What Do Egg Labels Mean and How to Buy the Right Ones

Does "free-range" make you picture chickens frolicking on a hillside? Think again. Let's crack open the mystery of egg labels so you can determine the best eggs to buy for your family.

When you cook a tasty omelet or even stir up your favorite cookies, how much do you really know about where the eggs you’re using came from? Egg labeling is confusing, so choosing the best eggs to buy for your family is easier armed with a little knowledge.

What to Know About Egg Sizes

Egg sizes range from peewee to jumbo, with large, extra-large and jumbo being the most common. You can use any of these when whipping up your basic breakfast. Be mindful of the size, though, when following a recipe. Most recipes call for large eggs. If not specified, large is the safest bet.

What About Brown vs. White Eggs?

You may think brown-shelled eggs look more farm-fresh, wholesome and nutritious, but the truth is, the color of an egg’s shell makes no difference to the freshness, taste or nutrition. It’s simply a matter of genetics.

As for the color of the yolk inside, that varies based on what the chicken was fed. A diet of marigold petals will produce a deep yellow yolk; corn-based feed results in a medium-yellow yolk; wheat- and barley-based feed produces a light yellow yolk. If the egg white, or albumen, is cloudy, that’s a sign the egg is very fresh.

What Grade Eggs Should You Buy?

Eggs are graded on a scale: AA, A and B. The grade is based on the egg’s appearance and how firm the white is inside.

Most eggs at supermarkets are grade A and are clean and smooth with fairly thick egg whites. A grade AA egg has a thick, clean shell and a very firm white. Grade Be eggs might be a bit bumpy or have thin whites.

For cooking and baking, the standard grade A eggs work perfectly.

What’s the Difference Between Cage-Free, Free-Range and Pasture-Raised?

This is perhaps where most of the public’s misconceptions lie regarding egg labels, so let’s break it down.

  • Cage-free: Some producers boast their eggs are “cage-free.” This label simply means that the chickens aren’t actually in cages, but they could still be packed wing-to-beak in confined quarters with no access to the outside.
  • Free-range: Eggs labeled free-range mean the chickens must have access to the outdoors a minimum of six hours per day and have two square feet of space per bird. Outdoors, however, could mean anything from an open field to a patch of dirt, depending on the farm.
  • Pasture-raised: Eggs labeled pasture-raised have passed Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) certification, which guarantees that the chickens have been raised on a vegetation-covered pasture with 108 square feet per chicken for a minimum of six hours per day. The chickens are fed only grains without animal byproducts and are free to naturally consume the seeds and insects that boost their flavor and nutrition. Pasture-raised eggs can have up to six times as much vitamin D, less cholesterol and more vitamin A, omega-3, vitamin E and beta-carotene. Of course, all those benefits come with a hefty price tag. But if you’re making recipes like Caesar salad or hollandaise sauce that contain raw eggs, pasture-raised eggs are a good choice.

Other Egg Labels to Consider

  • Certified organic: This is the only label regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It means the chickens have outdoor access and are fed feed that is free of GMOs, antibiotics or animal byproducts. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are safer or more nutritious. See how an organic egg tasted alongside a regular egg.
  • Farm fresh or natural: While these labels might sound nice, they’re not regulated by any organization, there are no standard rules for labeling, and the chickens could have been given antibiotics.
  • Vegetarian: Don’t be fooled: Chickens are omnivores, and if they have access to the outdoors they’ll peck up every insect or worm they come across (which is a good way for them to get protein). Vegetarian means they’ve been fed chicken feed containing no animal byproducts.
  • Fertile: Although fertile eggs are considered a delicacy in some cultures, there is no health benefit to them compared with unfertilized eggs.
  • Omega-3-enriched: Omega-3-enriched eggs have been fed supplemental omega-3 in the form of flax, fish or other products to boost their level of these beneficial fatty acids.
  • Lutein-enhanced: Eggs sporting this label have come from chickens that have been fed marigold extract to bump up the level of lutein content. Lutein is beneficial to human eye health and studies have shown it may help prevent age-related macular degeneration.

How to Store and Use Eggs

When choosing the best eggs to buy, look in the carton first to see if any shells are broken. If so, put them back because they are at higher risk for contamination. Check the expiration date on the carton. Eggs stored properly can be kept four to six weeks after the expiration date. They should be kept in the coldest part of the fridge at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less in their original carton (don’t wash them—you’ll remove their waxy protective coating). Cooked egg dishes can be kept in the fridge for three to five days, and hard-boiled eggs can be kept for up to one week. Avoid keeping cooked egg dishes at room temperature for longer than two hours, and as tempting as it is, don’t let kids eat raw cookie dough. Of course, always wash your hands thoroughly after handling eggs.

Eggs are one of the most versatile ingredients in your kitchen. Sweet or savory, scrambled, poached or fried, there are dozens of egg recipes that take you from breakfast to dinner to dessert. And if you run out of eggs? Try these handy egg substitutes.

Try Our Best Egg Recipes
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Dana Meredith
Dana is an editor and writer who shares her passion for travel, food and the beauty of American landscapes. When she's not wielding her red pen, she can be found tending her flower gardens, remodeling her house, creating one-of-a-kind jewelry or dancing to "Uptown Funk."