Here’s How to Decipher Egg Labels and Know the Best Eggs to Buy
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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 up one of our tasty omelet recipes or 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 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. You’ll find mostly grade A at supermarkets but keep an eye out for others:
- Grade A: Clean, smooth eggs with fairly thick egg whites
- Grade AA: Thick, clean shell and firm egg whites
- Grade B: May have bumpy shells and/or 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?
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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. Knowing your farmer can give you a better idea of how the hens were raised.
- 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 hollandaise sauce that contain raw eggs, pasture-raised eggs are a good choice.
Overall, pasture-raised chickens have the best quality of life when choosing between cage-free, free-range and pasture-raised.
What About the Color of the Shell?
You might think that brown eggs are healthier or seem more natural in some way, but rest assured: Brown eggs and white eggs are the same. The only difference is the color of the shell. Nutritionally, they are identical.
Other Egg Labels to Consider
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- 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 compared to a regular egg.
- Farm fresh or natural: While these labels might sound nice, they’re not regulated by any organization and there are no standard rules for labeling. The chickens could have been given antibiotics (unless it has the label “antibiotic-free” or “certified organic”). However, while you don’t need to look for the label “farm fresh” on an egg label, it is important to check an egg’s freshness before you use it—here’s a trick on how to tell if eggs are fresh before you use them in cooking or baking. But remember, you don’t have to toss your older (but still usable!) eggs. Use them for hard boiling or meringues and avoid other mistakes you might be making with eggs.
- 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.
- No added hormones: Farmers aren’t allowed to give their egg-laying hens hormones, so “no added hormones” is basically a marketing term. Because all eggs could technically be labeled “no added hormones,” don’t spend your time looking for a carton based on this. Keep these other egg myths in mind while you’re at the store.
- Antibiotic-free: The label “antibiotic-free” on an egg carton means that the hens haven’t been given antibiotics in their feed or water, according to the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association. No matter what though, you don’t have to worry about antibiotic residue on the eggshells, thanks to FDA regulations. Remember, certified organic eggs are also antibiotic-free—so by picking up a carton of certified organic eggs, you can kill two birds with one stone.
In terms of health, omega 3-enriched and lutein-enhanced are the best eggs to buy because of the extra nutrients.
How to Store Eggs
If you need them to be at room temperature for baking, leave them on the counter for no more than two hours. You’ll find that they reach ambient temps within an hour.