Editor’s Note: With the arrival of Clara, I’m taking a short maternity blogging break. I’m excited to welcome several guest writers, among them, Katie of Kitchen Stewardship. Welcome, Katie!
It brings my heart great joy to see frolicking chickens. You may think I’m exaggerating, but the chickens at my favorite farm prefer to hang out in trees and lay their eggs anywhere but the hen house, so “frolicking” is pretty accurate.
The eggs laid by these happy chickens are truly the best in my city – a deep yellow, almost orange yolk, and so much flavor it spoils me. I find other eggs almost tasteless now that I’ve experienced the product of hens who eat bugs and grass, run around, and act like the chickens God created them to be.
I’m sure going straight to the farmer is not a realistic option for everyone, so when you’re standing in front of the egg display at the supermarket, how do you choose from among the baffling number of options presented to you?
Your Basic White Commercial Egg
Most eggs in the supermarket are grown on a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO), where thousands of birds are in one building, and there may be 4 birds in a 16-inch cage. Waste is a big problem. These chickens eat grain, soy, and possibly animal by-products, including other chicken parts.
Term: Free range
Most of the time, “free range” chickens live indoors. Sound counter-intuitive, but the regulations for the term are written such that chickens must be allowed “access” to the outdoors. That may just be one small door and small yard for thousands of chickens. The chickens are so used to being inside that they don’t actually break their routine to explore outside.
The USDA recommends a foot and a half of space per bird, so even though they’re not caged, they’re not exactly running free. These chickens (might) get (some) exercise, which is better for them than the CAFO chickens, but just slightly.
On the other hand, if a local farmer says “free range,” he probably means his chickens can run around outside and get at what they need.
It’s definitely worth asking for clarification. “Do the chickens run around outside?”
Term: Cage free
Cage free birds do NOT have access to the outside but also have no cages. Therefore, their lives are pretty much the same as most free range chickens, minus the door nobody uses.
This doesn’t mean a whole lot when it comes to chickens. It’s actually good for chickens to eat grubs and bugs; it improves the nutritional quality of their eggs. Grain-fed is the industry’s way of sounding good to consumers who assume that chickens only want to scratch at piles of grain all day.
Term: Added Omega 3s
Chickens are fed extra flax seed or other omega-3 rich foods (including fish) to make their eggs healthier. No promises on living conditions or chemicals though. (Note: Usually only increases the ALA content of the eggs. See this omega-3 post for details on why ALA is the least important of the Omega-3s!)
Term: UEP Certified
Find a list of United Egg Producers guidelines here. (Note: I’m not impressed. Many CAFO white eggs have this label.)
Whatever the chickens are eating was grown without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. They receive no antibiotics or hormones. Few requirements for living conditions: A foot square doesn’t really allow room for exercise. Even organic eggs can have not-really-edible products on them in the washing and sealing phases.
Term: Vegetarian fed
You can be certain your chickens aren’t eating other chickens, feathers, or waste by-products of other animals. Always reassuring. They’re a little step over plain old white eggs for a big price jump. For me, not worth it.
Term: Brown Eggs
Brown eggs don’t really mean anything, health-wise. The chicken’s breed determines the color of their eggs.
Chickens live outside and can eat green grass, bugs, grubs, and whatever they would naturally like to eat, along with, usually, a serving of chicken feed from the farmer. Pastured eggs also look completely differently than regular store eggs.
Remember that brown eggs don’t really mean anything, health-wise. The chicken’s breed determines the color of their eggs.
What About Nutrition Content?
These eggs come in an awful range of prices as well. How to tell which is best? For yourself, you can compare the nutrition facts of the fancy egg carton to those of the generic egg, below:
- 213 mg cholesterol
- 1.6 g saturated fat
- 1 IU vitamin E
- 35-40 mg omega-3s
Make sure you’re getting a big enough health difference to be worth what you’re paying!
Pastured vs. Commercial Eggs
If you can find a farmer who answers all the questions right, you may not be able to read the nutrition labels, but others have done it for you. Check out how much better eggs from well-raised birds can be:
Most of the eggs currently sold in supermarkets are nutritionally inferior to eggs produced by hens raised on pasture. That’s the conclusion we have reached following completion of the 2007 Mother Earth News egg testing project. Our testing has found that, compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain:
- 1/3 less cholesterol
- 1/4 less saturated fat
- 2/3 more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta carotene
- 4-6 times more vitamin D
These amazing results come from 14 flocks around the country that range freely on pasture or are housed in moveable pens that are rotated frequently to maximize access to fresh pasture and protect the birds from predators.
(source: Mother Earth News)
Are Eggs Healthy?
Eggs, like butter, have gotten bad press in the past. Our household of two adults, a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old can easily go through four dozen eggs in a week, no guests, no fancy brunches. So I guess I’m sure hoping that the research showing how eggs are healthy trumps that showing the opposite!
What do you do with all those eggs?
I find that when we make grain-free recipes, a lot of them call for 3-6 eggs. Double or triple it for leftovers, and you’re going through cartons like crazy. Some of our favorite eggy dishes:
- My kids help with Potato Salad
- 11 steps to The Best Scrambled Eggs Ever
- Low-carb Pumpkin Pancakes
- Grain-free Banana Pancakes
- Eggs en Cocotte (Mmmmm with pesto!)
- Grain-free Coconut and Pumpkin Muffins in Healthy Snacks to Go
- Cherry Almond Coconut Crepes
What variety of eggs do you buy and why?