When you go to the market to pick up eggs, you’ll see labels like cage-free, free-range and organic. It begs the question: What do these labels really mean? And are any of these eggs healthier than others?
Before we talk nutrition, let’s cover the different types of eggs you’ll encounter.
These are the inexpensive eggs that most consumers purchase. In fact, 97% of eggs purchased in the United States fall into this category and are laid by hens living in battery cages. While this method of egg farming is cheap and efficient, the conditions for hens are poor; cages are very crowded and hens never see the outdoors.
Most people are surprised to learn that conditions for cage-free hens aren’t much better than those experienced by battery cage hens. Though these hens don’t have cages, they usually live on the floor of a barn with little room to move – though it can be different from farm to farm. These hens have perches and some nesting materials. It’s also worth noting that there is very little oversight for cage-free claims, so the actual farm conditions may vary from the packaging.
These hens experience the highest quality of life, and usually have access to nesting boxes, perches and the outdoors. Because these hens are less tightly controlled and the process is less efficient, free-range eggs tend to be quite pricey.
The USDA defines organic eggs as coming from hens who were fed no antibiotics, growth hormones or animal byproducts. In order to quality for the organic label, the diet fed to the hens must have been grown on land that hasn’t used toxic or chemical pesticides and fertilizer for at least three years. Organic does not mean that the hens were treated particularly well, nor does the USDA require organic eggs to be from cage-free or free-range hens. Having said that, most organic egg producers raise cage-free hens.
So which eggs are the healthiest? According to at least one study, there are no nutritional differences among the different egg types. Nonetheless, moral questions persist and each of us must decide how we want our food treated.
The best bet is to find a local farmer who sells eggs. Visit his or her farm. See how the hens live. And then decide for yourself.
In the comments below, let me know which type of eggs you buy and why!