Demystifying this magical orb : Cage-free vs pasture-raised, natural vs organic
Remember the days when the decision of what kind of eggs was simply this: brown shell or white? Those days are long gone. Grocery stores now display a vast assortment of egg brands, sizes, pedigrees.
How do you distinguish between an egg from a hen who lives caged in a space no larger than a sheet of eight-by-ten paper from the hen living outdoors who watches the sunrise while eating only what the green pasture provides? Is there any added value to an egg labeled “organic”?
What if spending $7.99 per dozen doesn’t work for your budget? Having stared in bewilderment at 15 different options available on the shelves, I needed clarity about which egg type would serve my family best so I could get home and get, uhhh, cracking.
Conventional eggs, which sell for around $2.50 per dozen, are considered nutritionally inferior to their organic counterparts. The lives led by these conventional egg-producing hens are far less glamorous, and, in most cases, downright disturbing.
Crowded cages leave hens unable to achieve natural behaviors such as opening their wings or turning around. Their feed is tainted with a list of additives so long, it can make your neck sore.
The sellers of eggs from cage-free hens would like you to believe that you are upgrading from conventional eggs by choosing theirs.
Cage-free options run $3 to $4 a dozen. These hens may not live in cages, but their farmers are notorious for crowding the hens and do not feed or treat their birds any differently than a conventional egg farmer does. Although the label is not technically dishonest, it implies that by eliminating the cage, there is an added benefit to both consumer and hen. Which is not really the truth.
Organic farmers add up to a 50 percent premium to their cage-free competition, selling in the $4 to $6 range. According to the USDA, a certified organic hen must be permitted to roam freely outdoors (free-range), be free from antibiotics, and only be given vegetarian feed that has been treated with zero-chemical pesticides, fertilizers, irradiation, genetic engineering, or sewage sludge.
Yes, sewage sludge. Research has shown that the dietary benefits to the consumer include significant increases in Vitamin A, Vitamin E, and beta-carotene levels.
However, it’s not that an organic farmer simply hopes you will embrace the nutritional benefit of his eggs. He also hopes that you, the consumer, will envision a healthy chicken happily roaming a picturesque farm. However, this is not always the case. To comply with the unaudited free-range definition, a farmer could provide a small door opening and allow for as little as five minutes of access to the outside world.
So where do you turn when you want to ensure that your eggs have come from hens who have lived a Little House on the Prairie lifestyle? Pasture-raised eggs are the answer but they can run upward of $7.99 a dozen.
Pastured hens are kept outdoors in their natural environment where they have an ample amount of space to forage, perch, and roam. They eat a non-restricted paleo diet—the natural diet of their ancestors, comprised of greens, seeds, and bugs, but can be supplemented with organic or non-organic feed. Not only is this the most humane type of egg production available to consumers, but also research has shown that pasture-raised eggs provide a true nutri-tional upgrade from the competition.
The benefits include lower levels of fat and cholesterol, two-thirds more vitamin A, three times more vitamin E, six times more Vitamin D and beta-carotene, and two times the Omega-3 fatty acids.
Whatever your egg choice, no label or lifestyle takes away from the fact that even a conventional egg is a nutritional powerhouse. After all, we are what we eat.
An Egg Primer
- All eggs are natural and hormone-free, therefore neither term should be a selling point.
- Cage free, free range, pasture raised, and certified organic labels permit beak cutting to keep hens from pecking at one another.
- Look for labels that state “Certified Humane,” “Animal Welfare Approved,” or “Food Alliance Certified,” to ensure that your eggs come from hens with the best treatment and living conditions. “Animal Welfare Approved” has the highest standards, prohibiting both forced molting and de-beaking.
- Although eggs are already a natural source of heart healthy omega-3s, this label signifies that feed has been supplemented with canola oil, bran, kelp, flaxseed, or fish oil to increase Omega-3 levels.