can’t assume that hens who lay free-range eggs spend most of their lives in large outdoor spaces.
Free-range egg producers must have access to the outdoors, yet the outdoor area they can access may be small or crowded, and they may have limited time outdoors. That’s why Certified Humane is a better designation if you’re concerned about the humane treatment of birds.
Certified Humane is a third-party certification that ensures animals are raised in humane conditions. The organization checks that egg farms meet certain standards for animal welfare before granting them certified humane status. Here are things they consider:
- Housing: The hens have adequate space to move around and spread their wings
- Laying Conditions: The laying hens must get enough light and fresh air
- Feed: The feed must be free of antibiotics, and they restrict the use of feed supplements. Also, prohibits GMOs (genetically modified).
Plus, hens that lay certified humane eggs must have access to the outdoors and housing for protection during bad weather and at night. So, if you’re concerned about how hens are treated, Certified Humane is your best bet.
Organic eggs are from hens that eat only organic food. The USDA has specific requirements for labeling organic products, including eggs. They must be certified by the USDA and meet certain standards for animal welfare, environmental care, and food safety. Organic eggs are more expensive than conventional ones but are available at many grocery stores around the country.
Although they’re more expensive, there are some nutritional advantages. A study found organic eggs are higher in lutein, an antioxidant, than non-organic eggs. A study of adults over 50 found that those who ate organic eggs had lower levels of several inflammatory markers. Some research also suggests that organic eggs are higher in omega-3s. Organic eggs also taste better and have a more vibrant color.
Certified organic eggs have a shorter shelf life than conventional ones (about two weeks vs. three to five), so it’s best to use them in recipes where you don’t need them to last long after they’re opened, like cookie dough, pancake batter, or pasta sauce.
Pasture-raised eggs are produced by chickens with access to the outdoors and grass. The eggs are usually larger, thicker, and richer in flavor than cage-raised chickens. To qualify their eggs as pasture-raised, the birds must be able to roam freely and graze on grass in a field or pasture. It may be helpful to call a farm that sells pasture-raised eggs and inquire about their practices before buying.
The USDA has no official definition for “pasture-raised” chickens, so it can be difficult to know what you’re getting when you buy eggs from the store. There are advantages to pasture raised eggs. Some pasture raised eggs may have up to 4-times the vitamin D level of hens confined to a barn since they’re exposed to sunlight, based on some studies.
USDA Grade AA, A, or B
USDA grade AA, A, and B eggs are the highest, next best, and lowest quality of eggs, respectively. Each grade is based on the internal quality of the egg. Eggs are graded by size and then by quality, with AA being the best. For example, grade AA eggs have thick, firm egg whites, and the yolks are high quality. Grade A eggs may have whites and yolks that aren’t as firm, and the yolks may have small defects, and grade B are lower quality still. The USDA dictates that all eggs sold in stores be labeled with their USDA grade.
No Added Hormones
This is a deceptive designation. The USDA doesn’t allow hens that produce eggs to receive hormones. So, “no added hormone” eggs are no different than the ones without this label. Egg producers sometimes put this on their cartons for marketing purposes.
Now that you’re familiar with the most common egg-label terms, you can make more informed choices at the grocery store. If you still wonder which eggs are right for your family, keep these tips in mind and read the labels.
- Mesas AE, Fernández-Rodríguez R, Martínez-Vizcaíno V, López-Gil JF, Fernández-Franco S, Bizzozero-Peroni B, Garrido-Miguel M. Organic Egg Consumption: A Systematic Review of Aspects Related to Human Health. Front Nutr. 2022 Jun 24;9:937959. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2022.937959. PMID: 35811992; PMCID: PMC9263557.
- “Are eggs good or bad for your health? | News | Harvard T.H. Chan School ….” https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/are-eggs-good-or-bad-for-your-health/.
- “Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms”. usda.gov. United States Department of Agriculture: Food Safety and Inspection Service.
- Kühn, Julia; Schutkowski, Alexandra; Kluge, Holger; Hirche, Frank; Stangl, Gabriele I. (1 April 2014). “Free-range farming: A natural alternative to produce vitamin D-enriched eggs”. Nutrition. 30 (4): 481–484. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2013.10.002. ISSN0899-9007. PMID
Free-range eggs – Wikipedia