Have you ever paid attention to how many egg options are available at your local supermarket? Egg choices range from white to brown, organic to pasture-raised to your humble egg, and from small to jumbo.
So how do you know what kind of eggs to buy? Are the organic, free-range eggs worth the hefty price tag, or are the $3.00 eggs okay? Let’s dive into the differences between the different egg varieties, and which ones you should be buying.
Health - Brown vs White Eggs
Let’s get one thing out of the way - there is no nutritional difference between brown and white eggs. Many people have the misconception that brown eggs are healthier than white, in part because they can cost a few cents more. In reality, the color of the egg is influenced by the type of hen that lays it, and consumers will not notice a difference in taste or nutrition. Brown eggs tend to cost a bit more because the brown hens that lay them are larger and require more feed than white hens.
Why are the Labels So Confusing?
Food manufacturers and growers love to add confusing labels to their foods to give consumers a false sense of better health. The truth is, many of these labels are not regulated or standardized, and often boast qualities that every version of the product has naturally. Here are some of the labels you might see on a carton of eggs, and whether or not they mean anything to you:
Free-range. This is a slippery slope when it comes to egg labeling. Farms can label their product “free-range” so long as the animals have access to the outdoors. While most consumers see this term and picture hens happily clucking in a field, the reality is a bit more grim. “Free-range” could mean a hole in the wall for hens to stick their head out of, or 5 minutes of access to a concrete lot a day. While some farms do raise their hens truly free-range, there is no way of knowing which farms do so without looking into each individual supplier.
Cage-free. Like free-range, cage-free eggs come with some grey area. Cage free means hens can roam freely without a cage, but they are not guaranteed to be getting outdoor time. Nor are they guaranteed an appropriate amount of space to roam freely - in most factory farms, hens get about 1 square foot of personal space, and are often packed tightly into small areas.
Pasture-raised. Like cage- and free-range hens, pasture-raised hens are not regulated or federally standardized. Pasture-raised hens are free to graze outside on bugs and grass, but the amount of space they’re allowed is not clearly defined. These eggs tend to have a higher price tag, because it costs farmers more to allow their hens ample grazing and roaming space.
Natural. Another almost meaningless term when it comes to egg labeling is “natural.” The USDA defines “natural” foods as those that are free of artificial ingredients and are minimally processed. Whether eggs are laid in factory farms or on beautiful, wide open farms, they are all natural by default. Similarly, eggs labeled as “no hormones” is equally meaningless, as the USDA has never permitted the use of hormones in poultry.
Organic. You may be reading these terms and thinking “is there any label that does matter?” The good news is - yes! Food products labeled organic must pass the USDA’s criteria to be called such, making it a label that is more reliable than others. Organic eggs are hormone and antibiotic free, and are fed organic diets without any animal by-products, GMOs, or manure. These hens are generally more humanely treated, as well. They have year-round access to the outdoors and are provided proper shade, shelter, exercise space, and sanitation.
Enriched. Some brands enrich their hens' diet to produce eggs that are richer in omega-3 fatty acids, lower in cholesterol, and lower in saturated fats. These eggs are also typically richer in vitamins like E, D, and B12. While these eggs are about twice the price of normal white eggs, they may be an appealing option to some consumers.
Grading is a voluntary service egg suppliers can have performed by the USDA. If not completed by the USDA, the eggs will be graded by the state and will bear a grade, but no USDA seal. Grade AA eggs feature firm, thick egg whites, high and round yolks, and clean, unbroken shells. Grade A eggs have reasonably firm whites, high and round yolks, and clean, unbroken shells. Grade B eggs are usually used in creating food products that contain eggs (such as liquid, frozen, and dried egg products, or baked goods). It is unlikely that you will see Grade B eggs in the egg section of your grocery. These eggs have runny whites, wide and flat yolks, and may have unbroken but stained shells.
Eggs can range from small (1.5 ounces) to jumbo (2.5 ounces). Most grocery stores, however, only stock medium, large, and extra large eggs. Egg sizes are measured by the dozen so while there may be slight variances in eggs in a carton, they are sorted by net weight.
So which eggs should I buy?
As with any food choice, the product you purchase will depend on your budget, values, and what you are willing to pay more for. Factory farmed eggs will be the most budget-friendly option, but come with ethical considerations. Cage-free and organic raised hens will be your most humane option, as factory farms in the United States use tight battery cages where hens do not have the space to walk, turn around, or flap their wings. While some major restaurants are turning away from factory raised eggs and making the switch to cage-free, these more ethical options may be outside the budget of most consumers. Pure Plates offers multiple food options with eggs, such as their cage-free breakfast bowl or their salad with hard boiled eggs.
Another way to purchase more ethically raised eggs is to purchase from local farms. Eggs sold at farmers markets are generally more affordable and come from hens who are allowed to graze outside and are well taken care of. Buying locally also means supporting your local economy and a small family farm!
Being an informed consumer is being a smart consumer. While many labels are designed to make products more appealing, most carry little actual weight and provide vague information. Now that you know what the different egg labels, grades, and sizes mean, you can feel confident in making the right decision for your and your family at the supermarket.