Now that research has settled the controversy about eggs—eating them does not affect cholesterol levels significantly in most people, as once believed—you may assume that the case is closed on these popular protein-rich foods. Not so.
It’s true that Americans are buying more and more eggs. The reasons are simple—eggs are inexpensive and can be prepared in minutes. But they’re also great sources of key nutrients such as choline, a micronutrient that is vital for brain and liver health…and lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids that help prevent cataracts and other eye diseases.
The problem is, shopping for eggs now requires hefty label-decoding skills, thanks to new categories of “designer” eggs and often-confusing terms used to market them.
Before you spend extra money on those “cage-free,” “vegetarian” or other specialized eggs, here is what commonly used terms on egg labels really mean…
Brown. Surprise! There is no reason to choose brown eggs over white, unless you find the hue more appealing. The shell color is usually a reflection of the feather color of the chicken—brown eggs come from chickens with brown feathers, and white eggs come from chickens with white feathers. Impact on nutrition? None. More humane? No.
Cage-free or free-range. These eggs come from hens that are not confined to cages, but thousands of them may be crowded into a barn or warehouse. Free-range hens have access to the outdoors. However, there is no independent auditing of these practices unless the eggs are also certified organic (see below). Impact on nutrition? None. More humane? Mildly.
Certified Humane. If a carton bears an official-looking seal such as “Certified Humane,” “Animal Welfare Approved” or “Food Alliance Certified,” it means that the manufacturer’s claim of “cage-free,” “free-range” or “pasture-raised” has been verified by an independent third party. This labeling has everything to do with humane treatment and nothing to do with nutritional content.
There are multiple third-party certifiers, and each one has its own requirements—for example, a Certified Humane free-range hen has six hours of daily outdoor access and at least two square feet of outdoor space, while an American Humane Certified free-range hen gets 21.8 square feet of outdoor space but no minimum outdoor time. For a list of trustworthy certifiers, go to GreenerChoices.org/eco-labels, a website sponsored by Consumer Reports, and search “egg certifiers.” Impact on nutrition? None. More humane? Yes—to varying degrees, depending on the certifier.
Omega-3–enriched. These eggs come from hens that are fed a diet rich in algae, flaxseed, chia seeds and/or fish oil—all good sources of healthful omega-3s.
How does this diet affect the eggs? A conventional egg contains 37 mg of omega-3s…an omega-3–enriched egg has about 225 mg. To put those amounts in perspective, the American Heart Association recommends at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fatty fish per week for heart health, which is a total of about 3,500 mg of omega-3s.
Vegetarians who avoid fish may want to try omega-3–enriched eggs. Look for hens fed vegetarian diets (see below). They are also a good choice for people with fish allergies. However, if you eat fatty fish several times a week and/or take a daily omega-3 supplement, you might as well skip omega-3–enriched eggs and save yourself some money. Impact on nutrition? Yes. More humane? No.
Organic. This label means that the USDA has certified that these eggs come from hens raised on feed that is free of pesticides, commercial fertilizers and animal by-products. Organic also means that the hens weren’t given antibiotics and are cage-free with some amount of access to the outdoors. Eggs from hens treated with antibiotics cannot be labeled antibiotic-free even though the eggs do not contain antibiotic residue. Hormones are generally not used in any form of egg production.
If you’re concerned about pesticides and fertilizers in your food, you might want to buy organic. But no research indicates that organic eggs are more healthful than conventional eggs.
The Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit group that conducts research on sustainable and organic agriculture, has an organic egg scorecard that rates individual organic brands based on the amount of outdoor access and indoor space their birds receive, farming practices and other criteria. The scorecard is available at Cornucopia.org/organic-egg-scorecard. Impact on nutrition? Possibly. More humane? Mildly.
Pastured/pasture-raised. If you don’t mind paying extra (about twice as much), these eggs could be the ideal choice for anyone seeking both enhanced nutrition and humane treatment. Pastured hens move about freely outdoors, have an organic diet and are allowed to eat grass, worms and bugs, all of which produce a deeper-colored yolk, creamier texture and richer flavor.
A study published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems found that eggs produced by pasture-raised hens contained more than double the omega-3s and twice as much vitamin E as conventionally raised eggs. Impact on nutrition? Yes. More humane? Yes.
Vegetarian. Eggs are considered vegetarian if the feed a chicken consumes doesn’t contain animal by-products. But chickens are omnivores by nature, not vegetarians—wild chickens eat bugs and worms. If your eggs are labeled vegetarian and free-range, they might not be real “vegetarian” eggs, as roaming hens probably eat a bug or two. There is no nutritional difference between vegetarian and nonvegetarian eggs. Impact on nutrition? None. More humane? No.