Thanks to the eight new feathered additions of my family, and advice from my good friend Lisa, I've become much more aware what eggs I'm buying from the store. What's cage-free versus free-range? Are store-bought eggs ever natural? Here are some of the facts about eggs and the myths around the "good" eggs you think you're buying from commercial farms.
Brown eggs aren't better than white eggs. It actually has to do with the color of the chicken itself. White eggs are laid by white-feathered chickens with white earlobes while brown ones are laid by brown-feathered chickens with red earlobes. Funny huh?
NPR reports that 95 percent of chickens are raised in battery cages (about the size of a Macbook)
In a natural environment, healthy chickens can live for 10-15 years. Most egg-production chickens however, are killed at about 12-15 months, when their egg production slows down.
According to NPR, if you are buying from the grocery store, the eggs you getting likely came from a chicken who has never been outside, or has spread its wings - even if the carton is labeled "Farm Fresh" or "All Natural."
What do all of the words on the egg carton mean?
Cage-Free - Sounds great, but it's not much better than the battery cages I mentioned before. They look like this - a large atrium with the birds essentially on top of one another but nonetheless are cage-free. Cage-free doesn't mean that the chickens are hanging out in a big red barn, having fun, doing what they please. The cage-free aviaries are a cramped, feuding ground for the birds who often peck one another for space.
Vegetarian Eggs - Vegetarian eggs are eggs which come from chickens who are fed a vegetarian diet. The interest in vegetarian eggs arose in response to concerns about chickens being fed animal byproducts, including the remains of other chickens. The label vegetarian gives the consumer a false idea that the chickens are enjoying essentially fresh vegetables, which, we know isn't true. Also, chickens are naturally omnivores, eating small insects and worms. So the vegetarian diet likely means that they are eating an unnatural diet of corn fortified with amino acids.
Free-Range - One would envision, home, home on the range, where hens roam on green pastures and whatnot. Nope. Free-range just means, "access to the outdoors."
Free-range hens might have a window or two or maybe a screened in porch with a cement floor. There is no government oversight as to the quality of the free-range or the time the hen has access to it. Also, free-range birds are still de-beaked like any other commercial chicken.
Organic - This is better. These hens don't consume or receive any hormones or antibiotics and are fed organic feed. The chickens however, still live in crowded aviaries with little ventilation. If you're interested in where your organic egg farm ranks, check out this scorecard, which ranks them on a variety of health and ethics factors.
So what should you buy?
Pasture-Raised - These hens actually spend their days roaming around green pastures. They have coops that they walk freely in and out from and socialize with other hens in the group. They forage on insects and plants outside and enjoy the fresh air. According to Penn State research, they also produce more nutritious eggs that have lower cholesterol and fat, more vitamin A, D, and E, higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and higher levels of carotene. And guess what, you don't need your own chickens to get them. Contrary to popular belief, there are plenty places that sell pasture-raised eggs besides your local farmer's market (which is great too!) Grocery stores like Whole Foods, Wegmans, Korger and Harris Teeter sell these happy hen eggs! You can also get them online via Fresh Direct or Peapod. No excuses.
All of the eggs photographed are from my local farmer's market in Columbia Heights and also from my family’s chickens. They're different shapes, sizes, textures, and colors and they taste delicious. While pasture-raised tend to be around $4.25-5.50 a carton compared to the $2.90 or so for the battery-caged eggs, they are the better option in the long run. So buy locally and ethically.
Want a quick recap to share? Here's a great video on some of the facts I wrote about!
Photography: Libby Rasmussen